The Middle East rarely plays a central role in NATO summits and the coming one, convened in Brussels on 11 and 12 July, will be no exception. Given the current diplomatic environment, the Brussels Summit will be primarily about reassuring the international community that transatlantic ties (whatever happens with regards to the nuclear deal with Iran, or the emerging trade war between the US and Europe) still translate into a strong NATO. For Western officials, the main and simple objective is to avoid this NATO summit to turn into the sequel of the catastrophic G7 meeting of June 2018.
But even if Middle Eastern affairs won’t be at the top of the agenda, it is worth considering some crucial issues that may challenge NATO’s current policies towards the region and therefore call for a deeper debate among allies, starting from Brussels 2018.
In a strange turn of events, the Middle East context that NATO has to face now looks like the one of the early months of 2014, before the Islamic State (IS) emerged as the most alarming global issue. Today, with the IS threat seriously degraded in Syria and Iraq, security priorities are once again reconsidered.
The American decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the "nuclear deal" signed with Iran in 2015, reactivates the question of Iran's nuclear intents, and with no diplomatic framework in sight, the issue is re-emerging as the central one. Partisan politics aside, Trump's choice also underlined the inability of the JCPOA to curb Tehran's ballistic program. Despite international condemnations and sanctions against Iranian companies, Tehran's regime dismissed these calls as testified by the Iranian ballistic tests and the steady proliferation of Iran-made rockets and short-range missiles to third parties, such as its traditional Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, or more recent partners as the Huthis in Yemen.
Although this regional context may remind us of the early 2010s, when the threat of an Israeli preemptive strike against the Iranian nuclear program was regularly in the air, the biggest difference with the "before-IS" period might be the level of intensity in the Iranian rivalry with Israel, as well as with the Gulf countries. Since 2015, NATO partners of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been engaged in Yemen's war: they face a protracted conflict where the risk of secession between the north and the south, the growth of terrorist organizations such as Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State, and a fierce fight with the Huthis, supported opportunistically by Iran, are deeply intertwined.
This regional indirect confrontation is compounded by Iran’s enhanced footprint in Syria. In the shadow of the war against IS, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have built up a significant presence in the country, with particular regard to the Golan area: this is challenging the past status quo with Israel, a close NATO partner in the region. This has also led Israel to increasingly resort to air strikes, targeting Iranian positions in Syria: notwithstanding further escalation has been avoided by the parties so far, the risk of an open confrontation between Iran and Israel is getting higher.
These developments are likely to reactivate the sensitive question NATO has traditionally tried to elude: what is NATO's position vis-à-vis Iran’s regional policies? Given the current trends, especially the political and operational resources allocated to deal with Russian assertiveness in the Eastern flank, the transatlantic alliance is unlikely to turn Iran into its priority.
However, topics such as NATO missile defense architecture will surely return at the forefront of the political agenda. A major feature of the NATO debate in the late 2000s, missile defense had been pushed back to the domain of technical matters. As the JCPOA falls apart and Iran reasserts its nuclear and ballistic ambitions, NATO will likely go back to a containment rhetoric in order to reassure its Southern members and, to that aim, missile defense would be pivotal in its military posture.
At political level, given the unilateral withdrawal of the Trump administration from the JCPOA, the return of the Iranian conundrum in the transatlantic debate will probably be influenced by the European unwillingness to be pulled back in this perilous environment by Washington. Whether they like it or not, NATO allies should put aside the blame game to focus on Iran's regional policies and their implications for the security of NATO and its partners in the Middle East and the Gulf.
In that case, NATO's new initiative of "projecting stability" could also help preventing a security vacuum in the Middle East that would only benefit Iran and violent extremist organisations. NATO's agenda to "project stability" should become the cornerstone of its relations with countries in North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf. The build-up of a new NATO mission in Iraq will be a litmus test: in the past weeks, NATO officials announced the establishment of a new ambitious mission of military advisors to support the training of the Iraqi armed forces.  If such announcement echoes the past NATO Training Mission that operated in Iraq from 2004 to 2011, this new one seems, at least in the political rhetoric, more daring with respect to the previous. It fits conveniently within NATO's narrative regarding counterterrorism activities (a way to address the demands of the Trump administration to increase the Alliance’s contribution to the fight against terrorism)  and in the philosophy of the "projecting stability" initiative, the new Alliance's approach aimed to reinforce the capabilities of local partners, rather than addressing the crisis with the direct military intervention of NATO.
But Brussels-tailored narratives do not always match with the logic of Arab politics, especially in Iraq. The formation of a new government in Baghdad, following May 2018 elections, remains uncertain. The winner of the votes, Moqtada Al-Sadr, and his allies may disentangle Iraq's politics from the sectarianism that plunged the country into chaos over the last decade. However, it remains to be seen if the future government will manage to redefine its relations vis-à-vis Tehran, with particular regard to the Iranian influence in Iraq. In the long term, this balancing act is much needed if US and NATO training initiatives in Baghdad are to succeed. Beyond the prospects of a NATO training mission (whose resources are still the object of contentious negotiations among allies), NATO may search for initiatives mainly driven by its partners. For instance, the creation of the NATO-ICI Regional Centre, opened in 2017 in Kuwait, could enable a more effective partnership between NATO and the GCC countries in the field of "projecting stability".
If the regional competition with Iran may remain the driving force in NATO’s Southern flank, one should not ignore potential threats originating from violent extremist organizations. In regions such as the Sahel, North Africa, and the Levant, the security environment is still extremely volatile: given the weakness of some local states, it is not farfetched to conceive scenarios of future conflict in the Middle East directly involving NATO's intervention. Framing and monitoring Southern threats and dynamics should be the central mission of the NATO Strategic Direction South Hub (NSD-S) which opened on September 2017 at the Joint Forces Command in Naples. A new structure announced at the Warsaw Summit in 2016, the Hub has an ambitious mandate: it aims to improve the Alliance's situational awareness regarding security trends in its "Southern flank". Although its resources remain modest, its relevance will be defined by the ability to help decision-makers in Brussels to better frame and understand these multiple trends.
All in all, NATO's policies towards the Middle East are unlikely to shape the discussions at the Brussels Summit. The complicated transatlantic relations of the Trump era, coupled with the intensity of East European fears over Russian assertiveness in its neighbourhood, have relegated all other items of the agenda to a "lower priorities" status. Still, the Middle East has a persistent tendency to drag Western governments into its varied crises, even when the latter try, as much as possible, to distance themselves from the region. As a result, an in-depth reassessment of the security environment and of NATO's policy tools in the region (as the Mediterranean Dialogue, MD, and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, ICI) is much required.
 Robin Emmott, Idres Ali, "At U.S. urging, NATO agrees training mission in Iraq", Reuters, 15 February 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-nato/at-u-s-urging-nato-agrees-training-mission-in-iraq-idUSKCN1FZ1E5
 Reuters Staff, "Trump, at NATO, vows unwavering fight against terrorism", Reuters, 25 May 2017 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-europe-militants/trump-at-nato-vows-unwavering-fight-against-terrorism-idUSKBN18L22F
* The views expressed in this article are strictly those of the author. They do not reflect the views of the UAE National Defense College, or the government of the United Arab Emirates.