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Gulf Tensions Could Trigger a Conflict Nobody Wants
Gulf Tensions Could Trigger a Conflict Nobody Wants
The Security Council Chamber in New York, October 2018. UN PHOTO/Manuel Elias

Gulf Tensions Could Trigger a Conflict Nobody Wants

Crisis Group’s President & CEO Robert Malley on 20 October 2020 addressed the UN Security Council on the danger of conflict in the Gulf and across the Middle East. An inclusive regional security dialogue may be unlikely, he said, but it would be irresponsible not to try.

Mr. President, Secretary-General, distinguished delegates.

Crisis Group is an organisation dedicated to the prevention and resolution of deadly conflicts. Of late, we have been active in warning against risks of confrontation in the Gulf region and proposing practical ideas grounded in diplomatic engagement to avert them. We believe in the necessity of talking and listening to all sides and so warmly welcome the Russian Federation’s timely initiative in organising this open debate.

Let me start with a statement that should be as alarming as it should be uncontentious: The region-wide conflict that now looms largest across the globe is a conflict nobody apparently wants – a conflict triggered by tensions in the Gulf region. Conditions for a war that would affect not just the Gulf but the broader Middle East are arguably riper than at any time in recent memory and could break out in any of a number of places – in the strait of Hormuz, Iraq, or Yemen. It is far from inevitable; none of the parties wants it, and so far, all have for the most part shown the ability to calibrate their actions to avoid an escalation. But even finely tuned actions can have unintentional repercussions. Several times over the last two years – most notably the attacks on the Saudi Aramco facilities and the killing of General Soleimani – a regional conflict has seemed possible.

The region-wide conflict that now looms largest across the globe is a conflict nobody apparently wants.

On each occasion, the parties stepped back. Since those days of maximum threat, tensions have somewhat subsided. But we cannot be confident that all sides will always demonstrate such restraint. A single attack by rocket, drone or limpet mine could set off a military escalation between the U.S. and Iran and their respective regional allies and proxies that could prove impossible to contain.

A second statement that should not be contentious: This situation serves no party’s interests. Not those of GCC countries such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the UAE, who have seen commercial vessels and their territory targeted by attacks they and others strongly suspect originated from Iran. Not those of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has found itself the victim of a ferocious pressure campaign that has inflicted clear harm to its economy and its citizens’ well-being, and which cost them one of their most important leaders due to a U.S. strike. Not those of the United States, none of whose stated objectives in violating the JCPOA has been fulfilled and whose personnel in Iraq are now under threat. Not those of third parties who wish for a stable Gulf region for strategic or economic reasons. And, perhaps most importantly, not the interests of the region’s citizens – Yemenis and Libyans, who have suffered most directly from intra-Gulf tensions, but also people across the Middle East – whose aspirations for decent and peaceful lives have been stymied by rivalries and lack of cooperation among their governments. 

The first question I wish to address in my remarks today is why this is the case. The second, what might be done about it. I suspect that all sides will take issue with parts of what I have to say, which I will take as having fulfilled my purpose.

Many reasons lie behind the intense polarisation that has infected the Gulf region and explain why its many rifts – between the U.S. and Iran, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as among GCC states – intersect in dangerous and potentially explosive ways. I will focus on one: the highly divergent perspectives on the sources of tensions, depending on whether you are sitting in Washington, Tehran, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Doha or elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia and its allies view in Iran’s policies – in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Yemen – the ambitions of a would-be hegemon; they see the Islamic Republic as a growing threat whose regional aspirations need curbing lest it encircle them with its partners and proxies. Tehran for its part sees a region dominated by U.S.-backed powers with superior military capabilities intent on isolating and weakening it; it also views Saudi Arabia and the UAE as being in collusion with the United States to economically coerce and ultimately replace its leadership. With a worldview formed in the traumatising crucible of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, and faced with more heavily armed adversaries, Iranian leaders subscribe to the country’s strategic doctrine, which is based on its asymmetric military capabilities and support for regional allies, including armed non-state actors. 

Making matters worse has been the absence of any institutional mechanism to air the parties’ grievances.

Making matters worse has been the absence of any institutional mechanism to air the parties’ grievances, and at least try to narrow gaps. Indeed, there is at present no meaningful channel between the U.S. and Iran, no official one between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and little real diplomacy beyond rhetorical jousting between rival GCC countries. Nor is there a single regional organisation that embraces all Gulf actors that could serve as a framework for confidence-building and de-escalation measures.

Whatever organisations exist tend to fuel tensions. And whatever the parties do tends to reinforce their foes’ pre-existing perceptions. What Tehran presents as defensive policies designed to lessen the threats it faces, Riyadh and others perceive as acts of aggression. They inevitably prompt pushback by Iran’s foes and, to that extent, the Islamic Republic’s current approach is a formula for enduring regional instability. But by the same token, efforts by Washington, Riyadh and others that focus exclusively on aggressively pushing back against Iran are likely to prompt the country’s leadership to double down on its current approach. In particular, the “maximum pressure” campaign undertaken by the U.S. with the support and encouragement of most of its Gulf partners coupled with the abundant supply of conventional weapons by Western governments to those Gulf states inevitably leads Iran to intensify use of its own asymmetric tools.

So, what is to be done? 

Crisis Group is a firm believer in the power of diplomacy, and we see some examples of successful attempts at regional de-escalation. 

One such precedent was the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA. I participated in those negotiations and so, admittedly, am biased. I am convinced that the deal helped reduce tensions and could have paved the way for more intensive and broader diplomacy; for that reason, my organisation has regretted the U.S. decision to withdraw and applauded European efforts to keep the JCPOA alive. But I am well aware that views among those assembled today vary, and I am not here to relitigate that question.

The [JCPOA] negotiations succeeded not due to mutual trust, but because they were multilateral.

The point is, whether one supports the JCPOA or not, it offers a few lessons. The negotiations succeeded not due to mutual trust, but because they were multilateral, because they combined mutual pressure with realistic goals, and because the various sides recognised each other’s core interests. 

It is with these considerations in mind that Crisis Group published a report last April entitled The Middle East between Collective Security and Collective Breakdown, outlining steps that should be taken to reduce risks of war. Its core premise will be familiar to many of you: that the Gulf region needs to initiate a collective and inclusive security dialogue encompassing the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran and Iraq, and aiming at diminishing tensions.

Governments in the Gulf that are least involved in hostilities but could be most harmed if fighting erupts – I am thinking of Kuwait and Oman – could jointly seek to bring their more powerful and more directly involved neighbours – Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – into such an informal mechanism.

European and other relevant governments could facilitate the process, helping pass some messages in the initial phase of contact, and offering technical advice and quiet encouragement as the process develops. The first objective would simply be to open communication channels.

The UN too could play an important role. UN Security Council Resolution 598 (1987), which ended the Iran-Iraq war, provides a mandate for the Secretary-General to convene a regional security dialogue to lay the ground for a security architecture tolerable to all sides. As we just heard from the Secretary-General, he is prepared to do so. At a minimum, the Security Council ought to encourage and endorse a Gulf-led process if it begins to take hold.

Discussions within a Gulf security mechanism, inspired by the Helsinki process, could start by trying to reach agreement on shared principles governing inter-state relations, such as non-interference (directly or via local proxy) and respect for each state’s territorial integrity, and try to identify each side’s motivations, core concerns and threat perceptions. They could then evolve toward concrete confidence-building measures. 

Initially, these could include modest steps: reducing inflammatory rhetoric; issuing unilateral statements in support of dialogue and joint statements outlining shared principles and interests; or opening direct communication channels, such as a de-confliction hotline among Gulf states and with outside actors whose military assets are deployed in the Gulf. 

The various sides could also address matters of shared concern, such as cross-border adverse effects of climate change, deteriorating water quality, disaster preparedness, the spread of COVID-19, maritime security and religious tourism and pilgrimages. The UN, through its multitude of technical agencies, could support these initiatives. 

If and when initial discussions start to yield results, they could be scaled up to focus on ways to de-escalate tensions through shared security mechanisms such as prior notification of troop movements and military exercises or allowing adversaries to send military experts to observe such manoeuvres. 

Eventually, Gulf parties could explore ways of fostering a durable cooperative regional security framework that includes all main stakeholders.

There is much more that could and should be done, notably taking steps to resolve the myriad conflicts, from Syria to Libya to Yemen, that have been fuelled both by tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and by those involving the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, which have caused unspeakable human suffering and remain potential flashpoints for a broader conflagration.

The main threat the region faces today is not so much a war of choice but an inadvertent one that results from miscalculation, misinterpretation or lack of timely communication.

The bottom line is this: the main threat the region faces today is not so much a war of choice but an inadvertent one that results from miscalculation, misinterpretation or lack of timely communication. Key actors in the Gulf have refined the game of brinkmanship to the point of playing it right up to the edge. The result has been the fraying of the thread dividing war from no war. To generate political will to act, the worst of times may offer the best opportunity, and conditions in the Gulf arguably have reached that point.

An inclusive, collective regional security dialogue aimed at lessening tensions may have only a small chance of materialising, and an even smaller chance of success. But under current circumstances it would be irresponsible not to give it a try.

I want to take this opportunity to make one final point. We strive to be an impartial conflict resolution organisation, and I hope you discerned that in the ideas I put forward today. That’s what our staff do – they try to understand all parties’ perspectives, reflect them as best they can, and propose pragmatic solutions. That’s what our colleague Michael Kovrig was doing in his work on China’s foreign policy. This is neither the time nor place to discuss his case. But I cannot conclude without appealing to the Chinese authorities, if they are listening, to understand the mission he was pursuing, end his now almost two-year detention, allow him at long last to be reunited with his loved ones and continue his work toward a more peaceful world.

Thank you.

Robert Malley addressing the UN Security Council on the danger of conflict in the Gulf and across the Middle East, 20 October 2020.