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The Bahrain-Israeli Arms Deal That Isn't Happening — Officially

An on-again, off-again drama surrounding reports of an arms deal between Bahrain and Israel hints at the friendships and feuds that crisscross the Middle East.

by Noor Wazwaz
Oct 22 2015, 9:25pm

An Israeli Air Force flag flies next to a soldier's flak jacket and helmet where an 'Iron Dome' anti-missile interceptor system is stationed in a field outside the southern Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, 09 June 2015. (Jim Hollander/EPA)

Authorities in Bahrain have been busy issuing denials that they planned to purchase an anti-missile defense system, known as the Iron Dome, from Israel. The UK's Sky News reported the news in mid-October, and immediately sparked controversy, but Bahraini officials were quick to quell the uproar.

"There are no attempts whatsoever to purchase the system from Israel," Isa Abdulrahman Al Hammadi, minister of Information Affairs, said in a statement released by the Bahrain News Agency.

The original story came after Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammad al Khalifa spoke at a press and academic roundtable in London, saying, "The Israelis have their small Iron Dome. We'll have a much bigger one in the [Gulf Cooperation Council]."

A deal for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — which includes Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — would cost tens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars, according to experts.

Mohammed K. Alyahya, associate fellow at King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, who also attended the event hosted by Fawaz al Khalifa, confirmed in a tweet that the foreign minister did not mention who the anti-missile battery would be purchased from.

"Israel [and] GCC view Iran as a hostile threat," he said in another tweet. "This single example of alignment of interests in no way constitutes collaboration or alliance."

Some experts, however, see things differently.

"It's not inconceivable that the Arab Gulf governments might one day deal directly with Israel to purchase military equipment," said Evan Gottesman, a Lloyd C. Gardner fellow at Rutgers University.

And while it's unlikely the GCC is looking to purchase the anti-missile defense system from Israel directly, if they're in the market for their own Iron Dome, the system would likely be purchased through Raytheon and other American contractors, who developed the Israeli Iron Dome with Israel's state-owned defense contractor, Rafael.

Related: Canada Just Bought Israel's Iron Dome Radar Technology

Doing business with Raytheon isn't new for some of the GCC states. On its website, the Massachusetts-based company boasts its "long-standing relationship" with Saudi Arabia, which dates back more than four decades. In May, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE were upgrading their existing Raytheon Patriot missile defense system.

Buying the technology directly from Israel is controversial since Israel no longer officially maintains diplomatic relations with any of the Arab States in the Gulf — or so they would like the rest of the world to think.

None of the GCC countries recognize Israel, but meetings between Israeli and Gulf officials to discuss Iran have likely occurred, though these communications would have been discreet, Gottesman said.

Although relationships between Arab countries and Israel are publicly toxic, Arab countries are beginning to turn to Israel for national security practices. Israel recently provided Jordan with retired US-supplied Cobra combat helicopters. It was also revealed in August that Jordan has a deal with Jerusalem to acquire Israeli military drone aircraft.

"Israel is militarily and technologically advanced," said Holly Dagres, editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and a Middle East analyst and commentator. "The Arabs see this as advantageous for their own protection."

Israel and the GCC may not have a lot in common, but there is mutual distrust and concern about Iran's rise in the region.

"It is not ironic in the sense that if any country has extensive practical experience in security and a qualitative military edge, it is Israel," said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East at Rice University.

Gulf and Israeli interests — not values — have converged in recent years, he explained, with the implied threat from Iran, the Arab Spring, and the perceived abandonment of their regional allies by the Obama administration.

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With the historic US-Iran nuclear agreement reached in July, Gulf countries are even more concerned that Iran will expand its power tenfold in the Middle East. Citing the situations in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen — and with Western and Gulf intelligence sources insisting that Houthi rebels in Yemen are backed by Iran — the Gulf countries fear that Iranians are on a quest to spread Shi'ism throughout the region.

Sunni Arab states call this the spread of the "Safavid," or "Persian empire," a derogatory phrase used to describe what they believe is Tehran's aspiration of regional dominance.

Although the ominous Shiite-Sunni split has contributed to conflicts in many parts of the Muslim world for years, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not driven primarily by a Sunni-Shiite divide, or even Arab-Persian ethnic differences, Gottesman said.

"Tehran has bridged both of these gaps," he said.

Iran has demonstrated the ability to acquire Sunni and Arab allies, like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as maintain relations with the Lebanese Shiite Arab group Hezbollah. Crossing those divides "demonstrates reach that will make the GCC even more anxious about Tehran," Gottesman said.

Related: To Save Their Relationship, Obama Invites Arab Allies to His Millennium Falcon

However, experts like Ulrichsen believe the GCC has "little to fear," because the countries possess a "powerful external security guarantee" presented by the United States.

But the US is in a "very difficult position," as the situation on the ground in Yemen is far more complex and less clear-cut than either Riyadh or Tehran would want to believe. As a result, US policymakers are left to balance their diplomatic outreach to Iran against their political commitments to a set of much more assertive Gulf allies.

Right now, two regional powers — Iran and Saudi Arabia — are "engaging in proxy wars in the Middle East," Dagres said.

Seeing that Iran was able to keep its controversial nuclear program under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action makes the GCC uneasy, and Arab countries are concerned that Tehran will become more powerful and expand its regional influence.

But, "[t]he last time Iran invaded a country was over 200 years [ago], under Nader Shah," Dagres said. "I doubt they plan to break that record anytime soon."

Follow Noor Wazwaz on Twitter: @nfwazwaz