Since the end of World War II, there have been several attempts that ultimately failed to establish a regional security framework in the Middle East. These attempts have historically fallen short, undermined by distrust, power politics and conflict. Today, a new window of opportunity may be emerging to establish a stable, broadly accepted mechanism for de-escalating conflicts, setting norms and building confidence and cooperation between states in the region. World powers should consider the ongoing Vienna talks — aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration withdrew from — the first step in this direction. 

Leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and former UK Prime Minister Theresa May at a 2016 GCC summit in Bahrain. (Tom Evans/Crown Copyright)
Leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and former UK Prime Minister Theresa May at a 2016 GCC summit in Bahrain. (Tom Evans/Crown Copyright)

From Vienna Toward a Regional Security Framework?

The path to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) started through a platform established by the Europeans in June 2003, when a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Iran failed to meet its obligations under the safeguards agreement. To avoid referring the situation to the Security Council, Iran entered into negotiations with France, Germany and the United Kingdom. That platform was eventually expanded to the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany (known as the P5+1), which ultimately was successful in negotiating the JCPOA in 2015. However, the Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018, in a bid to pressure Tehran into renegotiating with more concessions.

Fast forward to spring 2021, and some progress has been achieved in the negotiations between the United States and Iran over Washington’s return to the deal. The Biden administration’s policy has been that “if Iran comes back into strict compliance with its commitments ... the United States will do the same.” However, the administration has also indicated that it intends to address "Iran's destabilizing regional behavior and ballistic missile development and proliferation" — a goal Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has vehemently dismissed, calling these issues, “non-negotiable” in these talks. Further, many U.S. partners in the region such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Israel remain skeptical of Iran and the nuclear deal and have expressed their desire to have a voice in the JCPOA negotiations, which Iran has roundly rejected.

Convincing Iran to abandon the status quo ante in favor of a “JCPOA plus” seems a near impossibility. But while the current negotiations are very unlikely to achieve any significant expansion from the original deal, addressing concerns over the deal’s limitations — through efforts to negotiate a prolonged sunset clause or opening the door for further negotiations on regional security — can be achieved in the future, based on the concept of “more for more.” To do so, the United States would first need to return to the JCPOA and lift relevant sanctions. Then, Washington would be able to place additional U.S. sanctions on the table as incentives for further Iranian concessions. It is this juncture that would represent an opening to build a new regional security framework.

As the current negotiations aimed at getting the JCPOA back on track do not consider Iran's destabilizing regional behavior and ballistic missiles in any detail, now is the time to establish a new platform to consider regional security in the Middle East. If an initiative — particularly one driven by regional players — is proposed for such a platform, the P5+1 can advocate for it in the context of the current negotiations.

For such a platform to have weight, it would need to be a joint Egyptian-Saudi initiative. Ideally, other regional actors would also sponsor the effort. The objective of the initiative should be to establish a platform to begin a process toward the establishment of a regional security framework for the Middle East. It should not take on the daunting task of resolving the region’s many protracted conflicts, although it can provide space for de-escalation in these conflicts and more. Rather, this platform should seek to initiate a badly needed dialogue over the principles to govern regional relations; to agree on confidence-building measures and on confronting common challenges (the Islamic State group and al-Qaida, for example); and to consider potential cooperation in areas of mutual interest, whether they are trade, investment, environmental, tourism, maritime or otherwise. Ultimately, achieving stability cannot be limited to security concerns.

Obstacles to a Regional Security Framework

Building a regional security framework in the Middle East is easier said than done. The challenges are immense.

First, many important players lack the trust required to come to the table to agree on a regional security framework. Many states will doubt such a process can succeed or that Iran can engage in good faith. Some are inclined to pursue a path of conflict management, perhaps learning from Israel how to thrive amid instability. Iran, for its part, has no incentive to resolve or to significantly de-escalate any conflict in which it is involved until the United States returns to the JCPOA and the associated sanctions are lifted.

Second, agreeing on the scope and agenda will not be easy. The goals of a regional security framework would need to be broad but manageable — a balance that is difficult to achieve as states are currently adopting maximalist positions. Furthermore, the region is in a dysfunctional state, with deep rivalries, enmity and, in many cases, a lack of willingness to simply have a dialogue. There are, of course, major tensions among adversaries, but more troubling are the tensions among ostensible allies. And while Iran’s destabilizing policies are crucially important, they are not the only major challenge to regional stability. Thus, the agenda has to be discussed primarily among the countries of the region, in a manner that is tailored to their needs and addresses their concerns.

Third, the participation of some countries will be controversial. For many states, particularly Iran, Israel’s participation will be problematic. The participation of Turkey, a NATO member, is important but may face objections due to poor relations with several key countries in the region. However, solutions can be found through parallel tracks, or through a phased approach. It is also clear that the region cannot achieve this objective without international support and involvement. This is why the presence of the P5+1 will be instrumental. The United Nations, the European Union and other institutions like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe can also play an important role in this endeavor.

Causes for Optimism

Despite the challenges, the picture is not completely bleak, and a number of developments are cause for optimism. A Saudi high official recently suggested that talks to revive the JCPOA should be a first step toward broader progress, stating, "We can begin by a nuclear deal and move on to another format [in which we] will discuss all these [regional security] issues in a positive manner." More importantly — and in a dramatic change of its previous position — Saudi Arabia accepted a role for Iraq and Pakistan in conveying messages to Iran and even playing a mediating role between the Kingdom and the Islamic Republic. Despite official Saudi denial and Iran saying that the information was inaccurate without giving any additional details, it was reported that senior Saudi and Iranian officials met in Baghdad to discuss repairing their relations. These efforts have not yet yielded concrete results, but they reflect Saudi readiness to take steps to address regional security issues in a new spirit.

Iran has been seeking a dialogue with the countries of the region, which — distrustful of Iran — have been reluctant to engage. The unwillingness to engage seems to be evolving. The same report indicated that Iraq facilitated Iranian communication with both Egypt and Jordan. It is worth mentioning that the concept of having the Middle East as an area free from nuclear weapons was first championed by Iran and Egypt in 1974. Iran also presented a proposal during the U.N. General Assembly in 2019 for security in the region entitled the “Hormuz Peace Endeavor” outlining a roadmap for security in the region. The peace treaty between Israel and Jordan also indicates in article 4 that both sides recognize the achievements of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and commit themselves to the creation of a similar body in the Middle East. Furthermore, we are witnessing slow but steady improvements in the relations with Qatar after Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain agreed to set their differences with Qatar aside in the Gulf al-Ula Summit. Active involvement by the P5+1 can play an important role in the process since it should act as the guarantor in such a mechanism.

Russia and China can be expected to expand their regional presence as the United States reduces its footprint in the Middle East. In the years ahead, Russia is expected to play a more active role in the political and security field, while China continues its expansion on the economic and business side. Still, Russia will endeavor to translate its role into economic benefits in future reconstruction efforts and China will need to get involved in the political and security spheres to protect its growing economic interests. Russia and China have expressed interest in deeper involvement in regional affairs by presenting their own regional security initiatives. The Russian initiative offers concrete, detailed suggestions focusing on the Gulf as a step toward greater Middle East stability, while the Chinese initiative deals with the Middle East in more general terms.

For its part, the United States should encourage more active engagement from the region. Before assuming his position, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, in a joint article with Daniel Benaim, argued that the United States should “push for the establishment of a structured regional dialogue — with support from other members of the United Nations Security Council — that explores ways to reduce tensions, create pathways to de-escalation, and manage mistrust.” The article further argued that the United States “has repeatedly tried using military means to produce unachievable outcomes in the Middle East. Now it’s time to try using aggressive diplomacy to produce more sustainable results.” This is exactly what is needed from the United States today.

There are many lessons to be learned from previous attempts such as the 1950 Arab League Treaty of Joint Defense and Economic Cooperation to the 2017 Middle East Strategic Alliance championed by the United States, with numerous efforts in between, including the Arms Control and Regional Security Working Group that grew from the Madrid multilateral peace process. However, a platform that is acceptable by all is a prerequisite to any further development.

Developing a regional security system will require years (if not decades) of hard work. There are no guarantees that this process will succeed, but the region — and in particular Egypt and Saudi Arabia — need to be on the initiating, and not on the receiving, side. The time has come for concerted effort to advance stability in this explosive part of the world.

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