Seeking to combat threats from Iran and the Shiite rebels it is supporting in the Middle East, Arab leaders meeting in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, agreed in principle Sunday to forge a NATO-like alliance of Sunni powers to engage in regional military action with or without leadership from the U.S.
Analysts say the decision by the Arab League to create a collective fighting force that will consist initially of some 40,000 elite troops from several Sunni Arab nations backed by fighter jets and warships was driven mostly by desire from Saudi Arabia — the wealthiest member of the alliance — to confront more aggressively a potentially nuclear-armed Iran and its proxies.
With the announcement just days after Riyadh opened a bombing campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, analysts say, concerns are deep among Saudi and other Sunni nations that Tehran’s ability to meddle in affairs across the Middle East is about to be amplified by a nuclear agreement involving Iran, the U.S. and other world powers.
The Sunni powers fear that Tehran will be free to engage more deeply from Syria and Lebanon to Yemen and Bahrain, a Sunni-ruled state with a Shiite majority, if the U.S. and its allies meet a self-imposed deadline Tuesday for a deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for broad economic sanctions relief.
The Arab leaders’ resolution was not all about Iran. A key portion of it said the joint defense force could be used to combat terrorists, including Sunni groups such as the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.
“It is an important resolution given all the unprecedented unrest and threats endured by the Arab world,” Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby told reporters Sunday. Other officials said the force likely will have headquarters in Cairo or Riyadh.
The West has viewed the Arab League for decades as ineffective when it comes to galvanizing such military alliances. But analysts say an era may be opening in which Sunni powers align against Iran and engage in unprecedented horse-trading in the fight against the Islamic State.
“Egypt has promised to send troops into Yemen, but they would only do that if they were getting something in return,” said Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“They would do it because Saudi Arabia is currently underwriting the Egyptian government to a tune of at least $10 billion a year, but just as importantly because Cairo wants to get Riyadh to finance an Egyptian-led force to go in and fight the jihadists in Libya,” he said.
Mr. Landis cautioned that wider risks associated with a Saudi-driven military alliance are grave.
“The conservative forces in the region are trying to come up with an answer because America has refused to go and do all their dirty work for them,” he said. “We’ll see if they have any better results than the U.S. has had.”
Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Sudan, Algeria and perhaps other Sunni-majority nations are banding more closely together under Saudi Arabia’s fear of Iran — the region’s top Shiite power.
Leaders at the gathering Sunday in Sharm el-Sheikh spoke repeatedly of the threat posed to the region’s Arab identity by foreign or outside parties to stoke sectarian, ethnic or religious rivalries in Arab states — all thinly veiled references to Iran.
But Mr. Elaraby was unequivocal in singling out Iran for what he said was its intervention “in many nations.”
Yemen’s Houthi rebels swept in and captured the nation’s capital of Sanaa in September. Embattled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a close U.S. ally against a powerful local al Qaeda affiliate, first fled to the southern city of Aden before escaping the country last week as the rebels closed in.
Speaking at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit Saturday, Mr. Hadi accused Iran of being behind the Houthi offensive. Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement, though both acknowledge that the Islamic republic is providing humanitarian and other aid.
A Saudi-led coalition began bombing Yemen on Thursday, saying it was targeting the Houthis and their allies, which include forces loyal to former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Yemeni military officials have said the campaign could pave the way for a ground invasion, a development that Egyptian military officials say likely would commence after the airstrikes significantly diminish the military capabilities of the Houthis and their allies.
Iran has condemned the airstrikes but has not responded with military action, though diplomatic and military officials said Iranian retaliation could not be ruled out.
Some analysts say Saudi Arabia and the Western media are overstating Iran’s influence in Yemen.
“Talk of a proxy war risks over-estimating the level of power Saudi Arabia and Iran wield, and overlooking the local actors who truly shape the conflicts in question,” Nussaibah Younis, a senior research associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy, wrote in an op-ed published by The Guardian on Saturday.
“The Houthi movement has been able to advance across Yemen largely because of its alliance with the ancien regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and because of its ability to tap into disillusionment with the poor performance of” the Hadi government, Mrs. Younis wrote. “Though Iran may have helped to hone the effectiveness of the Houthi movement, it is neither the cause of nor a major player in the emerging Yemeni civil war.
“That reality,” she wrote, “is lost on a Saudi Arabia that is so fearful of Iran’s mounting influence in the region that it has instigated air strikes that are more likely to exacerbate than to resolve the conflict.”
Mr. Landis said Saudi Arabia seems to be moving headlong into an unwinnable military campaign.
“It’s going to be a quagmire for Saudi Arabia,” he said in a telephone interview Sunday. “Here they are sending their military directly in without great planning with the U.S. They’re moving on their own and they’re going to get sucked into a trap in Yemen.
“It’s a broken country that’s been on the verge a long time, with some 24 million people that are desperately poor and have a median age of about 19 years old,” he said. “They don’t have resources and are so young and uneducated. To think that something good is going to come out of this is impossible.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.