Operation Unified Protector and Iran-NATO Relations

Friday, May 20, 2011

Behzad Khoshandam
PhD Student in International Relations

Terror attacks on September 11, 2001, and subsequent military presence of NATO in Afghanistan and occupation of Iraq have provided a suitable context for NATO to play a more effective role in political developments of the Middle East and North Africa and the immediate neighborhood of Iran.

NATO’s unexpected involvement in commanding the west’s military operations in Libya as of March 27, 2011, has delineated new outlooks of the organization to play a more active role in the Middle East and North Africa’s equations and has also set out future course for NATO’s missions in the 21st century.

The most important issue in analyzing and understanding perspective of NATO’s future role in the Middle East and North Africa is the organization’s recourse to “supporting civilians” principle in order to justify its military operations and intervention in Libya; a major oil producing country in North Africa.

Perhaps, it is for the first time in history of the Middle East and North Africa that NATO has resorted to this principle and the doctrine of responsibility to protect as bedrock of its operation in Libya.

Therefore, current analysis shows that NATO’s possible failure or victory in the Libyan operations will greatly shape negative or positive mentalities around its presence and participation in future developments of the Middle East and the surrounding neighborhood of Iran.

History of NATO’s involvement in the Middle Eastern interactions and the neighborhood of Iran prove that the organization has not been able to adequately convince regional nations and governments as well as the Iranian nation and government about the necessity of it activities.

Challenges faced by ISAF command in Afghanistan and their effect on the security of the Middle East and North Africa in addition to the organization’s passive role in the Arab-Israeli crisis has made regional, especially Iranian, people and politicians pessimistic about future role of NATO in power structures of the region.

At first, NATO’s involvement in Libya may seem to be based on the Security Council Resolution 1973, which aimed to strengthen international peace and security. However, a more profound analysis based on a long-term view will prove that NATO’s operations will ultimately disturb security equations in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

Since NATO came into being about 60 years ago, this is the first time that it has taken charge of managing a serious crisis in the Middle East and North Africa in the form of full-fledged military involvement.

During the Cold War, NATO’s role was limited to Europe and Eurasia with its main mission being to counteract the former Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, many international analysts redefined NATO’s mission to cover the war on international terror, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and other international threats. Operations in Afghanistan were a clear example of NATO’s new role.

The organization’s involvement in the Libyan crisis and recourse to a cooperative security model in Libya has further expanded operations of this international entity and has also raised expectations about its future role.

NATO’s presence in Libya has been a major stride to redefine the organization’s activities, goals and performance in the Middle East and North Africa. One may claim that NATO’s operations will directly influence national security of many Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Iran.

In fact, Americanization of NATO following Operation Unified Protector will greatly influence its role in strategic equations of the Middle East. By focusing on military operations in Libya, the organization seems poised to expand air and sea operations in North Africa.

As NATO’s focus is shifting from Afghanistan to Libya, there is no doubt that member countries, including the United States, will pay more attention to Iran’s relative strategic capacities. Therefore, Iran’s future relations with NATO will be a function of its relations with the United States.

As a result, if NATO’s Operation Unified Protector in Libya which is based on the doctrine of humanitarian intervention succeeds, the same scenario may also be applied to certain Middle Eastern countries which are known as the “axis of resistance.” In that case, NATO is possible to intensify its hostile policies toward Iran under direct influence of the United States.