Started4 years ago
The Middle East – West Asia – is one of the world’s most strategically significant regions. Unstable and conflict ridden, this regional theatre is plagued by acute security dilemmas. Strangely, the Middle East remains one of the only theatres in the world without a comprehensive, sufficiently inclusive regional security framework for managing, preventing and defusing conflict.
21CQ is keenly interested in the vision of transforming the Middle East into one of this century’s vibrant, stable and productive regions. It supports the proposition that the region’s challenges – from war to the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and cross-border terrorism, inter alia – demand new thinking, and calls for a collaborative approach to regional security in the Middle East and mainstreaming the idea of an inclusive security architecture for the region.
In this expert exchange, we ask top analysts, policy wonks and luminaries from the region and beyond to share their reflections on what a West Asian Security Framework, including with respect to the Persian Gulf regional theatre, looks like. Stay tuned for the contributions to this increasingly timely and important topic.
Security in the Persian Gulf: What is doable?
There are at least three models of possible security arrangements in the Gulf, security arrangements in the Gulf, security arrangements in the Gulf, but none of them looks realistic at the time of writing.
The first model implies a regional hegemonic power taking responsibility for stability in its “natural” sphere of influence. In the Gulf case, the role of the regional hegemon is claimed jointly by Saudi Arabia and UAE, with the Saudis providing most of the “hard” power, while the Emiratis contributing the political ideology and strategic vision. Even if we put aside moral and legal deficiencies of this model, both Yemen and Qatar cases question the mere feasibility of a “regional uni-polarity”: neither Saudi Arabia nor UAE seems to be capable of successfully “managing” arguably much less powerful regional players.
The second model delegates the leading role to an out-of-area hegemon, which acts as an external security provider and an honest broker in regional disputes. The United States appears to be the perfect candidate to play this role. However, the US interest in the region is decreasing. Besides, even under the best possible circumstances, this arrangement would freeze the current conflicts in the Gulf in the format of a regional Cold War.
The third alternative is a collective security model applied to the Gulf region as well as to Middle East at large. The main problem with this option is that a collective security model should be inclusive, and it is not clear how Iran can be integrated into a single system together with its Arab adversaries in the Gulf.
It seems that the most practical approach would be to cultivate relatively small, incremental confidence building measures combined with trans-border development projects.
Part I: Human security as the foundation of regional security
This year, as we celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall, heralding the end of the Cold War, now is the time for a new principle, placing human dignity at the centre of national, regional and international policy-making: The Principle of Humanity.
I call for a comprehensive recommitment to President Vaclav Havel’s belief that “…the prerequisite for everything political is moral. Politics really should be ethics put into practice … This means taking a moral stand not for practical purposes, in the hope that it will bring political results, but as a matter of principle.” Only thus can we alleviate the suffering of thousands, including those often side-lined from the very dialogue we need to end the cycle of violence.
Thirty years on, humanity must re-evaluate its ethical and intellectual development as we once again prioritise respect for life, respect for habitat, and responsibility towards future generations. Today, we find ourselves, particularly in my region of the Mashreq / Levant, facing challenges that equal, if not surpass, those of the past, including variously: growing inequality, migration on a scale rarely seen, rising retrenchment, polarisation and authoritarianism, and not least, climate change.
We are facing a world in turmoil, epitomised by rising populism, nationalism and identity politics. All of which are often exacerbated in our poor benighted region by externally imposed, stereotypical brand names, which reduce people to little more than statistics.
The situation in Syria presents a trilemma to the major refugee host countries: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. In the case of Jordan, no other country has seen a similar quadrupling of its population; in the case of Syria, no other country has 50 per cent of its population on the move. Meanwhile, the shift in focus in pan-Arab action from Palestine to Iran, will have serious consequences for the entire region.
The polarities of hatred are tearing apart our social fabric, whilst weak leadership and popular fury at [the perception of] being marginalised is rendering ineffective our national and global institutions. This equally jeopardises those many lofty agreements and conventions that but a short time ago were the guiding light to a better, more humane world.
Is it possible to consider an end to the madness and a new beginning? I believe it is. It is a question of will, it is a question of character and I believe, to make a brief reference to the Arab political ferment of recent years, we are not running against our times. It is also my firm belief that only a new approach can free this benighted region from repeated cycles of destruction and misery.
Crises do not read maps, and no country will resolve the current crises on its own. This region, West Asia or the Eastern Mediterranean, what some call the Mashreq and others the Levant, will not stabilize until we find a new way of living with each other—I call this “intra-independence”, meaning “you respect my identity, I respect your identity.”
I am convinced that we need a new institutional architecture for this sub-region, with, for example, a regional bank for reconstruction and development, a regional ECOSOC, a regional Water and Energy Council, and a regional Citizen’s Assembly.
The ability to stabilize and rebuild this region lies within the hearts and minds of the people, uprooted or not, that call the region “home”. But we also have a lot to learn from experiences elsewhere in the world, especially the European Union, even as it sails through choppy waters. And we must persist in making the case for human dignity and pluralism by reaching out in dialogue across the Mediterranean, resisting the efforts to turn this “terra media” into yet another wall. Change will come only through people, not pipelines and power.
Effective stabilisation and reconstruction in the Mashreq require a multilateral approach based on regional carrying capacity and supranational concepts (towards blue sky thinking). Another Mashreq is possible. But only through cohesion-building measures across boundaries.
Recent multi-disciplinary focus by the World Bank on the dynamics of the political economy in the Mashreq and its thematic analysis of policy issues within the geo-economics of reconstruction, is to be much welcomed. It stresses that reconstruction in the region should be a political economy proposition for a bottom-up, people centred, cross-border regional process.The failure of good governance, or corruption as it is better known, underlines the importance of giving content through mapping the geo-economic context surrounding conflict and reconstruction.
I am glad to say that think-tanks in Jordan have already begun mapping existing activities designed to stabilise the Mashreq to identify both existing gaps (that is, which needs are not currently being addressed), and the most effective coordination mechanisms to prevent duplication. These are to be followed by evaluations of effectiveness across the board, culminating in a framework for action by governments in the Mashreq and beyond, as well as by other interested parties such as donors, international institutions, including the UN, the business sector, INGOs, regional NGOs, and regional civil society.
Whereas the World Bank speaks of “Over the Horizon: A New Levant”, there is no regional approach, and binary and favoured status prevails over regional stability. Yet a higher level of connectivity and regular convergence in the Mashreq could lead to an annual increase of the region’s GDP of US$ 70 billion. In this context, the Agadir Agreement the Agadir Agreement the Agadir Agreement, a free trade agreement between Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine and Lebanon, which came into force in March 2007, offers a potential building block towards achieving such a vision, yet to be achieved.
Additionally, as action is increasingly taken to prevent the movement of Muslim refugees towards Europe, China’s Belt and Road Initiative could give shape to an emerging Eurasian world order. Thus, mapping this initiative from a Mashreq perspective will become a further priority.
In the immediate term, the mapping of UN agencies initiatives in the Mashreq can pave the way for integrating the ‘externalities’ of their methodology and ’software’ so to speak within national agencies and their operations, providing the catalyst for coordination and joint effort between all these bodies and regional governments and civil society.
Such a template can pave the way for a practical roadmap towards a successful transition from the humanitarian to the developmental. It should be a seamless process, a reorientation away from ‘silos’ and ‘crises’. The time has come to be structuralist in moving beyond a ‘Syrian crisis’ style to a ‘people centred’, Whole of Mashreq, cross-border, development and empowerment mode. Ad hoc and arbitrary will not do it. We must listen to and empower our largely young populations.
A ‘people centred’ process means enabling and empowering the vulnerable and marginalised. No discrimination in terms of ethnic origin, nationality, political opinion, gender, religion or race. This is an integral part of Jordan and much of the region’s history and traditions. Displaced and host communities have different vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. Likewise, those of the resource rich and the hinterland and it is worth emphasising that there can be no stability in the resource rich, if there is no stability in the hinterland.
It is past time to reorient our thinking towards regional cohesion and integration with the wellbeing and prosperity of the people of the region, and the collective success of future generations, as our guide.
Part II: Inclusive regional security in the Gulf as a necessary step towards greater regional security
Following my first post, allow me to add that one side effect of the resurgent tensions in the Gulf has been a new willingness to contemplate new approaches to long standing questions in the region and a realisation that the status quo is not sustainable.
In this context, the arms race in the region is clearly a serious security threat, particularly in the light of the recent erosion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the implications that may have for future agreements. There is a plethora of UN do’s and don’ts, most of which are ignored to the detriment of humanity.
Clearly mechanisms are needed to restrain the dissemination of dangerous weapons, but mechanisms without sharing do not bode well in an interconnected world. Confidence building measures that promote trust, minimize suspicion, and create a better understanding among regional states are desperately needed.
We must also scope our investment in human capital, education and health, as against our investment in the acquisition of conventional weapons as well as Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).
I have long called for a Middle East Weapons Free Zone, and take some encouragement from the recent success of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) (of which I am a former Board Member) in establishing an IAEA LEU Bank in Kazakhstan, thereby obviating the need for national enrichment facilities and the concomitant risk of proliferation.
The security of our region is the responsibility of states living in it and that the impetus for establishing a regional security regime must come from within the region itself. Outside powers can help to facilitate the process.
We must strive towards establishing a regional security structure to complement, not replace, bilateral and multilateral security arrangements among states in the region.
Success is the result of hard work and careful adherence to regional and international norms. We need to work hard and be equally sensitive to each other’s security threat perceptions and needs to ensure that a regional security process is established and developed. This would be in the vital interest of all the states in the region and beyond.
If we wish to create a better tomorrow then, in the words of my dear friend, President Vaclav Havel, we must come together to suggest a way forward and inject a note of optimism in the face of all that confronts us:
“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.”
The Middle East is in a particularly dangerous and volatile state. The idea of a new regional security architecture for the benefit of the region as a whole must increasingly get traction in the region. I commend the tireless efforts of 21CQ’s Sam Sasan Shoamanesh towards this necessary goal. We need more such champions of regionalism in the Middle East.
What does a West Asian regional security framework look like and what role for Europe?
Part I: The state of play
Let us start by first asking a question seldom asked: what is the “Middle East”? This is not an indigenous term from the region but crafted by foreign powers mainly in the West according to their own – mostly colonial and post-colonial – narratives and interests. It is also geographically questionable: consider that Morocco and Tunisia are more to the ‘West’ than several ‘Western European’ countries, including many member states of the European Union (EU). There is no “Middle East” regional group at the United Nations: the category that refers to regional grouping of countries is termed, more accurately, “West Asia.”
At a time when we see a return of geography and history in the region and elsewhere, we have to adjust to the way the people and societies view themselves. The current rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran also goes back many centuries to the conquest of the Persian empire by the Arabs in the 7th Century. The populations of the region do not comprise only Arabs, but also Assyrians, Berbers, Jews, Kurds, Persians, and Turks. They speak a variety of languages and enjoy rich cultural and ethnic diversity. Islam is prevalent but it is not the only religion and many religious minorities continue to thrive and participate in the political life of their respective countries. The Levant is the birthplace of Christianity, brought to Europe by ‘migrants’ from the Holy Land.
Outside powers, and European policies towards the region, have suffered from a lack of understanding of the complex social and cultural dynamics in the region. They have often adopted a patronizing attitude towards the region that distorts their narratives and policies. This has not been lost on the region, and increasingly denounced. In his famous work, “Orientalism”, published some decades ago, Edward Saïd captured this phenomenon quite aptly. This also explains, in part, the failure, or at least the shortcomings of the EU Southern Neighborhood policy.
What remains true is that the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf constitute a bridge between the Atlantic and Eurasia (as well as Africa). If only for this reason, the region and its many troubles deserve immediate and sustained attention.
The current regional order is the result of the dismantlement of the Ottoman empire instigated mainly by France and Britain, and to some extent Italy, after WW1, and their subsequent colonial empire-building – Kurds were already then the victims of the lack of care or attention by international powers – and after WW2, the importance of oil and Cold War divisions with the US and USSR entering the fray, added additional layers of complexity and confrontation, the background against which Arab nationalism developed. Alignment with respective patrons was privileged and came to dominate politics over good governance. Due to the instability of the region, West Asian countries also became highly profitable markets for weapons sales (mainly from the West), creating long term challenges for arms control and an arms race in the region.
The region is struggling to cope with the effects of this legacy, while the return of Russia with the retreat of America; the rise of China and India; regional wars (of which, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains an important element); the need for energy security, and challenges for economic and socio-political modernization, add additional layers of complexity and uncertainty.
Recent developments equally do not bode well for regional stability. Escalation is on the rise. This is not limited to the region and global instability continues to fuel regional fissures and conflicts.
Today, in the region, it is the so-called ‘maximum pressure’ policy applied on Iran by the US and its allies that dominates the headlines. Far from achieving its intended objectives, this approach has rather been met with ‘maximum resistance’ by Tehran, increasing the risks of unintended military confrontation in the Gulf, if not elsewhere. The US unilateral exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),was a reckless challenge to multilateralism and the prospects for regional cooperation, including arms control and security confidence building measures, which should have been the logical follow-up, building on the success of the JCPOA. Of course, Iran’s policies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza are not acceptable as seen from the European perspective. But dialogue is a necessity and not a reward for good behavior if one is to reduce the level of threats and risks of open conflict.
This applies, of course, elsewhere in the region and further afield. Israel’s regular air strikes in Syria against Iranian assets (and more recently in Lebanon) have so far been tolerated by Russia, but it remains to be seen how long Tehran will exercise strategic patience without reacting directly or through its surrogates in Lebanon, Syria or Gaza. However, recent Israeli strikes in Iraq against Iranian controlled Popular Mobilization Units have raised eyebrows in Washington, as they might damage US-Iraqi relations. Thus far, Israel seems immune to external pressure to dial down the tensions.
In Syria, after a truce that lasted only a few days in August of this year, the Syrian army and its Russian allies have resumed attacks in the Northwest and recovered more territory in recent months than in previous phases of the offensive since last April. More civilian casualties and new displacements of populations have ensued. Three million people now live in the rebel enclave, double the original population. This creates tensions with Turkey, whose observation posts are under siege and military contingents have been under attack. There is evidence that Ankara continues to provide weapons to rebel groups fighting Damascus and its Russian allies. The Sochi agreement on a ceasefire zone is as good as dead and the targeting of civilians is clearly meant to turn them against the armed opposition.
In the Northeast, Turkey and the US have been struggling to find a consensus on the creation of a security zone along the Syria-Turkish border with plenty of ambiguities about the role of the Kurdish-dominated YPG militia supported by the US. Keeping them in check is not the only goal of Ankara: it also has plans to relocate Syrian refugees in the zone. The decision by President Trump to withdraw US troops has triggered Turkey’s decision to launch a full-fledged military offensive in the Rojava, including an understanding between Presidents Erdogan and Putin about Russian troops monitoring the operations. It has also infuriated US allies for its lack of prior consultations.
Bad governance and repression in the areas recovered by the regime are a powerful disincentive for refugee return. UN mediation has restarted in Geneva after agreement between the parties on setting up a constitutional committee to negotiate the drafting of a new Syrian constitution. While an undeniable progress, that will not suffice to conclude a comprehensive political settlement according to UNSC Resolution 2254. In the meantime, Russia is left with a dysfunctional country, where nobody is interested in financing reconstruction (and shouldn’t in the present circumstances). How much more blood and treasure is Moscow ready to keep spending in these circumstances remains a question mark.
Turkey’s implication in the Syrian civil war was unavoidable as it threatened its core security interests, including the influx of refugees and the rise in power of Kurdish movements that are considered terrorists by Ankara, but has also showed an aspiration by the Turkish leadership to be more of a West Asian power if not a neo-ottoman hegemon, including in the Balkans. It triggered a delicate balancing act between traditional allies in the West and a rapprochement with Russia and Iran, as well as China. Sanctions by the US and European allies ensued and have created serious problems for the Turkish economy on top of the burden of hosting the largest population of Syrian refugees, as well as domestic challenges to the current leadership. Turkey is also becoming the country that delivers the biggest amount of national passports to Iranian citizens, essentially business people, which is seen as a way to circumvent US sanctions. Its recent moves, including the purchase of Russian-made anti-aircraft systems and military offensive operations against a foreign country, without consultations with its traditional Western allies pose an important challenge to NATO.
Elsewhere in the region, the situation in Yemen and Libya remains dire and hopeless, although recent developments in Yemen offer a ray of hope. Disengagement by the United Arab Emirates in Yemen seems to herald dissent with Saudi Arabia, about the course to follow at least. Algeria is going through a transition, the outcome of which remains uncertain. Jordan is experiencing increasing popular discontent, mainly due to deteriorating economic conditions. Egypt’s economy is not faring much better and each day it is more controlled by the army. Repression of dissent and demands for transparency are creating a poisonous atmosphere. Popular protests in Lebanon and Iraq (including in the latter case, hundreds of civilian death) complete a picture of another wild fire spreading across the region, arguably for the same reasons that ignited the original wave of the “Arab Springs” – economies fail, majority of citizens are poor and helpless, and the powerful elite treats them with disdain. Foreign countries do little to use their leverage to play a constructive role. A negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never seemed more remote in spite, or rather because, of the ‘deal of the century.’ Elections in Tunisia and the tentative agreement between Sudanese factions after the overthrow of Omar Al-Bashir offers a glimmer of hope, but the jury is still out.
Terrorism and radicalization do not show any sign of getting under control. A recent report by the Pentagon indicates that ISIS, or Daesh, is far from being tamed and is reorganizing to launch new attacks.
The multiplication of crises in the immediate neighborhood of West Asia and North Africa and further afield adds complications, with potential spill-over. Think, for instance, of the tensions in the relations between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, where Iran and Saudi Arabia compete for influence among Islamic parties. Moreover, the US-Russia dispute over the INF treaty and the exit of the agreement by the American side, not to mention the paralysis of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), will remove much credibility from efforts by outsiders to tackle missile issues and arms control in West Asia. The break of negotiations between the US and the Taliban leaves Afghanistan in limbo, although they have resumed recently. Seemingly unrelated tensions elsewhere in the world create an atmosphere of global disorder not conducive to understandings on West Asian issues among relevant international players. These developments are sources of strategic distractions for various players and a challenge for the management of conflict and the complexity of the region by relevant political leaderships.
The above background and the dire picture presented underscore the very real need for positive change in the region, and more constructive policies towards the region, including from European states and the EU.
In my next post for this exchange, I will explore what are the opportunities to move the region towards greater stability and security cooperation through a new regional security architecture, emphasizing how Europe can be a partner in that necessary effort.
Part II: Opportunities for greater regional security and the need for a more robust European engagement
As far as concrete areas of focus and opportunities for stabilization and cooperation in the region are concerned, one should start with practical steps aimed at reducing tensions, including through the UN or international mediation, in order to facilitate progress towards specific targets set.
Such efforts can then be built upon through widening the scope of understandings and the available space where common ground can be identified and secured, involving other interested parties, and ultimately, including the parameters of individual agreements into a body of principles applicable in other similar situations, underlining the commonality of interests.
Earlier this year, Russia’s Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa and Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov outlined his views about a Persian Gulf security architecture referring to the Helsinki process and the OSCE system (other policy makers have done the same in the past). And Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif often reminds audiences of the call for a post-war regional arrangement contemplated in UN Security Council Resolution 598 after the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Other ideas have been put on the table recently, more specifically, the Hormuz Peace Endeavour, or “HOPE”, first presented by Iran in September at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, and the competing Middle East Strategic Alliance proposed by the US. One could also find inspiration in the Madrid conference after the first Gulf War in 1991, and the multilateral process it launched, provided the same leadership could be mustered today among the great powers.
Among ongoing processes, one could think of the mediation efforts by France in the context of defusing tensions with Iran over the US unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA and the policy of maximum pressure adopted by Washington; recent talks between UAE and Iranian officials about the security of navigation in the Persian Gulf; discrete rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran at the track 2 level; European/Russian/Chinese efforts to salvage the JCPOA moving beyond the nuclear issue; outreach by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Gulf countries, and complementing maritime protection operations in the Gulf with an early warning mechanism.
Friendship does not need to exist prior to agreeing on security arrangements, as demonstrated during the Cold War (‘make peace, not love’). Cooperation and integration between former enemies are essential ingredients to creating sustainable peace.
Additionally, thematic issues offer opportunities to engage in positive and innovative approaches to tackle potential conflict drivers while abandoning a zero-sum (a)strategic calculus. Energy security where the interests of regional and extra-regional players converge may serve such a purpose. One could think of the recent creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, based in Cairo, which also includes Israel, as a good example of alternative regionally owned organizations in association with external partners sharing common interests (that said, the exclusion of Turkey has created new tensions around Cyprus, and triggered EU sanctions. The US on the other hand has shown interest to be part of the mechanism. Its status as first oil and gas producer in the world offers a plausible explanation why oil prices have not so far shot up despite tensions in the Persian Gulf).
Many interlocutors in the region, along with Western partners, also believe that for a more secure and stable regional environment to emerge in West Asia, more attention must also be paid to:
· Institution and state building;
· Identity, values, and greater tolerance and acceptance;
· A common economic model for job creation and convergent modernization schemes;
· Technology development, including digitalization;
· Education, culture and cultural and knowledge exchange;
· Climate change as one of the main challenges for the mid/long-term for the region, including impact on water resources and sustainability, and
· Demography and migrations.
The region, as I stated in Part I of my contribution to this exchange, is ‘multiple’ and consists of sub-regions. It is therefore necessary to also think in terms of sub-regional arrangements, and to determine what is required. Some quick observations: The League of Arab States continues to demonstrate its weaknesses as a convener and consensus builder. The Gulf Cooperation Council has not achieved economic and political integration, and the blockade imposed on Qatar in 2017 demonstrates how fragile unity can be among GCC members. Morocco shows growing interest to serve as a bridge between Africa and Europe. After re-joining the African Union, Rabat has declared Morocco’s candidacy for membership with the ECOWAS. It goes without saying that developments in the Sahel are of crucial importance for security of countries of the Maghreb, with shared interests with Europe. Any new regional security framework in West Asia must reckon with existing arrangements and trends, following a course that builds upon what works, filling gaps where required in order to secure a more stable and promising regional reality.
Allow me to also add that no regional order will be sustainable if local players, countries and people do not take ownership of their collective destiny. International actors can facilitate and support regional initiatives, but these must be ‘home-grown.’ The first step is to create opportunities for regional leaders to talk to each other. Methodological approaches should include all stakeholders. Not only governments, but also sub-state entities, such as provinces or cities, civil societies, including business, women and youth. Cross-border networks should be encouraged along with people to people exchanges. Digital technologies should be widely used.
International assistance has to be designed by its beneficiaries first, on the basis of local initiatives, with emphasis on capacity building and resilience: it would be less costly and more effective. The role of donors is to create the space for these initiatives to flourish. Dialogue and cooperation should happen at all levels simultaneously to design policy advice for decision-makers: tracks 1 and 2, as well as civil societies initiatives could usefully widen the awareness of converging interests and bring practical experience to the fore, contributing to more comprehensive and robust policy advice. The cumulative effect of addressing interrelated issues in parallel rather than consecutive sequences should be considered.
Finally, what role for Europe?
European strategic absence, in managing the crises and offering exit strategies, has to be addressed as a matter of urgency, especially given US disengagement from the region and increasing big powers competition, in transactional mode, far from European ideals of multilateralism.
The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) for the South is globally a failure. Even if the original intentions were in the right place, the tools and the monitoring of processes have been deficient. The lack of understanding of social dynamics in partner countries, especially in times of transition, and insufficient or ineffective attention to the strategic designs of other actors are the main factors of this failure. Divisions among member states (consider, for instance, France and Italy divisions over Libya) and narrowly defined national interests such as arms sales, breed ineffective and incoherent policies. There is no need to invent a new European design. The Barcelona declaration of November 1995 has not aged a bit and could be extended to other players and environments. Only the bureaucratic process that followed has failed. And the political will behind it has died.
Leadership in Europe is of the essence for European leadership in the world, including with respect to West Asia. President Emanuel Macron’s recent interview with The Economist has infuriated quite a few but nevertheless raises legitimate questions. The transition at the head of the European institutions, including the promise of a “geopolitical commission” is a unique opportunity to advance a strategic agenda for a more self-reliant Europe, and to push for a new world order, including a stable and prosperous West Asia, in keeping with European values and interests.
Convincing the US of the value of a rethink and recomposed transatlantic partnership for West Asia and engaging efficiently with Russia and China, in view of the increasing geo-centrality of Eurasia, on issues such as climate change and migration, economy and energy security, WMD proliferation, terrorism and radicalization, should be part of this ambitious agenda.
West Asia deserves better. Europe can help, and by so doing, also help itself.
The answer to West Asia’s recurring wars is greater regional security dialogue and ownership
The latest crisis in West Asia only underscores the international imperative and the region’s own conspicuous responsibility to find immediate and long-term solutions to the wicked security dilemmas of that theatre to stanch the recurring cycle of violence and conflict.
Already tense and divided along countless fault-lines, West Asia – from the Levant to the Iranian plateau – has been on high alert following the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the influential Commander of Iran’s Quds Force and Major General of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps in Iraq.
Soleimani’s assassination was the latest manifestation of Washington’s maximum pressure policy on Iran, following US’ unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
To be sure, the targeted assassination of a high-ranking military leader of a UN member state – and a regional power – is a major escalation in US-Iran bras de fer, dialling up fears across the region of a major conflagration.
This alarming development increased the risk of yet another costly protracted war in a region that can ill afford further instability.
Contrary to its stated goals and expectations, Washington’s gamble aggravated the security environment for American troops and personnel, strengthened Tehran’s resolve to resist American presence and policies in the region, and effectively torpedoed any prospect of a negotiated settlement on the nuclear file, at least, in the immediate term with the current US administration. Washington’s tactic succeeded in pushing Tehran to further scale back on its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA as a counter measure, inching closer to abandoning the deal.
The political response from Iraq was also swift in the form of Parliamentary calls for, inter alia, the withdrawal of US troops from the country. All remains to be seen, as the votes cast are not legally binding on the caretaker government in Baghdad, and Washington is evidently exerting pressure to make it costly for Iraq to follow through.
In the meantime, Beijing has offered military assistance to Iraq to fill any security gaps. To be sure, China – heavily invested in West Asia and in its growing interests and relations with regional protagonists in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative – does not want to see the region and its crucial waterways further destabilised. Last December’s naval drill in the Gulf of Oman, undertaken jointly by China, Russia and Iran, was an expression of that policy imperative.
Six days following the hit, Iran retaliated by taking the bold step of launching multiple home-made ballistic missiles directly from its soil aimed at military bases in Iraq housing US military personnel. The operation symbolically termed, “Martyr Qassem Soleimani”, was timed to coincide with when the US assassinated the Iranian commander.
Tehran delivered on its promise to exact revenge, hitting US military targets in Iraq. Iran reportedly avoided killing US personnel – Washington’s red line. Iraqi casualties were also avoided. Tehran evidently opted to prosecute a controlled conflict, carefully calibrating its response to save face, demonstrate its deterrent capabilities, while giving Washington an off-ramp to de-escalate.
Fortunately, the US climbed down the ladder of escalation, acknowledging there were no American casualties following Iran’s retaliatory response, labelling it as Tehran “standing down”.
While Washington did not escalate militarily, it announced additional sanctions against Iran, calling on other architects of the JCPOA to abandon the deal, further alienating its traditional Transatlantic allies. In response, the E3 – the UK, France and Germany – rebuffed this call in a joint statement issued on the 12th of January, reiterating a “commitment to preserve the JCPOA”, yet proceeded to trigger the Agreement’s dispute resolution mechanism only a couple of days later. Tehran has interpreted this step as European capitulation to Washington’s maximum pressure policy. It has warned that should the file be referred to the UN Security Council, Iran will not only abandon the JCPOA, but will also consider exiting the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
The JCPOA – a key pillar of the international non-proliferation architecture and regional security in West Asia – now hangs by a threadnow hangs by a threadnow hangs by a thread.
The recent crisis has also not been without human tragedy and innocent loss of life. Some 56 Iranians were killed and more than 200 injured when a stampede broke out at the funeral procession grieving the demise of Soleimani in his hometown of Kerman. To add insult to injury, the accidental shooting of a Ukrainian passenger plane by Iran’s IRGC resulted in the untimely death of all passengers and crew on-board, raising the death toll by 176 additional civilian deaths – a calamity that ignited fresh protests in Iran.
These painfully tragic consequences notwithstanding, a costly devastating war that would have surely inflamed the entire region was averted – for now.
We must not lose sight of the fact that the conditions that led to this crisis in the first place are still very much present, and the status quo ante in Iran-US relations resumes.
There is no guarantee that the initial tit-for-tat exchanged between Washington and Tehran will not see additional clashes, either through conventional or unconventional means.
Unforeseen scenarios and unpredictable outcomes are also part of the equation as managing conflict is not an exact science.
Time will tell what awaits.
However, the speed with which this crisis escalated to the precipice of war must serve as a wake-up call.
This past crisis, which has the potential to reignite at any time, does not bode well for regional stability in the near and long term, and once again underscores the abysmal failure of the region’s dysfunctional security order.
Even if by a dint of fortune and fortitude, wisdom ultimately prevailed and a bloody march to folly was avoided in this instance, this is just the latest episode in a long series of security incidents and hot wars that have caused great human suffering and held the region back, weak and divided.
West Asia suffers from a regional systems failure in the absence of a sufficiently inclusive and viable regional security framework capable of preventing and defusing conflict.
That task falls, first and foremost, on West Asian states to take greater ownership of the region’s security challenges and to devise regional remedial solutions through greater dialogue, diplomacy, emergency communication and security cooperation.
The inescapable fact is that the existing, non-inclusive sub-regional security structures in West Asia have been largely ineffective in bringing tangible, sustained security to the region.
The traditional US security architecture has also failed to ensure regional cohesion and the security and stability of the region in a sustainable and consistent manner over time. On the contrary, it has proved to be a costly experiment in blood and national treasure with the region bearing the brunt, and in many instances, the source of the region’s acute security dilemma.
West Asia needs a regional security reset that can foster preventative diplomacy and enhance regional security dialogue and cooperation.
Given the historic centrality and importance of the West Asian theatre to the peace and security of all of the connected regional theatres – and to international peace and security more generally – there is great urgency for practical steps to be taken to support West Asian states enhance the region’s capabilities, mechanisms and processes to prevent and manage conflict.
The crisis just lived, and the regional and international calls for de-escalation have provided a unique opportunity to bring the parties together for this purpose, and to work towards détente and rapprochement.
Different concepts and ideas worth further consideration are already on the table, including those proposed by Russia last summer, and by the Iranians at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, otherwise known as the “Hormuz Peace Initiative”. The latter has received backing from at least two permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia and China – while Iran is busy working to build support for the initiative in the region.
The Emir of Qatar visited Iran for the first time during the recent crisis, calling for de-escalation and regional dialogue. Other regional states are also on record stressing the need for a genuine inclusive regional process that aims to address the region’s polarisation and security challenges.
Throughout this unhappy saga, West Asian states and the international community writ large were on edge as Iran-US tensions escalated. The Secretary Generals of the UN, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council called for restraint and de-escalation, as did many West Asian capitals, including Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Anxieties remain.
Easing tensions in the Persian Gulf regional theatre and creating incentives to commit littoral states to security dialogue and conflict prevention can be a crucial first step forward, and a major pillar of regional stability – with clear dividends for freedom of navigation and energy security.
For over a decade, I have personally persistently made the case for reimagining regional security in the West Asia. I have called for a decisive move away from zero-sum conceptions of regional security in favour of a sufficiently inclusive framework premised on common security, dialogue, and respect for the principles enshrined in the UN Charter, floating different algorithms for how the region can incrementally stitch itself together in the service of greater regional security, stability and cohesion. Indeed, a Helsinki type process for West Asia is long overdue.
Let me emphasise that there is room for more robust UN engagement to de-escalate the current crisis and assist the region to work towards regional security dialogue and understanding, including through the important work of the UN Department of Political and Peace Building Affairs.
The UN, in its neutral mediatory role, can helpfully facilitate an inclusive process that gives due consideration to proposals aimed at stabilising the region, including the Hormuz Peace Initiative, streamlining the different proposals into a single process under the UN umbrella.
As part of this UN response, consideration can also be given to appointing a special envoy of the Secretary General [pursuant to paragraph eight of UN Security Council Resolution 598 (1987)] with a specific mandate and full authority to work with states in the region and other relevant actors to bring the parties together – starting with an agenda dedicated to de-escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf theatre. The proposed envoy could work to commit the parties to design and implement confidence-building measures, as well as facilitate discussions on strengthening the region’s mechanisms for security dialogue and conflict management.
The EU, joined by willing members of the UN Security Council, can play a crucial supporting role in such a necessary effort.
The EU, in its own right, must feel more confident acting as a broker of peace in the region by continuing to engage with all sides, do what it can to preserve the JCPOA, and explore the opportunities afforded by that framework to facilitate greater regional security dialogue and de-escalation.
This latest crisis highlights, yet again, the imperative to act decisively in conceiving a new rules-based regional security order in West Asia – one built on dialogue and mutual respect, a commitment to non-aggression, and indeed, the vision of a shared future.
Reason and courageous leadership to realise that necessary condition must prevail.
The status quo has failed, and miserably so.
Sam Sasan Shoamanesh is the Co-Founder and Vice-President of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, Managing Editor of Global Brief Magazine, and the Chef de Cabinet to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The views expressed are the author’s alone.
An important focus of diplomatic efforts should be to establish an inclusive regional security forum
Lack of multilateral integration across the entire Middle East [West Asia] is a deficit when it comes to prosperity, security and stability. In some ways, it is one of the least integrated regions of the world, because the constituent countries have been so at odds.
You have the Arab League, which is a subset of the countries in the Middle East, but which does not include countries like Iran, Turkey and Israel. Then you have the GCC countries – a smaller subset. But none of these institutions that exist today is really capable of addressing the wide range of challenges that the Middle East faces. There are many countries in the region, and the US has also been committed to this idea of trying to come up with a forum in which all of the countries that have a stake in the security of the region can be present and at the table to try to find a common way forward. But that is really difficult at this point.
What we hear from some of the Gulf and other Arab nations is that they do not want to sit at the table with Iran today, because Iran is stronger and more influential, and will likely be able to easily dictate the terms in such a scenario. Iran is, in their view, intervening all over the Arab Middle East, and that until Iran backs down from its current posture, the Arab countries will be negotiating from a position of relative weakness. That argument, whatever one thinks of its merits, has prevented a broader conversation among all of the relevant countries. But there is now, in the aftermath of the escalation between the US and Iran, perhaps some momentum behind the idea of a regional security forum of some kind [an idea that 21CQ has been championing for some time now].
To their credit, the Gulf countries were messaging the US as the last escalation with Iran was happening to the effect that they did not wish to see it evolve into a full conflict. They realize that they might pay a significant price in the event of a conflict, because Iran will retaliate against them for the steps that the US has taken. The countries facing the prospects of a regional war – or a war between the US and Iran – stared into the abyss and realized that diplomacy might be preferable. However, there has not been momentum behind setting up a proper forum, and I do believe that this should be an important focus of diplomatic efforts in the region in the near term.
*This contribution is from an interview published in the 10th year anniversary issue of 21CQ’s flagship publication, Global Brief.
Middle East Security Comprehensively, Yet Incrementally
The Middle East (West Asia) is presently facing numerous simultaneous geopolitical, economic and security challenges, unprecedented in contemporary history.
It has over five active conflicts as well as those perpetually on the brink of violent outbreak: Libya, Syria, Yemen, a precarious security situation in Iraq, and continuing tensions and terrorism and diminishing hopes of progress in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. A multitude of problems that do not auger well for pontification about regional security regimes and cooperative regional measures in this respect.
This is all true, however, the heightened regional tensions and security threats are in fact even more reason to attempt to address both the conflicts themselves as well as the precarious overall security paradigm and the potential surrounding regional security structures at the same time.
Needless to say, these are complex and sensitive issues. Consequently, they warrant comprehensive and rigorous incremental steps to be sustainable enough to come to fruition. In fact, given the tenuous nature of relations in the Middle East, this process is to be bound to moribund if it emanates or is hosted from the region alone. As national security issues are involved, any effort towards regional security and integration cannot also be imposed from above or beyond, and the evolution of such efforts must actively involve and be embraced by regional stakeholders.
In essence, the Middle East needs an overarching political umbrella and an indisputably relevant host, if any attempt to deal with its security challenges is to succeed and provide sustained solutions. As such, I suggest that the United Nations Security Council be the convenor. As the primary body responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security, it uniquely provides wide unquestionable legitimacy to the process. Equally and even more importantly, the body is governed by the Charter of the United Nations, which we in the region, and presumably beyond, have all committed to.
The ultimate objective of this effort would be to develop a three-tiered regional security structure consisting of crisis management, conflict resolution and security cooperation based on a regional declaration to which all Middle Eastern states are committed. The Arms Control and Regional Security working group emanating from the Madrid Arab-Israeli Peace Conference in the early 90’s did considerable work in this regard before failing to conclude a consensus document, essentially because of objections in including self-determination of peoples and nuclear non-proliferation in the region. It is not surprising that these are two of the most pressing issues of the day, almost three decades later.
I am not suggesting the UN Security Council become the immediate negotiating body. Rather, it would set the parameters of international law, provide the political umbrella for diverse negotiations, and ultimately become the legitimizer of the different agreements reached. Under the auspices of the Security Council, diverse and intensive efforts – bilateral, regional, and international – need to deal with the active conflicts. They would be pursued under the same umbrella although not all may have the same composition or even focus, many would be served by more limited core player participation.
It is noteworthy, however, that even these conflict-focused negotiations need to be prepared through confidence building measures, and here again, the particular legitimacy of the UN Security Council would provide room for all parties to manoeuvre without feeling they had unilaterally compromised a priori. This is especially true between Israel, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, where lands are occupied, or deal with complex issues relevant to parties well beyond the territorial theatre being considered.
In the light of heightened regional tensions, confidence building measures are imperative before progress can be envisaged between Turkey and a number of other countries such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
A third equally important engagement is between Iran and a number of Arab states of the Persian Gulf on the one hand and Iran and the United States and a number of nonregional countries on the other, particularly the 5+1 members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concerning Iran’s nuclear program.
In the same vein as the JCPOA, there are a number of region-wide issues that underline the importance of pursing regional security issues under the auspices of the UN Security Council, especially the prohibition of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Another is combatting terrorism. Both issues carry highly sensitive region-wide ramifications, which must be dealt regionally without prejudice or preferences.
And finally, the ambitious conclusion of these efforts if regional stability is to be envisaged is the development of a Middle East Regional Security Structure for the future, enabling the region itself in most circumstances to deal with imminent crisis, resolve conflicts, address region-wide concerns and develop cooperative security structures to proactively pre-empt the prolific outbreak of security threatening situations like we are facing today. All these reasons suggest embarking on a three- tiered incremental approach with ambitious sustainable objectives under the UN Security Council umbrella, which I believe can provide the best, even if complex, way forward.
The Art of the Possible: With the revival of the JCPOA, the U.S. and other architects of the deal might have the opportunity to engage in a new process of regional dialogue
Shortly after President Obama took office, he made addressing Iran’s nuclear program a high priority. He persuaded Russia and China to join the effort. The EU-3 (the UK, France and Germany) became the P-5, (the permanent five of the UN Security Council) + 1 (Germany), and set out to negotiate with Iran on behalf of the UN Security Council. The P-5+1 also jointly imposed extremely harsh economic sanctions on Iran, which placed Iran’s economy under pressure to the point that Tehran was forced to negotiate.
The negotiations took place largely in Vienna and in July 2015, the parties were able to reach agreement. The Agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), was indeed comprehensive, stopping Iran’s program in its tracks and rolling it back a little for the medium term. Parts of a long term agreement were also agreed. The Agreement was a major diplomatic breakthrough, creating a unique opportunity to also possibly work towards Iran-US détente after decades of animosity.
The UN Security Council approved the JCPOA in a vote of 15-0, with the U.S. voting in the affirmative. The U.S. Senate became involved because, under the JCPOA, the U.S. would have to meet its end of the bargain by eliminating sanctions related to Iran’s program. Although the Agreement was highly controversial in Congress, it was approved by the Senate in a divided vote. The Deputy Ambassadors of the other P-5+1 countries had told a group of 25 Democratic Senators (during the process leading to the vote) that if the U.S. does not join the JCPOA that there would be no chance of getting Iran back to the negotiating table in the future. To many, this was a one-time opportunity, with no possibility of reviving the P-5+1 negotiation coalition.
Three years later, President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran Agreement with no Plan B — an act deeply deleterious to U.S. national security leaving traditional U.S. allies in Europe alienated. Trump reinstated all Agreement-related sanctions that had been eliminated and added further sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IGRC), the Central Bank and certain entities controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader as well as steel and aluminum companies. Some of Trump’s additional sanctions looked as though they were aimed at curbing Iran’s behavior, others seem to be aimed at regime change.
The Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure on Iran not only failed to achieve stated policy goals of bringing Tehran back to the table for a new deal, it ultimately pushed the Iranians to abandon their own commitments under the JCPOA, increasing regional tensions and prospects for a hot conflict.
Reviving the JCPOA is rightly “a first order of business,” as Secretary of State Blinken has said, while also indicating that some sanctions should stay—and a “critical early priority” in the words of National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan.
Iran insists that some or all sanctions—beyond the nuclear sanctions—must be lifted before the Agreement can be revived. At a minimum, it appears that Iran will insist the sanctions on major industrial sectors—petroleum companies in particular—be eliminated.
Many times during the presidential campaign, President Biden stated it would be important to return at an early date to the JCPOA in the interest of the U.S. national security. Iran now says it will return to the 2016 rules if the sanctions are first lifted. Biden wants Iran to move first. Nearly all Republicans and perhaps some Democrats in the Senate may oppose lifting many of the sanctions.
Any lessening of the sanctions on the IGRC and the Central Bank could be politically highly problematic on the Hill. In June, there is a presidential election in Iran, which could bring in a hardline president opposed to the JCPOA. Pursuing a revival of the JCPOA would be politically difficult with the U.S. Congress and diplomatically challenging with Iran itself, not to mention if, as some have advocated, the negotiations should now also include other regional stakeholders. Returning to the JCPOA appears for the short term to be a heavy lift although it was and could be again an important multilateral agreement through which Iran’s nuclear program can be kept in check as well as constituting an important achievement in global efforts to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
With the JCPOA back in place, the U.S. and other architects of the deal might have the opportunity to engage in a new process of regional dialogue starting perhaps with easy things to get the countries comfortable working with each other, creating the possibility that should political conditions one day permit, negating a more comprehensive security treaty, covering most if not all issues creating conflict. An example of such a process is the Helsinki process which led to the ending of the Cold War. Helsinki began in 1975, then the Madrid meetings in 1979, with confidence building measures, and then more comprehensive confidence building measures pursuant to an agreement in 1985, followed by the mandate talks 1987-89, and finally in 1989-90, the decisive negotiations took place which were central to ending the Cold War. This of course was Europe in a bygone era which did not include anything like the emotional and religious conflicts of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. But there was the ACRS (Arms Control and Regional Security) talks in the Middle East in the early 1990s which, at least for a time, held open the possibility of area-wide arms control progress in the Middle East in the early 1990s. So it is far away now but not impossible.
Nevertheless, President Biden has now before him too many problems of great significance, some of them existential in nature, that are themselves enormously challenging. To name just a few—the pandemic, the economy, climate change, race relations and domestic terrorism. It is important in these times to keep priorities in balance. These problems must have first priority. Even if Biden were willing to move fast with the sanctions any change to those on the IGRC and the Central Bank, as said, could be highly difficult on the Hill. Other sanctions—or even just moving fast—could be problematic. The discussion with Iran might have to go sanction by sanction. The State Department officially says “Iran is a long way from returning to compliance and there are many steps in the process we will need to evaluate. Our first order of business will be consulting with Congress and our allies on the path forward.” Some problems are just too difficult to solve in the near future. And politics, including international politics, is the art of the possible.
After all, the Cold War and the thermonuclear confrontation lasted 45 years, interim measures, including arms control treaties, to reduce the risk summed up by the word containment were adopted and eventually it ended, mostly peaceably, largely through the vehicle of the Helsinki process.
There is no chance that North Korea will give up nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future, interim containment policies should be adopted, and the Israeli-Palestine issue has threatened world peace since 1948 and no solution is yet in sight.
Iran may be one of those problems that has to be solved step by step over many years. The five deputy ambassadors from the other P-5+1 countries told us in 2016 that with the JCPOA, we would have just this one chance which will not come again may have been correct. The chance could come again but perhaps not soon.
Pursuing a revival of the JCPOA at this time may be beyond our grasp. The road ahead is long and arduous but with courage, vision and patience, the U.S. can not only resuscitate an important multilateral mechanism for addressing Iran’s nuclear program but also lead by engaging Iran and the wider region in a separate process of regional security dialogue where other legitimate regional security issues and concerns of all stakeholders can be put on the table and discussed in a manageable and sequenced manner. But the waters with Iran should be tested slowly and carefully, which includes continuing consultations with all interested parties. The best policy at this juncture might well be to cautiously seek provisional measures to lessen the risk and wait for the right time. Such measures might include limited regional security arrangements, economic cooperation and trade. Possibly sanctions could be gradually lessened over time and Iran could agree to observe parts of the JCPOA informally. It might be possible to achieve an improved working relationship with Iran during an interim process leading to fuller engagement.
As the poet said, “All things come to those who wait.” The most important caveat in all this is not taking our eyes off the central objective—improving strategic ability and international security.
China and the US in the Biden Era: Opportunities for stabilizing the Middle East
Trump’s unilateralism and his transactional approach to foreign affairs have alienated America’s allies and damaged US’ role in regional security. Biden’s only way forward is to restore America’s political credibility and win back its friends. Rejoining the Paris accord signals to the international community that America is reclaiming its leadership on global challenges and most importantly seeking to repair the transatlantic relationship.
During Trump’s presidency, the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, and its one-sided and unbridled support for allies in the region only exacerbated regional tensions and undermined the prospects for peace to the Middle East.
By contrast, Biden has pledged to revive the agreement, suggesting JCPOA is the most diplomatic and effective solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. Once the US resumes its negotiation with Iran, the EU could normalize its relationship with Iran in terms of trade and diplomacy. Thus, Biden will not only fulfill his commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, but also win back the EU’s trust. Furthermore, returning to the deal also reflects Biden’s willingness to use the United Nations framework as a multilateral platform to address security issues such as nuclear proliferation.
Arms control is also prioritized in Biden’s regional security agenda. Biden has a markedly different approach to arms control compared to Trump’s. First, Biden’s campaign prior to the election undertook to extend the New START treaty, which paved a positive path for the US and Russia to continue nuclear disarmament in the future. Additionally, his agenda also indicates the New START Treaty will be the basis of negotiation for arms control treaties in the future. This reflects the Democrats’ institutional approach to national security issues, and the Biden administration may place greater emphasis on bilateral and even multilateral nuclear talks in the future.
The challenges the Biden administration currently faces will require help from allies. During the past four years, Trump has created problems abroad. His multiple threats to withdraw from international treaties and organizations has caused the US to be discredited, not just in the international arms control system, but also inhibiting its ability to use treaties to bind adversaries and pursue American interests. This will take a long time to fix.
Favoured by domestic arms control advocates, Biden’s administration consists of multiple experts and negotiators in this field. It can be expected that the Biden team is more inclined to approach arms control and regional security policy in a more sophisticated, multilateral way than that of the previous administration.
In this context, whilst the contours of China-US relations are yet to be fully defined under the Biden administration, cooperation between Beijing and Washington is possible if both sides look to find common ground where interests converge and to collaborate to meet policy objectives.
China, as the world’s largest oil and gas consumer, has an increased stake in the Middle East [consider for instance, yesterday’s signing of a 25-year cooperation agreement between Iran and China] at a time security risks in the region are escalating and the US’ diminished role in the Middle East. Stabilising the Middle East through a foreign policy agenda that aims to de-escalate regional tensions is one area where both countries, as permanent members of the UN Security Council no less, may be able to cooperate.
Beijing supports the preservation of the JCPOA, and an inclusive vision of regional security in the Middle East. In October last year, in remarks delivered before the UN Security Council, Mr Wang Yi, State Councilor and Minister for Foreign Affairs of China, called for dialogue between all Persian Gulf states with the support of all the signatories of the JCPOA, and pledged China’s commitment to work with regional states to build an “oasis of security” in the Persian Gulf region.
As the US grapples with how and when to re-enter the JCPOA and equally, how to respond to broader regional security concerns, there is a real opportunity for the US, China and other signatories of the JCPOA to first ensure the agreement survives, and then work collaboratively to support all Persian Gulf states to enter into a broader regional security dialogue to build a more secure and prosperous common future. This would be a win-win for all actors involved.
A more integrated Middle East at peace with itself is necessary and possible
In 1945, I was honorably discharged as a sergeant of infantry in the US army and awarded five battle stars for having survived the five major battles of WW2. As a former WW2 veteran, and chief prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen trial at Nuremberg, I speak as a witness to history and with some authority about the horrors of war.
The lessons that these experiences hold today must be viewed from the vantage point of what things looked like back then, what has remained since, and where we as humanity currently stand.
In the 21st century, the mother of all crimes, illegal wars, and the commission of atrocities during conflict should have no place in our ethos and civilized practice, and yet humanity has not yet been able to free itself from such abominable acts that cause untold suffering and misery.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year is just the latest example. Just last week, marked the 20th anniversary of yet another illegal invasion, the US military intervention in Iraq in 2003. That infamous march to folly resulted in some 200,000 violent civilian deaths alone, imploded Iraq, making the ground fertile for the rise of Daesh. The rest is perhaps forgotten history but not to the millions of Iraqis whose lives were and remain deeply affected by the ripple effects of that grave error to invade, break the peace, and violate the sovereignty of another UN member state in clear breach of the UN Charter.
I am now over a century old. I have dedicated my entire life to the prevention of war through the power of law and the peaceful settlement of disputes among nations. As an eyewitness to WW2 – the most destructive war humanity has experienced in the past century – I know what war means, not as an abstract concept but in real terms.
I have also seen how from the ashes of devastation and atrocities in that cataclysmic war, hope for a brighter collective future was born in Europe in the form of the European Union.
Post-WW2 Europe was shaken into realizing that zero-sum power competition in the Old Continent was not sustainable, created systematic regional instability, resulting in too many hot wars, and indeed, two World Wars just two decades apart. In short, something had to be done to ensure sustainable security, predictability and to prevent going down the same path of destruction of the past. A return to status quo ante was not option if European nations were to survive and thrive individually and in the collective.
The Middle East, too, must come to that realization. In the last century alone, the region has lost immeasurably in both blood and national treasure as a direct result of countless conflicts, from the Israel-Palestine conflict to the outbreak of war in Libya, Syria, Yemen, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and the list goes on.
War is collective failure; it is a poor substitute for diplomatic engagement, human ingenuity and indeed courage to resolve disputes without resorting to war as politics by other means.
What’s more, with rapidly evolving military and technological advances, we now have the capacity to kill huge numbers with incredible efficiency. An ever-intensifying arms race and threat of nuclear proliferation is not a relic of the Cold War, but very much a live issue, including in the Middle East.
If we do not develop some effective controls to prevent war and conflict, how will we secure the success and prosperity of our children and future generations?
If the most fundamental drive of human nature is self-preservation, then war and a constant state of fear of the other cannot be the wisest options on the table. There are better alternatives.
I therefore fully support the strategic vision articulated and advanced by 21CQ for some time now that the Middle East needs to work towards establishing a new regional security architecture, an organizing regional framework capable of pre-empting escalation or accidental crisis resulting in all-out war with open channels of communication for dialogue and hot lines to avert a major conflagration – a new regional order founded on the fundamental tenets of the UN Charter, where regional states commit to take effective measures to prevent and remove threats to peace and security, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and a bona fide commitment to respecting the territorial integrity and political independence of their neighbors.
Indeed, anything that expands the scope of people who are interested in having a peaceful co-existence is good. Anything that consolidates our feeling of identification with the idea of one human family is fundamentally good.
That is a necessary goal to which all regional states ought to aspire.
The Abbasid City of Peace and Learning, the Baghdad of the Islamic Golden age, was not built in a day. The region can indeed achieve greater cohesion, cooperation and embrace a vision of a shared future. That is a must if the region and its people are to achieve common security, prosperity, and collective success as a regional block in an ever-competitive multipolar world.
To realize that necessary objective, in the short-term, every opportunity for dialogue should be seized to de-escalate tensions; explore trust-building measures and step by step work towards greater regional cohesion.
What role for global powers in this necessary regional pivot towards greater integration and inter-dependence? First, do no harm. Be an honest broker and bring the parties together to resolve their differences, make amends, build trust and in time, regional peace. Alliances that pit regional countries against one another and shift the balance of stability towards greater division and chances of conflict is part of the problem, not the solution. In this context, the recently brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran should be built upon to expand regional dialogue.
A more stable and prosperous Middle East at peace with itself, secured through greater regional dialogue and, in time, a new inclusive security architecture is not only possible but necessary for the region’s collective success and the stability of the international system.