Turning Engagement Into a Regional Dialogue Mechanism in the Middle East
Turning Engagement Into a Regional Dialogue Mechanism in the Middle East
Is the Middle East’s Makeover a Mirage?
Is the Middle East’s Makeover a Mirage?
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

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.


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

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