Yesterday the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany were joined by those of Egypt, Jordan and the GCC states to discuss next steps on Iran and Gulf security.
The surprise meeting comes at a moment of fluidity and uncertainty on international policy towards Iran. European diplomats are concerned that the stated willingness of Barack Obama to start a direct and unconditional dialogue with Iran could undermine their own UN-based diplomatic efforts to get Iran to first suspend its uranium enrichment activities and then engage in a comprehensive dialogue. And Arab states, who don’t have (and may not even want) a seat at the negotiating table, are worried that a rapprochement between the US and Iran may come at the expense of their own political and strategic interests unless they take a more proactive role.
These concerns were clearly laid out during last week’s IISS Manama Dialogue, a gathering of senior officials involved in Gulf affairs. There, US Defence Secretary Bob Gates walked a fine line: he warned that an Obama administration would not get soft on Iran (a message meant to reassure his Arab listeners) but reiterated a preference for dialogue. Tellingly, the Iranian officials slated to attend failed to show up, a sign that there is no consensus yet in Tehran about how to deal with such overtures.
Another way to improve regional security is to build a regional architecture that would essentially do three things: stabilise Iraq, tame Iran and moderate the US. Ideas about how to do that abound, but not all are necessarily sound.
Gates proposed that Iraq join the Gulf Cooperation Council, a move that would wreck the only functioning regional organisation in the Middle East. He also defined the contours of an alliance to contain Iran, a sort of Middle Eastern Nato whose foundation would be the current political-military relations between GCC states and the US. But Western-engineered formal alliances in the Middle East are notoriously weak and have a tendency to collapse, taking down with them a government or two, as happened with the ill-fated Cento that ended monarchical rule in Iraq in 1958. And then there is an idea floated by Hillary Clinton during the US Democratic primary: to deter Iran and prevent a regional nuclear arms race, the US would extend a formal nuclear umbrella to its regional allies. The value of this proposal is dubious: it is politically toxic, it does not add anything to the existing US commitment to defend its allies, and it paradoxically legitimises Iran’s rationale for pursuing a nuclear capability.
Iran puts forward a simpler idea, probably because it has not yet put enough thinking into what it really wants and can get: an unconditional withdrawal of all foreign forces from the Gulf region, which, in Iranian minds, would clear the way for Iranian hegemony in the region. And if it cannot have that, then it could accept an arrangement with the great powers that acknowledges its regional role and reach. But Tehran never hints of substantive arrangements with those most concerned by its ambitions, its immediate Arab neighbours. And this very unwillingness to discuss the core tensions related to Iranian behaviour is what riles the Arab states the most.
The Gulf states have another approach. They neither can afford confrontation, nor do they want it. But they certainly can’t remain idle as Iran gets closer to nuclear status, and yesterday’s meeting was an occasion to press that message.
For too long, these countries have been unable to adopt and promote a regional structure that suits their security needs. The enemy (whether Nasserism, Baathism or Khomeinism) was too strong and too elusive to counter without alliances in the West, a strategy that served them well until recently. And despite all the current talk of an imminent American eclipse, the GCC countries need similarly strong relations with the US in particular for a host of strategic and economic reasons.
That said, there is policy innovation coming from the Gulf states primarily due to a sense that US competence or intentions cannot be fully trusted. The first leg of that more assertive approach is sustained outreach to other partners in the West and Asia. Every possible ally is courted and given a stake in the region’s security, hence the French decision to open a base in the UAE and the interest of several Gulf states in acquiring missile defence technology from the US.
Another facet of this strategy is greater diplomatic creativity. Ideas are forming here about how the region’s politics should be organised. At the Manama meeting, the Bahraini foreign minister was as bold as it gets. He proposed the establishment of a regional security organisation inclusive of all countries in the Middle East, a clear reference to Israel and Iran. This organisation would be the basis of a collective security architecture that would guarantee national sovereignty and regional stability. This idea is in its infancy and needs to be endorsed by Arab heavyweights but nevertheless shows some far-reaching thinking. And the Gulf states can find inspiration in successful models abroad, notably the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
An overlapping proposal endorsed by GCC states is to initially focus on establishing a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Gulf rather than condition from the outset any progress on Israel dismantling its nuclear arsenal. Such an arrangement would require Iran to comply with strict safeguards on its nuclear programme and to enrich uranium at a facility outside the region. In exchange, GCC states would provide Iran full guarantees that they would not develop nuclear programmes. A bold move in this regard is the UAE’s unilateral offer to relinquish its right to enrich uranium. And once the Gulf becomes a nuclear weapons free zone, the thinking goes, it will be easier to pressure Israel to denuclearise.
There is evidently no lack of ideas when it comes to a regional architecture. What still lacks though is policy coherence and momentum. Ultimately, the Gulf states understand well that relations between Iran and the US can drive their future either way, but they are proving more adept at shaping their future. They need to be listened to.