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Iran: Israel-US air defense pact with Arabs would increase tensions

Ahead of Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Tehran says ‘entry of foreigners in the region’ is the ‘main cause of tension and regional rift’

Illustrative: Posters of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq in a US drone attack on January 3, 2020, are seen in front of Qiam, background left, Zolfaghar, top right, and Dezful missiles displayed in a missile capabilities exhibition by the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard at Imam Khomeini grand mosque, in Tehran, Iran, January 7, 2022 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Illustrative: Posters of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq in a US drone attack on January 3, 2020, are seen in front of Qiam, background left, Zolfaghar, top right, and Dezful missiles displayed in a missile capabilities exhibition by the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard at Imam Khomeini grand mosque, in Tehran, Iran, January 7, 2022 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran’s foreign ministry said Saturday that an air defense pact between Israel and Arab regional allies — formed under US leadership to counter the threat of Iran’s drones and missiles — would only increase regional tensions.

“The entry of foreigners in the region… will not create security and stability but is itself the main cause of tension and regional rift,” ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said, according to Reuters.

The pact, called “MEAD — Middle East Air Defense,” is meant to connect air defense systems to combat Iran’s increasing use of drones and missiles in the Middle East.

Iran’s statement comes ahead of US President Joe Biden’s planned visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia later this week.

Briefing lawmakers at the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee last month, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the pact was “already in action” and that he hoped it would expand with Biden’s visit.

“I have been leading for the past year together with my colleagues at the Pentagon and the [Biden] administration an extensive program to strengthen cooperation between Israel and the countries of the region, under American leadership and CENTCOM, which I hope will take another step forward in President Biden’s important visit to the Middle East,” he said at the time.

“This plan is already in action and has already thwarted Iranian attempts to challenge Israel and other countries in the Middle East,” Gantz added.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, June 20, 2022. (Noam Moskowitz/ Knesset spokesperson’s office)

The idea of a joint air defense system between Israel and its Arab neighbors is not new. It was raised during the Negev Summit of foreign ministers from Israel, the US, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt last March. It was also reportedly discussed in talks between the US and Saudi Arabia that Washington hopes will culminate in Riyadh taking steps toward normalizing ties with Israel.

Biden’s highly anticipated first trip to the Middle East will include stops in Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia from July 13 to July 16.

According to reports, the opportunity for the airborne defense coalition followed normalization agreements in 2020 between Israel and Arab countries, including the UAE and Bahrain, which are geographically closer to Iran.

Israeli military officials say they have seen an increase in Iranian use of drone attacks in recent years, dubbing it Iran’s “UAV terror.” The Israel Defense Forces has confirmed it intercepted at least four Iranian drones heading for Israel or the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent years. Another two drones launched from Iran en route to Israel were intercepted by US jets over Iraq in February.

The IDF believes Iran is attempting to arm all of its proxies in the region — in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen — with hundreds and even thousands of UAVs, in addition to providing military training.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri (left) and Commander of the Army Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi visit an underground drone base tunnel belonging to the Iranian military in the heart of the country’s western Zagros Mountains, May 28, 2022. (Iranian Army via AP)

CENTCOM — the United States Central Command — officially assumed responsibility for the US military’s relationship with Israel in September last year.

Until then, Israel had been kept in the area of responsibility of EUCOM in order to prevent possible tensions between CENTCOM and the Arab and Muslim nations under its purview, many of which did not maintain formal ties with Israel and would therefore not want to be considered mutual allies.

In recent years, however, CENTCOM’s Arab allies have increasingly developed relations with Israel, some informally, so the issues have largely faded.

The US Central Command’s area of responsibility stretches across the Middle East to Central Asia, including the Persian, or Arab Gulf region, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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