By Aziz El Yaakoubi, Andrew Mills and Matt Spetalnick
RIYADH (Reuters) – The United States and Israel are seeking to lay the groundwork for a security alliance with Arab states that would connect air defence systems to combat Iranian drone and missile attacks in the Middle East, four sources familiar with the plan said.
The idea, which would use Israeli technology, could gain momentum during President Joe Biden’s stops in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Saudi Arabia on a July 13-16 trip, said two of the sources who were briefed on the plans.
As regional tensions have grown over Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and parts of Iraq have come under UAV or missile strikes claimed by or blamed on Iranian-backed militias.
Discussions are still at an early stage and have already met resistance from several Arab countries who refuse to do business with Israel, the four sources said.
But Israel’s defence minister Benny Gantz last month said an emerging U.S.-sponsored air defence alliance was “operative” and could be boosted by Biden’s visit. The apparatus has already foiled attempted Iranian attacks, he added.
Speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, an Israeli official said partner countries were synchronising their respective air defence systems through remote electronic communication, rather than using the same physical facilities.
Israel in recent years has offered defence cooperation to U.S.-aligned Arab states which share its concerns about Iran, although the U.S. assessment is that Gantz appeared to have overstated how far such security cooperation has advanced.
For their part, Gulf Arabs have been publicly reticent on the idea.
One person in Washington familiar with the matter said that while Biden will discuss wider regional security coordination, including with close ally Israel, at a Saudi-led Gulf Arab summit next week, no announcement of a formal pact is expected.
The plan would be to build a network of radars, detectors and interceptors between Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, with the help of Israeli technology and U.S. military bases, three of the sources said.
That would allow those countries, especially Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to detect aerial threats before they cross their borders.
Israeli officials introduced the idea of a regional defence system at a U.S. Central Command meeting attended by military officials from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Egypt in Sharm El Sheikh in March, one of the sources said.
“The proposal is for a joint detection system, where each country that signs up notifies the others of a detected attack,” one of the sources, who declined to be identified, added.
A senior Israeli official in Washington previewing Biden’s trip described the efforts to form an alliance as “a goal that is set”.
“There’s a long way to go, and the U.S. is supportive of that.”
Washington hopes more cooperation would help further integrate Israel in the region and isolate arch-enemy Iran.
The regional defence plan coincides with months of deadlock in talks on reviving a 2015 deal that limits Iran’s nuclear activities. Washington says Iran’s uranium enrichment, a potential pathway to nuclear weapons, has made alarming progress. Iran denies seeking atomic weapons.
Israel’s worries about the outcome of the nuclear negotiations – and its threats to take unilateral military action against Iran – carry weight in Western capitals.
Iran, armed with one of the region’s biggest missile systems, has said joint military activities of Israel and some Arab countries in the Gulf are done “out of desperation”.
But the U.S. push for anti-Iran cooperation also faces resistance from some Arab states such as Iraq, Qatar and Kuwait.
“There’s different views in different capitals,” a senior Biden administration official said on condition of anonymity.
“We are not trying to create some top-down structure. We are trying to build upon the relationships that exist, some of them above-board, some of them below the surface,” the official said.
Iraq is a prime example of the difficulties of signing up some Arab countries to an alliance. Iran has wide sway in the country through Shi’ite militias and politicians and would certainly block any attempts to join a security pact.
In May, Iraq’s parliament approved a law that will ban normalizing relations with Israel, at a time when several Arab countries have established formal ties.
Iraq has never recognised the state of Israel since its establishment in 1948 and Iraqi citizens and companies cannot visit Israel, but the new law goes further, specifically criminalising any attempts to normalise relations with Israel.
A senior Iraqi security adviser said no official plan has been presented to Baghdad to enter a pact that includes Israel and opposes Iran, so the alliance is out of the question.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also treading carefully, to preserve nascent relations with Tehran, said the sources.
The UAE government said it is not party to any regional military alliance against any specific country and is not aware of any formal talks. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan did not respond to requests for comment.
Washington hopes more regional security cooperation could pave the way for more normalisation deals with Israel, which established ties with the UAE and Bahrain in 2020.
Israel’s top prize would be Saudi Arabia, which says normalising its own ties to Israel would need the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. U.S. officials say Israeli-Saudi normalization is far off.
Saudi and Israeli cooperation might also help mend U.S.-Saudi relations, strained by the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Yemen’s war and high oil prices.
In an ideal world for Israel, an alliance would lead to missile defence sales to the Gulf, including its Iron Dome and David’s Sling systems which could work with the U.S. Patriot missile batteries long used by Gulf states, experts say.
Jeremy Binnie, Middle East defence specialist at Janes, said Gulf coast radars would give Israel additional early warning of attack, probably making it the main beneficiary of any alliance.
In Israel, Biden will visit Palmachim air base to inspect defence systems including Arrow, David’s Sling, Iron Dome and a laser interception weapon, Israel’s defence ministry said.
Yasmine Farouk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the idea of integrated missile defence goes back years and successive U.S. administrations had tried to overcome mistrust between Gulf states in sharing intelligence.
She said increasing threats from Iran and its Yemeni Houthi allies might now take priority over “trust issues” among Gulf Arab states.
“But it is a work in progress,” she added.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi in Riyadh, Andrew Mills in Doha and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Alexander Cornwell and Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Michael Georgy, William Maclean)