On April 10, Reuters reported that Egypt will be withdrawing from talks on the formation of the Middle East Strategic Alliance. This initiative, often referred to as the ‘Arab NATO’, has experienced many setbacks since it was first proposed in 2017. The Egyptian withdrawal, while not yet confirmed, has been welcomed by Iran.
There are many reasons for Egypt’s withdrawal. Sources who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity reported that the risk of Iranian hostility was one of the major reasons for Egypt’s withdrawal of support. There were also concerns regarding the viability of the initiative, with no formal plans yet provided. Uncertainty regarding future U.S. commitment to the initiative has also played a role in the nation’s withdrawal from talks. Al Jazeera reports that Bahram Qasemi, spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, has been pleased by these developments. “Egypt is an important and powerful country both in the Arab and in the Muslim world that can play a key role in creating peace, stability and security in the West Asia region.” Qasemi said. “In case the news is confirmed, we will welcome that.”
While MESA appears to be a step in the right direction, it may heighten not reduce tensions in the Middle East. The goal of the alliance is to unite several countries in the Arab world against the usually-hostile theocracy. However, the nations now involved are all Sunni Muslim, while Iran is Shi’ite. This religious element may introduce tension which will complicate relations in the region and could lead to a surge in militant activity. The original proposal of MESA by Saudi Arabia, Iran’s biggest rival, also obscures its purpose. The initiative risks being used as a diplomatic weapon. This would be supported by the current U.S. Administration, whose policy goals in the Middle East focus on containing Iran. However, these policies risk undoing many Obama-era advances in the region. In 2018, the Trump Administration withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal and reimposed economic sanctions on the nation. The formation of an ‘Arab NATO’ could prove a step too far and provoke increased Iranian hostility.
MESA’s long-term viability is uncertain. As one of the most influential powers of the Arab region, the Egyptian withdrawal could threaten the significance of MESA. The initiative is further endangered by uncertainty in U.S. foreign policy; while the current administration pursues the policy of containment, future administrations may try to resolve issues through diplomatic discussion and reinstatement of the Iran Nuclear Deal. With the U.S. election next year, it may be too early to tell whether MESA will remain. The alliance is further complicated by Saudi Arabian involvement in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi late last year.
On paper, the Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance is a promising initiative that could promote peace in the region. However, in its current form, it functions as a diplomatic weapon. If this strategy continues, it could lead to further regional instability and hostility. It may also draw the involvement of other major powers such as Russia or China, which could risk turning the region into a political battleground, much like during the Cold War.