Turning Engagement Into a Regional Dialogue Mechanism in the Middle East
Turning Engagement Into a Regional Dialogue Mechanism in the Middle East
A New Arab Revival: Not to Be – For Now
A New Arab Revival: Not to Be – For Now

Turning Engagement Into a Regional Dialogue Mechanism in the Middle East

Originally published in World Politics Review 

Dialogue seems to be in vogue in today’s Middle East. Iranian and American negotiators are in Vienna to find a way to restore the 2015 nuclear deal that President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. Iranian and Saudi security officials recently held meetings in Baghdad to mend their relations. and United Nations-led efforts to deescalate and end the war in Yemen are picking up steam. While these processes remain fragile, they present an important opportunity to establish a broader regional dialogue that aims to lessen tensions by opening new channels of communication, the time for which is ripe.

Part of the backdrop to these conciliatory efforts is the failure of former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, the cornerstone of his attempt to extract better terms from Iran on the nuclear front and reduce its regional influence. This campaign saw the reimposition of wide-ranging sanctions on Iran beginning in 2018, along with an increase in bellicose rhetoric and military posturing from the United States and its allies. The policy flopped: Iran did not return to the negotiating table; its nuclear and missile programs grew exponentially; and it became more aggressive in the region and more repressive at home.

The Gulf Arab states, which threw their full support behind “maximum pressure,” paid a hefty price for its failure. If Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were hoping that the approach would clip Iran’s nuclear wings and constrain its power-projection across the Middle East, it instead emboldened Iran to target their economic interests at a time when both countries crave stability—the UAE, as it looks to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its unification and host the World Expo; and Saudi Arabia, as it deals with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with long-declining government revenues. The Gulf states’ allegations of Iranian influence in Yemen have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasingly pushing the Houthi rebels into Iran’s arms and prompting them to strike directly at Saudi Arabia.

This backlash occurred just as doubts about Washington’s reliability as a security guarantor reached new heights. The Gulf states believe that the U.S. is withdrawing from the region, a fear that President Joe Biden’s policies and rhetoric have done little to assuage. Rather, much like his former boss, Barack Obama, Biden has made clear his desire to end the Yemen war and resolve the Iranian nuclear file in part so as to focus on relations with other great powers, including what he recently called the “long-term strategic competition with China.”

For its part, though Iran did not knuckle under to “maximum pressure,” it continues to pay a ruinous economic cost as a result of U.S. sanctions, coming on top of its own economic mismanagement. It watched as U.S. and European military forces deployed to the Gulf region in increased numbers and certain Gulf countries normalized ties with its arch-rival Israel, sharpening Tehran’s sense of encirclement by the U.S. and its allies.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 ripped through the region, serving as a reminder to both sides of the Persian Gulf that geography means shared destiny. Notably, some of Iran’s Gulf Arab rivals helped it battle the virus early in the pandemic.

Clearly, the animosity between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors is a lose-lose proposition. This realization—combined first with the understanding that a pandemic knows no borders and then the arrival of the Biden administration—has created an urgent and apparently mutual desire to deescalate tensions and engage diplomatically. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which traditionally opposed dialogue with Iran unless it unilaterally pulled out of what they see as strictly Arab affairs, have dropped that precondition. All of this opens a window of opportunity to start an inclusive regional dialogue—one that is not contingent on progress on the nuclear front.

Dialogue in the region should build on recent deescalation and aid efforts, and on the changing calculus following Biden’s inauguration. There is no silver bullet for resolving the decades of mistrust, tension and conflict in the Gulf. To be most effective, conflict prevention and resolution should take the form of multiple parallel tracks, where progress can be made at different paces and independently of the others, but leading to the same, still distant, objective: an inclusive regional security arrangement in which all states—regardless of size, military prowess, alliances and political structure—can feel secure and prosper.

None of the regional tensions will be resolved easily, but the opening of new communication channels can, at a minimum, help prevent incidents from spinning out of control.

To begin with, though, goals should be limited.

The best way to jump-start the process is for a core group of European countries, with U.N. and European Union support, to dispatch special envoys to the region for discreet engagement with the so-called 6+2 countries—the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus Iran and Iraq—and other stakeholders, including external actors like the U.S., Russia and China. The U.N. and EU envoys would explore the possibilities for dialogue and assess the obstacles to progress in order to lay the groundwork for a regional dialogue. Securing the Biden administration’s blessing in some form would be key to their success.

Then would come confidence-building. The first step would be for all sides to cease their hostile rhetoric and propaganda in their respective state media outlets, ending the insults and mutual demonization that have long hampered friendlier ties. Both sides should also facilitate religious pilgrimage. Saudi Arabia already took steps to ease the participation of Iranian pilgrims in the annual hajj. In return, Tehran could reestablish direct flights from Saudi Arabia to the holy city of Mashhad, in northeastern Iran, to enable Gulf states’ pilgrims to visit the shrines there.

Both sides should also agree to end their support for the other’s dissidents, based on the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. Eventually, Iran and Saudi Arabia should reestablish full diplomatic relations, and the UAE should send its ambassador and diplomats back to Tehran, restoring the full diplomatic ties that were downgraded in 2016.

The European-led, region-owned dialogue should then work toward an agreement on a statement of principles. These could include commitments to refrain from the use or threat of force toward one another; reaffirmations of mutual respect for independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all the countries concerned; and pledges of non-interference in one another’s internal affairs.

The dialogue should also discuss the establishment of a military-to-military deconfliction mechanism between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors. The adversaries’ current inability to communicate instantly during military incidents opens the door to miscalculation and, as a result, escalation, something that has been avoided so far, in large part by luck. A hotline for urgent communication between navies and an ad hoc crisis cell—composed of the principal actors’ representatives and a U.N. observer, based in a relatively neutral state, like Oman or Kuwait—could help defuse tensions before they escalate. Down the line, discussions could focus on ways to deescalate through shared security mechanisms, such as prior notification of troop movements and military exercises.

At the same time, the dialogue should discuss ways to expand people-to-people ties and cooperation on non-security issues of common interest. These could include public health, educational exchange, contacts among women entrepreneurs, environmental conservation and counternarcotics. Such confidence-building measures will help cement the dialogue.

None of the regional tensions will be resolved easily. Efforts to end Yemen’s war and manage regional competition in places like Iraq and Lebanon should continue alongside the dialogue; progress in Gulf talks might help move such efforts along. Still, the recent transition of power in Washington offers a fresh opportunity to reduce risk and begin to calm things down. Dialogue and the opening of new communication channels can, at a minimum, help prevent incidents from spinning out of control. The moment has come to get the ball rolling.

Contributors

Senior Advisor, Middle East and North Africa
desfandiary
Senior Adviser to the President & Project Director, Iran
AliVaez

A New Arab Revival: Not to Be – For Now

Ten years later, where have the 2011 uprisings left the Arab world?

Standing in a Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi, Sanaa or Manama square in early 2011, one could be forgiven for believing that these joyful, family-friendly mass gatherings were an augury of dramatic peaceful change in a region that badly needed it, yet had very rarely seen it. That was a time before the reigning autocrats turned their guns on the protesters; before Russia and Arab counter-revolutionary forces rushed in to uphold a senescent order that could no longer stand on its own legs, and Western powers coughed politely while looking the other way; and before Iran jumped in to exploit the political vacuum left by Arab state collapse. It was a time before the promises of the welcome storm turned into fading dreams or, much worse, living nightmares.

Ten years later, where have the 2011 uprisings left the Arab world? For a century, this post-Ottoman collection of states, united mainly by language and certain shared cultural traditions, has wrestled with deep problems, a blend of colonial legacies and internally generated contradictions. I have described these at some length elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that they led to a rolling legitimacy crisis that ruling elites could control as long as they provided security, jobs, infrastructure and services as part of an unwritten social contract.

The uprisings brought these stresses to the fore, forcing those in power to confront them. They represented a rupture: not in the nature of the state systems but in how the world saw these and how the people in the region themselves debated them.

Even if opportunities for change appear slim, people have been awakened to their latent power, while the region’s autocratic regimes remain in place, still well past their sell-by date.

The old order was able to survive for so long due partly to its effective blend of coercion and co-optation, and partly to what scholars refer to as the “stability paradigm” – the calculation by Western countries, Russia and other status quo powers that their interests were best served by Arab regime stability. For Western countries, before the 2011 revolutions, investing in stability was far better than encouraging anything beyond cosmetic political change. They therefore made sure that their efforts at democracy promotion, even when backed by financial incentives, remained largely rhetorical and symbolic.

The uprisings challenged this paradigm, shaking not only the regimes’ stability but also the notion that their stability was unshakable.

What has happened since 2011 is that the Arab regimes have started to rebuild themselves, donning new armour to deter and, if necessary, ward off fresh popular challenges. At the same time, Western powers have begun to reconstitute the stability paradigm that they believe served them for so long. They saw what systemic breakdown could produce – in the form of refugees and the rise of jihadist groups with transnational objectives – and so they have acted to prevent regional upheaval from undermining their own societies by tacitly accommodating themselves anew to autocratic governance.

For the regimes themselves, stability is not a means to an end, but an end in itself – it is synonymous with self-perpetuation. The means toward this end amount to an ever-growing degree of repression, as attempts at co-optation through patronage lose their effectiveness in the face of faltering economies and, in some cases, diminishing resources.

Yet the seeming stalemate creates a conundrum. Fealty to stability as an end in itself can only precipitate stability’s inevitable end: to press down on the lid of a pressure cooker is to ask for built-up forces to blow up the vessel, while to lift the lid just a little and allow the vessel to let off steam is to invite all its contents to well up and spill over, making it impossible to put the lid back in place. Thus, for most of the Arab world’s autocratic regimes even the slightest move toward reform could jeopardise their own survival.

Regardless what happened in individual Arab countries – the 2011 uprisings produced a range of outcomes – the region has seen no fundamental change except in people’s perception of what may be possible.

The sight compels the would-be revolutionaries among them to make a calculation of their own: to press on or to retreat and wait for a better day? The answer revolves around the cost of proceeding: to themselves, their families, their property and livelihoods, and to social stability.

Durable fundamental change will require two indispensable ingredients. The first is a determined populace led by a diverse vanguard that can articulate both hope and a cohesive alternative vision, one that is inclusive of a broad spectrum of opinion and invites participation. The other, albeit to a lesser extent, is a set of tolerant external powers willing to gamble that the benefits of the region’s transformation will eventually outweigh the growing fallout of upholding its status quo. For change to occur, the vision put forward by opposition leaders or protesters – and the attendant resource reallocation – should sway fence-sitting political and security elites to abandon the regimes they underpin. And it should convince outside powers not to voice support for their allies when the latter are being shown the door.

These ingredients are not present in the region today. The erstwhile people of the squares are in prison, scattered or hunkered down in their homes; many are demoralised, even if newly aware of their potential. Only in Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria do we see scattered protests, which build on their outbreak in 2019 – eight years after the 2011 events – and are limited by pandemic-related lockdowns. As for the outside world, it is focused on more pressing concerns and seems to wish that the problems of the Arab world would just go away. In the meantime, it continues to back – albeit in some cases more reluctantly than others – the old and trusted, if not always liked, forces of apparent stability.

Nor are the ingredients of change likely to appear as long as the region is crisscrossed with fault lines that can disrupt, distort and disable any popular movement that tries to coalesce. The Israel-Palestine conflict has had this impact and, as the popular anger prompted by Israel’s normalisation of relations with a handful of Arab states suggests, will continue to do so. Iran’s power projection has hardened Arab regimes’ defences, pushed them into new alliances (including with Israel), and given them rhetorical fire with which to battle popular demands for change. So has the dispute over the role of Islam in governance, settled for now in Iran but raging in the Arab Gulf – mainly between Qatar and the UAE, whose deep pockets have allowed them to transfer their rivalry to political and sometimes military fights in unstable countries in the Horn of Africa and North Africa, such as Somalia and Libya. (They earlier similarly competed for rebel support in Syria, setting insurgent against insurgent; this gambit ended abruptly with Russia’s September 2015 intervention, which convinced them that their investment in these groups had lost the potential to yield the benefits they sought.

If we are to believe the prevailing state rhetoric, the Mubarak regime in Egypt was defending itself, not from a popular challenge to autocratic rule but from Islamist radicalism in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supposed worldwide conspiracy. Meanwhile, the Bahraini monarchy accused the Pearl Square protesters of being Iranian agents intent on wresting the island – a ward of the Saudi kingdom across the causeway – from the Arab Sunni fold. In Iraq and Lebanon, protesters’ original grievance – their exploitation by kleptocratic ruling elites – has become overshadowed by the rivalry between Iran and an alliance of the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

For all these reasons, while we may see further instances of popular contestation – the record since 2011 bears that out – a veritable Arab revival, in the broad sense of a fundamental transformation of how the region is governed, remains a distant hope.

Contributors

Senior Advisor, Middle East and North Africa
desfandiary
Senior Adviser to the President & Project Director, Iran
AliVaez