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Assessing the Viability of the Middle East Strategic Alliance to Counter Iranian Influence in the Post-Islamic State Middle East

Jonathan Deemer was a 2018-2019 Young Scholar Awards Program recipient. He attended Union College and majored in international relations and business administration.

I am twenty two years old. This means that for me, and the millions of Americans in my generation, we have known only a Middle East rife with violence, chronic instability, and in particular, terrorism.

Despite the seemingly concrete status of the Middle East’s instability, could it be that the power dynamics are evolving in the region? At the same time that the United States is actively holding talks with the Afghan Taliban regarding a possible peace and withdrawal plan, the Islamic State and al Qaeda are shells of their former selves, occupying little to no land compared to the veritable caliphate they held only five years ago. Though history dictates that the possibility of a resurgence should never be discounted, it is also equally apparent that things are changing in the Middle East.

One of the eternal truths of foreign policy is that there is no such thing as a power vacuum—at least, not for long. That is, as soon as a dominant entity vacates a position of power and influence, its spot is almost immediately filled by another. This has certainly been the case in the Middle East. In particular, as the Islamic State has lost territory in northern Iraq and across Syria, Iran and Iranian-backed militias have jockeyed for position in local governments, installing pro-Tehran figureheads, and in some cases, administering the local government themselves. Though the fall of the Islamic State is clearly a positive development for the United States, it is difficult to definitively state whether or not a Middle East dominated by Iran rather than terrorism—if the two can even be separated—is an improvement in the Middle East compared with the past two decades.

It is within this broad strategic context that the Trump administration has introduced the concept of the Middle East Strategic Alliance, otherwise known as MESA or informally as “the Arab NATO.” Comprised of the United States, Egypt, Jordan, and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, MESA is intended to serve a united front by which the United States and U.S. allies in the region can confront Iran’s growing influence using economic, political, and military means. At the same time, the framework of MESA allows for a gradual recusal on the part of the United States, transferring the responsibilities of regional stability and security to local partners.

Though the creation of an international cooperative organization is an exciting concept with a significant potential payoff, it is also one of the most complex feats of foreign policymaking. Differing interests have to be constantly weighed, and there must be an ever present shared threat or value powerful enough to resolve issues that might otherwise dissolve the alliance. Unfortunately, at this time, I do not believe that MESA is a viable mechanism for the United States to achieve its goals or that it is likely to come to fruition.

There are several impediments to MESA becoming a reality in the near future. First is the recent behavior of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of African and Gulf states in a conflict against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015. Tactically, strategically, and from a humanitarian perspective, the results have been disastrous. As a result, the international image projected of Saudi Arabia has been one of a careless regime, indifferent to human suffering at the expense of its goals. Further, after the murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the international reputation of the kingdom—and those who would stand by it—has been further denigrated. Certainly, this is not a government with which the United States would actively pursue even deeper ties, as the Trump administration fought tooth and nail simply to maintain the current relationship between the two countries. Because Saudi Arabia has a significant role to play in any iteration of MESA moving forward, the alliance’s materialization necessitates better behavior on the part of the kingdom.

Another barrier to MESA is the current schism within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Since 2017, Saudi Arabia has led a number of GCC members, as well as Egypt, in a political and physical blockade of fellow GCC member Qatar. Saudi Arabia has long accused Qatar of close ties with Iran and of supporting Islamic extremism in the region. Regardless of the veracity of such claims, the fact remains that the broader GCC is currently isolating an extremely important player in the region, one critical to MESA’s success moving forward.

Though other considerations are to be made when considering whether or not MESA is viable, these two issues that exist are the foremost obstacles to MESA’s creation. As demonstrated thus far, and as is clearly articulated in the full project, the reasons for this negative assessment are almost entirely external. That is, I don’t believe that MESA is inherently a bad idea. Like I said, it’s actually quite exciting. But simply put, the time is not right. Other things, including the two mentioned above, must first be addressed before the idea of MESA can be seriously considered.