By C. Todd Lopez
Though the National Defense Strategy has shifted U.S. focus to China and Russia as near-peer competitors, North Korea and Iran as “rogue state actors,” and has also placed emphasis on counterterrorism as a priority, the Middle East is still going to be getting U.S. attention, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East said this week.
Mick P. Mulroy discussed current threats in the Middle East, U.S. priorities and future plans for military involvement during a forum at the Center for a New American Security here.
Threats From Iran
Iran, he said, poses a threat in five distinct spheres. First, Mulroy said, is the threat of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“We have plans to prevent that from happening, and the president has been fully clear in his intent to not let that happen,” he told Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at CNAS, and director of the Middle East security program there.
Second, Mulroy said, are threats to maritime security in the region. He noted that countering that threat includes keeping safe and open navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, between the United Arabian Emirates and Iran — where the Persian Gulf opens into the Gulf of Oman and then to the Indian Ocean; and the Bab al-Mandab Strait, between Yemen and Djibouti — where the Red Sea opens into the Gulf of Aden and then to the Indian Ocean.
“A substantial portion of our energy trade and commercial goods … go through those straits,” Mulroy said. “The Iranians are constantly threatening those. We of course have plans to make sure that doesn’t happen, and we keep those trade routes open.”
A third threat from Iran includes support to proxies and terrorist organizations, including Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq. “They’re housing and safe-harboring senior al-Qaida leaders,” Mulroy said.
Ballistic missiles are the fourth theat, he said. Iranian-made missiles emanate from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen toward allies in Saudi Arabia — where there are many American citizens; and also on the border with Israel, advanced weapons there are of concern.
Finally, cyber is an issue. “It comes up in literally every discussion about anything now,” Mulroy said. He said when he started his career around the time of 9/11, cyberterrorism was something “very fragmented. And then we figured how to work together as interagency.”
Planning the Pushback
Mulroy said one way the U.S. will push back on Iran is through the extensive planning he’s witnessed on the part of the U.S. military — something he said he’s been impressed with for years.
“As CIA personnel, I was uber-impressed with how much the military plans for everything,” Mulroy said. “And Iran is no exception.”
He said the Defense Department plans include defending key allies to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons; opening the Strait of Hormuz; and responding to any aggression.
Defense posture is also important. There are bases throughout the Middle East,” Mulroy said, where U.S. forces are ready, if needed.
“We are on bases with our key allies throughout the Middle East,” Mulroy said. “That limits the Iranian freedom of movement. That protects the key straits, the key choke points of maritime trade. It’s important in that regard.”
He also pointed to the U.S. military’s proven ability at executing expeditionary warfare.
“One thing I would add to that is the U.S. is by far the most capable when it comes to expeditionary warfare, and the ability to project power anywhere in the world to create effect,” he said. “That and what we call dynamic force employment, where we routinely have forces show up in an area that may not be expected, shows our ability to do that.”
Building up partnerships such as the Middle East Strategic Alliance is critical, he said, adding that the NDS requires that kind of partnership building.
The MESA is a security partnership between Gulf Cooperation Council nations, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, with the addition of Jordan and Egypt. It was announced in May 2017.
Mulroy said the U.S. wants the MESA “to be a holistic agreement. We want an economic part, we want an energy part, we want a political part, we want a security part. I fully recognize there are challenges in many of those.”
Politically, he said, there’s a rift, specifically with Qatar. And there’s an array of diverse economies in the Middle East as well to contend with. He added that MESA will not supersede of pre-existing agreements in the Middle East.
But on security, MESA looks for a “realistic approach,” Mulroy said.
One area of focus is on capabilities, he said, which includes a center to teach best practices when it comes to maritime, air defense, water, cyber, asymmetric warfare, and then command and control.
“We’re going to look for places we already have infrastructure,” Mulroy said. “This isn’t about spending more money. This is about us being in a role of facilitator and instructor, and the countries themselves adding to the and basically at their expense.”
Another key security focus of MESA is the establishment of a common picture, he said. That includes joint strategy and identifying threats, Mulroy said.
“This is not an alliance to counter Iran,” he noted. “This is an alliance to defend ourselves. That’s the current threat. It could change in the future.”
Finally, Mulroy said, regional security requires a collective effort. “We need to have the ability to talk to each other. Interoperability. Which still isn’t completely fixed in NATO. And we need to have common munitions, weapons, and the ability to actually work together,” he said.
Mulroy stressed that MESA is not meant to establish an “Arab NATO.”
“[There’s] no intent to turn this into an ‘Article 5’-type situation where we have a treaty and are required to defend. This is an attempt to work together with our GCC+2 — Egypt and Jordan — partners, to make them more effective so we can best defend ourselves and stabilize the region.”