The Senate Is Dropping the Ball on Middle East Air Defense

The Senate Is Dropping the Ball on Middle East Air Defense

Establishing a regional security framework in the Middle East would be a breathtaking sign of progress, and the Senate cannot afford to trip out of the starting blocks.

Iran’s hesitancy to agree to new nuclear deal terms has elevated the need for a capable and durable regional security framework in the Middle East. The aim of countering Iran is evident in both the House-passed and Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC)-marked 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) bills, which jointly advocate for an integrated air and missile defense architecture between regional partner states to protect civilians from “cruise and ballistic missiles, manned and unmanned aerial systems, and rocket attacks from Iran and groups linked to Iran.” This objective is perfectly logical, given the Islamic Republic’s propensity for exporting terrorism and instability throughout the region, but the Senate NDAA’s legislative provision threatens to undermine the effort to build an integrated defense before the policy gets off the ground.

The Senate’s NDAA language, taken almost directly from the DEFEND Act, the bipartisan bill introduced by the House and Senate Abraham Accords Caucuses, directs the Secretary of Defense to identify and recruit “countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Egypt” for involvement in implementing defense capabilities. On the surface, providing this list of countries in the official bill language seems benign, as each country mentioned is a partner of the United States. However, the Senate language would reduce the likelihood that Arab states engage in the measure because it assumes that they are willing to normalize with Israel and sign onto a policy that is expressly anti-Iran.

America’s Middle Eastern partners are not collectively prepared to normalize ties with Israel, even in a post-Abraham Accords world. Saudi Arabia, guardian of Islam’s two holiest cities, would open a religious rift by recognizing Israel as part of this security agreement before a solution in Palestine is found. Even though Saudi Arabia recently implemented an “open-skies” policy that will allow Israeli aircraft into its airspace, the kingdom made sure to highlight that the policy was not implemented with normalization in mind. King Salman has maintained the position that the kingdom will not recognize Israel without a two-state solution, and the lack of public support among Saudis for normalization could hamper analyst-anticipated attempts from Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to course correct after he takes the throne.

Likewise, Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani ruled out Qatari-Israeli normalization due to concerns over Palestine. Qatar has decided to open the country up for Israeli citizens traveling to see the upcoming World Cup, but its continued financial support for Gazans and unwillingness to re-implement commercial ties with Israel are halting substantial progress. Qatar also has little reason to take part in anti-Iranian measures due to Iran’s support for the emirate during the Saudi-led blockade of the country from June 2017 to January 2021. Qatar was spared a worse fate because it could rely on Iranian food shipments and airspace access to keep its populace and economy afloat during the yearslong crisis.

Iraq’s listing in the Senate language, alongside Israel, is especially confounding given that the Iraqi Parliament voted to make any normalization of ties with Israel a crime punishable by death less than three months ago. The “Criminalizing Normalization and Establishment of Relations with the Zionist Entity” law was passed in an overwhelming fashion, with 275 Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish members of the 329-seat parliament agreeing to codify the draconian measure. Additionally, Iraq’s membership in an integrated defense framework designed to limit the Iranian missile threat would put an end to the country’s renewed attempts to serve as a mediator in the region. Iran will likely refrain from engaging in another Baghdad Conference if Iraq engages with Israel and the United States on security issues, preventing an alternative regional arrangement for stability from taking shape.

The Senate’s language in the bill will also diminish the influence of proven de-escalatory actors in the region. Oman has maintained international neutrality since Sultan Qaboos took power in 1970, and the country refuses to engage in any regional conflicts. The sultanate has earned Iranian trust through its consistent messaging, doctrine, and decision-making. Oman stayed neutral in the Iran-Iraq War, refused to participate in the Gulf coalition’s strikes against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, and served as the primary backchannel for Iranian-U.S. nuclear negotiations throughout the 2010s. This trust extends to Iran’s proxies as well, with the Houthis agreeing to release fourteen foreign prisoners after Oman’s arbitration. That confidence would be shattered as soon as Oman agreed to a security framework with Iran’s greatest geopolitical opponents, undermining Oman’s value as an outlet for diplomacy and peacebuilding.

To avoid setting back U.S. diplomatic efforts to marshal partners into a regional defense construct, the final conference report of the FY23 NDAA should include the House’s version of the DEFEND Act language. Unlike the Senate version, the House NDAA provides broader language for the Department of Defense to operate within, calling for the Secretary of Defense to “cooperate with countries that have the ability to contribute to, adopt, and maintain an integrated air and missile defense capability, and a commitment to countering air and missile threats to bring security to the region.” The more ambiguous language is incredibly beneficial for would-be partner states who would like to engage in high-stakes security diplomacy in a more discreet fashion. It also enables the Pentagon to be more selective in its outreach, avoiding doomed attempts at convincing certain countries to take part in an agreement that upsets valuable domestic and regional political considerations. Establishing a regional security framework in the Middle East would be a breathtaking sign of progress, and the Senate cannot afford to trip out of the starting blocks.

John O'Malley is a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern for the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

Image: Reuters.