Bradley Bowman / Ryan Brobst
Naval forces from Israel, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and the United States are conducting a five-day multilateral maritime security operations exercise in the Red Sea. The exercise marks the first time Manama and Abu Dhabi have participated overtly in a combined military exercise with Israel, and it is the latest indication that the actions of the Islamic Republic of Iran are incentivizing unprecedented security cooperation between the United States, Israel and key Arab countries.
This week’s exercise is focused on “visit, board, search and seizure tactics” and includes at-sea training onboard the amphibious transport dock ship Portland, according to a statement by U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. The purpose of the exercise is to help the maritime interdiction teams from different countries operate more effectively together.
This is the first time that Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have overtly participated together in a military exercise with Israel, having kept past military cooperation largely discrete. Central Command’s role in the exercise is also noteworthy, as the command announced on Sept. 1 that it has assumed responsibility for U.S. forces in Israel.
The primary catalyst for this growing Israeli-Arab security cooperation is Iran’s continued efforts to sow instability and export terrorism throughout the Middle East. Tehran uses its terror proxies to attack, undermine and control its neighbors — and sends them weapons to threaten Americans, Israelis and Arabs alike. This furthers the Islamic Republic of Iran’s objectives while enabling the regime to escape the consequences.
Iranian arms, for example, fuel the conflict in Yemen, where there is little hope of sustainable peace and improvement in the humanitarian situation so long as the Houthis enjoy a reliable supply of Iranian weapons. Iran also smuggles arms to militias and proxies in Iraq and Syria as well as to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Hamas and PIJ used that Iranian support to launch more than 4,300 missiles, rockets and mortars toward Israeli civilians over 11 days during the May 2021 Gaza conflict.
Some of Iran’s weapons shipments go via ground or air, but many of them travel via maritime routes for at least part of the trip. Regardless, Tehran’s goals are the same.
Any effective response must include a more robust and effective campaign to interdict Tehran’s arms smuggling to its terrorist proxies. This week’s exercise can help make that a reality, but the United States, Israel and its Arab partners should not stop there. Clearly, a more capable and unified military coalition is needed.
As a start, the United States and Israel should make clear to Riyadh that they would welcome Saudi participation in a future iteration of the ongoing multilateral Red Sea exercise as a next step in Israel and Saudi Arabia’s tiptoe toward overt security cooperation.
Israel should also invite the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to participate in the next Noble Dina maritime exercise, and should invite Abu Dhabi to send aircraft and fighter crews to the next Israel-hosted Blue Flag exercise.
For their part, the Emiratis should invite Israel to participate in the next UAE-hosted Desert Flag air exercise and in the next UAE-U.S. Iron Union ground exercise hosted by the United Arab Emirates. Participating militaries could use the Iron Union exercise to practice defending against swarms of drones, such as the kind Iran is proliferating around the region.
In addition, Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi should work with Athens to invite Egypt and Jordan to join the next Greek-hosted Iniochos exercise as full participants. And the Pentagon should encourage both Israel and the United Arab Emirates to send robust contingents to the next Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Perhaps someday the Iranian people will have the government they deserve. In the meantime, steps such as these can help the United States, Israel and their Arab partners improve military readiness, strengthen regional security and make it more difficult for the Islamic Republic of Iran to export terrorism throughout the Middle East.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Ryan Brobst is a research analyst. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. Follow Bradley on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman.