U.S.-Iran nuke deal prompts Arabs to create own force

By F. Michael Maloof

WASHINGTON – With the Obama administration holding out for a nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi-led air strikes by 10 coalition members against Iranian-backed al-Houthi targets in neighboring Yemen have won broad U.S. congressional backing as Arab leaders move closer to creating a joint Arab military force.

The Saudis want to intervene more aggressively against ISIS jihadist fighters and the spread of Iranian influence in the region.

Creation of a joint force – which has been discussed in recent years but never implemented – comes as the Saudis and close ally Egypt see the United States moving toward a nuclear deal with Iran.

The imminent deal has caused Riyadh to conclude it can no longer rely on U.S. security guarantees and must take the security initiative.

Broad bipartisan congressional backing of the Saudi initiative comes as prospects rise over Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran becoming increasingly engaged in a proxy sectarian conflict, such as in Syria, Bahrain, Iraq and now Yemen.

“I applaud the Saudis for taking this action to protect their homeland and to protect their own neighborhood,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said at a news conference. “If America leads, our allies in the region would be tickled to death and would be happy to join a coalition. But America has to lead.”

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in a joint statement said Saudi Arabia “and our Arab partners deserve our support as they seek to restore order in Yemen, which has collapsed into civil war.”

“We understand why or Saudi and other Arab partners felt compelled to take action,” they said. “The prospect of radical groups like al-Qaida, as well as Iranian-backed militants, finding safe haven on the border of Saudi Arabia was more than our Arab partners could withstand.”

McCain is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Graham is on a Senate foreign aid spending panel.

‘Fairy tale negotiations and appeasement’

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the takeover of large swaths of Yemen by Iranian-backed Shia militants “has forced our Saudi allies to take military action.”

“Months of fairy tale negotiations and appeasement by this administration has led Iran to believe that it can act with impunity on an international scale,” Issa said.

“Now, more than ever, it is clear that any real settlement with Iran is impossible, and the president must acknowledge this fact,” Issa said. “The continued easement or outright removal of sanctions against this rogue state will only further embolden Iran and facilitate its belligerent behavior. We must make it clear that we will support our allies and punish our enemies through steadfast resolve and decisive action.”

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Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he supports the airstrikes led by the Saudis.

“I strongly urge the continued provision of U.S. logistical and intelligence support to Gulf Cooperation Council-led military operations,” Kaine said.

He warned, however, that Yemen could “spiral into civil or regional proxy war” and it “would not only provide an attractive opening for terrorist groups but also raise significant humanitarian concerns for the Yemeni people.”

Similarly, Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution warned about Riyadh getting so involved in Yemen’s civil war that it could lead to its own destabilization.

“The only country willing to intervene in Yemen is Saudi Arabia, which probably lacks the capacity to do so effectively,” Pollack told a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

“Indeed, the greatest danger stemming from the Yemeni civil war may be the kingdom’s determination to intervene there to try to stave off spillover from the civil war.”

With this prospect in mind, the Saudis, along with 10 other countries, have been discussing the prospect of a joint Arab force to intervene quickly to events.

In addition to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the other Sunni countries willing to participate in the joint military force are Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Pakistan.

Oman, which borders Yemen, is in a quandary since it also has a close relationship with Iran. Sources say its preference is to stay out of the fight and remain, as it has been recently, a back channel for talks between the U.S. and Iran.

Joint-forces plan

Over the weekend, foreign ministers assembled in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh at an Arab League conference to come up with a plan for such a joint force.

From this joint force, the airstrikes now occurring in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthis could be followed for the first time by ground troops assembled from some 10 Sunni countries, including Gulf Arab nations. The intention of the ground forces will be to compel the Houthis to negotiate a resolution of the Yemeni crisis.

The joint force would be headquartered either in Cairo, Egypt, or the Saudi capital o Riyadh and would be comprised on an initial 40,000 elite troops. The force would be backed up by jet fighters, warships and light armor.

“The resolution sends a clear message that Arab nations can agree on a plan to defend themselves,” Arab League head Nabil Elaraby said in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said the proposed joint force would undertake “quick and effective missions.”

The Saudis had a brief border skirmish with the Houthis in 2009.

The Egyptians recently took it upon themselves to attack Islamic State positions in Libya following the mass beheadings of 21 Coptic Christian Egyptians.

Similarly, the Jordanians initiated combat missions against ISIS positions in Syria following the execution of a Jordanian pilot.

In addition, Egypt and the Gulf Arab countries have held joint war games over the past year leading to closer coordination of command and control of military forces of their armed forces.

These events have led to the decision that any future actions can be carried out under the auspices of the Arab League.

Until now, the Sunni countries in the region have been reluctant to take any military initiative, leaving it up to the U.S. However, with that history, the extent of participation remains to be seen.

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