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A New Security Order for the Middle East

Fall 2012 Features

A New Security Order for the Middle East

The only region in the world without a security framework must at long last set about the task of creating one

The Middle East is once again the theatre for one of the world’s major crises – this time in Syria. Sophists and spin doctors are, to be sure, reducing the complexity that is Syria to a good versus evil moral play. This convenient packaging obscures an inconvenient, more fundamental truth – to wit, that it is the existing regional order that is largely responsible for the perpetual insecurity and the endless recurrence of conflict in the Middle East. Confusion about this diagnosis leads to blindness about an obvious remedy – that is, that this outdated order, a colonial concoction of the last century, must be overhauled, indigenously, for the benefit of regional peace and security in this century.

In order to correct the regional order and place it on track toward greater stability, Middle Eastern states must imagine a shared, more prosperous future, and work collectively to establish a long-overdue regional security architecture – recalling that the Middle East today remains the only region in the world without a regional security and cooperation framework. Of course, the question is begged: how is it that a hyper-volatile region like the Middle East does not yet have a regional mechanism for managing and defusing conflict?

To date, with rare exceptions, any meaningful discussion concerning the creation of a security framework in the Middle East has focussed exclusively on the sub-region of the Persian Gulf. More recently, due to the intensifying opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme and rising tensions among Persian Gulf littoral states, a number of American analysts have called for a NATO-style collective defence security regime for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in sole partnership with the US, in order to address regional threats. Recent US efforts to create a missile defence system for the GCC, as well as increases in US arms sales to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf are manifestations of this same strategic logic in action.

These external grand designs are, however, based on a number of false assumptions that doom them to failure. First, they rely on the conventional wisdom that a limited, sub-regional security structure – one that, for reasons of expediency and/or ideology, excludes a number of regional states – that partners with outside powers can alone be a force for regional stability. Senior GCC officials have themselves on numerous occasions publicly declared that Persian Gulf and GCC security cannot be achieved by excluding other regional players and littoral states like Iraq and Iran. In a 2006 speech delivered at the annual Manama Dialogue, organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, stated: “In the Gulf, no sustainable long-term regional security arrangement can be envisioned without Iraq and Iran acting as two of its pillars.” Iranian and Iraqi officials have similarly argued that Persian Gulf security is best advanced through cooperation and coordination among the littoral states.

Second, such proposals mistakenly presume that the US is a neutral player, with no peculiar stakes in the region. This presumption is obviously at best naïve and at worst oblivious to the history of US involvement in the region to date. Few serious analysts would dispute that Washington has vital interests in the Middle East, and in the Persian Gulf region in particular – including securing the free flow of a cheap supply of oil for US domestic energy needs – and that it is willing to defend these interests with armed force and/or covert operations. Indeed, the last three decades of American involvement in the Middle East show that the more the US bolsters and arms the GCC, and the more it increases its own military presence in the region, the greater the security preoccupations and countermeasures of a number of key regional countries, and the greater the divisions among states in the region.

Israel, due to its manifest security concerns, has over the years compiled an estimated 200 nuclear weapons (larger figures have been cited). Israel’s military strategy is to deter would-be aggressors and act ad libitum to eliminate any perceived threat to its national security on the strength of its clear – nuclear – military advantage in the region. While Iran and Israel once profited from close diplomatic relations, today they are regional rivals. Iran, partly in response to Israel’s military strength, as well as to US presence (encirclement) in the region, has been intensely upgrading its asymmetric warfare and overall military capabilities. And although there is no evidence that Tehran has to date made the political decision to build an atomic weapon, it is suspected of at least developing a virtual nuclear capability as part of its own national defence strategy.

The net result of this dynamic regional game is what John Herz describes as a “vicious circle of power competition and armament races, leading eventually to war.” Peter Jones, a Canadian analyst and regular GB writer, who was intimately involved in the Arms Control and Regional Security Working Group (ACRS) process in the 1990s, and who has led a comprehensive Track II diplomatic effort on regional security in the Middle East, says the following: “[The Middle East] is probably one of the regions of the world where a classical security dilemma is in full swing. Countries still feel that their existence as countries is not entirely secure.”

One manifestation of this general and particular insecurity among countries in the Middle East is notorious: in 2010, military spending in the Middle East was estimated at US $111 billion, representing a 2.5 percent increase from the preceding year, and 35 percent when compared with the start of the decade. The region has the highest total military expenditures in the developing world. Of the top 10 countries in the world, ranked according to defence budget size as a percentage of GDP, seven are Middle Eastern and North African countries, spending billions of dollars annually on the military – funds that, of course, would otherwise be free for allocation to projects that improve the general welfare and governance of the citizenries of the still highly underdeveloped countries of the region.

Third, the external grand design school of Middle East security neglects a basic verity: if a security architecture is to have any chance of succeeding in the Middle East, it must have buy-in first and foremost from the region’s political elites. In other words, it must not only be region-wide and inclusive, but also indigenously conceived, by and for the region. There is, to be sure, an important role to be played by extra-regional actors. But given the differing and often contradictory alliances and ad hoc partnerships of the region’s states and important external actors – European states, the US, Russia and China, not to mention international institutions – the most workable formula is one that is divined, driven and dominated by the region’s states themselves.

Of course, outside involvement in the development of a regional architecture will likely be impossible to avoid altogether in virtue of the said major role that oil continues to play in the economies of major outside states. The largest percentage of the world’s proven oil reserves (some 56 percent) is found in the Middle East region. Some 20 percent of the oil traded worldwide transits the Strait of Hormuz.

A number of Middle Eastern states also have bilateral military agreements with countries like the US (i.e. Israel and the Persian Gulf Arab states), meaning that the eventual regional security regime will have to manage and reconcile (or renegotiate) the various external commitments and positions of future member states.

Moreover, external involvement can offer certain default security guarantees that some Middle Eastern states will surely demand. It can provide financial assistance, as well as technical expertise on a variety of policy matters. But again, such external involvement must be secondary and subordinate to the leading role of the Middle Eastern states themselves.

The Middle East – discussions of the etymology of the term aside – is most helpfully defined as the 22 members of the League of Arab States, plus Israel, Iran and Turkey. The traditional boundaries of the Middle East – typically understood to include the sub-regions of the Maghreb, the Levant and the Persian Gulf – are where one finds the nucleus of the security dilemma in the region, and where the focus of establishing a comprehensive regional security ought to be. Targeting the Arab states and the three aforementioned largely non-Arab countries is an obviously ambitious project, requiring significant political courage, diplomatic engineering, ingenuity and finesse. Afghanistan, India and Pakistan are additional potential candidates for membership due to their geographical proximity to the region, as well as the ongoing instability within Afghanistan, and between India and Pakistan – instability with non-negligible spillover into the Middle East proper. These three countries could well participate in the preliminary phases of development of the security scheme as observers.

In the post-WW2 international order, the founders of the UN system wanted to ensure that the UN Security Council (UNSC) acted as the de jure custodian of collective security in the international arena, pursuant to Chapter VII of the UN Charter. However, since its first meeting in 1946, the UNSC has come under repeated criticism for its failure to execute its mandate in an effective, consistent and impartial manner. In the absence of UNSC reform, criticisms about the ‘selectivity’ of UNSC action and constraints on meaningful Council action are likely to persist. Indeed, the failure of the UNSC to adequately and consistently address security threats and conflicts has resulted in a global trend toward regional and sub-regional self-help security arrangements. The Council has proven itself similarly – if not conspicuously – incapable of executing its mandate vis-à-vis the Middle East. This incapacity has only contributed to the persistent security gap in the region.

The UN Charter does not preclude the possibility of indigenous security frameworks operating at the regional level. Chapter VIII of the UN Charter foresees and encourages the existence of such regional frameworks provided that “their activities are consistent with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations.” Moreover, under Article 51 of the UN Charter, a regional organization is empowered to use force in self-defence (or collective defence of one of its members) without UNSC authorization. (The exercise of this right will be curtailed if and when the UNSC subsequently acts.)

The would-be founders of a regional security structure in the Middle East would have to give due consideration to harmonizing the mandate of the regional security framework with the UN system and the UN Charter, while ensuring that the framework has enough teeth to thwart aggression and react to security threats against its members.

The security framework must adopt founding principles in order to bind the parties to a collective security vision. Fortunately, there are plenty of precedents to review in creating a custom-made set of guiding principles and norms for the region. In addition to the principles of the UN Charter (i.e. prohibition against the use of force, non-interference in the sovereign affairs of member states), the Decalogue in the Helsinki Final Act (1975) or the Ten Principles of Bandung, the various past and even extant Track II efforts focussing on security in the Middle East have all generated useful material that should be consulted. The Track II diplomatic efforts led by Cherif Bassiouni in the late 1990s for a sub-regional security framework involving Egypt, Jordan and Israel can be particularly helpful in this regard.

Two considerations are apposite in respect of the form that a regional security framework ought to take – that is, as between collective defence and cooperative security. First, both collective defence and cooperative security structures can co-exist in the Middle East, just as they have in other regions of the world (consider Europe, where NATO and the OSCE work in concert on the Old Continent). Second, in view of some of the current inter-state tensions in the region, a cooperative security regime may be the more realistic first step in creating a region-wide security framework. Once established and mature, the region’s collective security culture and norms could eventually create the conditions for the start of formal collective defence security discussions and negotiations (as a second step, as it were).

In a cooperative security model, in lieu of seeing each other as threats, states would view the existing regional security dilemma as the core problem that needs to be tackled in order to reduce violence and conflict in the Middle East. Regional states would work collectively in order to create mechanisms that encourage and incentivize regional security through increased intra-regional transactions – from the negotiation of various arms control agreements, to joint collaboration and policy-making to combat terrorism, to increased trade and cultural exchange. Increasing the intensity of intra-regional traffic in commerce, people and ideas, as in Europe, would increase interdependence among states and trust – or at least familiarity – among the region’s populations. The creation of a permanent regional forum for Middle Eastern states to regularly convene and discuss regional security concerns would also be a constructive step toward improving the region’s security dilemma. Such a forum would seem to be low-hanging fruit, and yet is absent in the region today: it would generate a host of benefits, from relationship- and trust-building among regional leaders, to serving as a venue for brainstorming and policy generation, to defusing regional tensions and dispelling misperceptions through dialogue, to mediating conflicts as they arise.

The proposed security architecture may even have a positive impact on facilitating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a regime for regional security, the framework could be engineered to provide comprehensive and lasting security to Israel (with external guarantees, as discussed above). This may in turn encourage reciprocity through Israeli concessions that help in the creation of a viable state for the Palestinians. An important caveat in this regard: while the two discussions – the first on the overall regional architecture, and the second on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse – may be merged for purposes of progress on the Palestinian dossier, rigid insistence on movement on the Palestine question as a precondition for the realization of the security framework would likely derail the entire project. This should be avoided. Lack of progress on negotiations concerning the two-state solution should not prevent the project as a whole from advancing with other states, sans Israel. In other words, if necessary, Israel can be re-engaged when circumstances permit.

A regional security scheme could have a direct role in helping to create a WMD-free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East. The idea of a WMDFZ for the Middle East has been a topic of discussion for some time. The concept was first championed by Iran and Egypt in 1974. Recent declarations by senior Iranian – Ali Akbar Salehi – and Egyptian – Nabil Elaraby – officials suggest an unbroken commitment to this idea. In the coming months, a much-anticipated UN-sponsored multilateral conference is to be hosted in Finland to discuss the idea of establishing a WMDFZ in the region – timing that may work well in light of the growing international tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme. Of course, experience tells us that a WMDFZ cannot exist without a robust and structured regional security scheme that provides for monitoring and, more importantly, enforcement mechanisms. At the same time, as long as Israel’s nuclear arsenal remains intact and differences over Iran’s nuclear programme are unresolved, nuclear proliferation in the region is a real possibility.

A region-wide security framework may also help to defuse tensions over the Iranian nuclear programme, averting a potentially catastrophic war. If Iran has nuclear ambitions beyond mere civilian use – something still contested among analysts – the presumptive rationale for pursuing this strategic logic would be to enhance its national security. Iran is an isolated country in the region with significant security concerns: porous borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan; regional threats; and the said US military presence in the region. The 1980-1988 war with Iraq remains etched in the psyche of the Iranian people. Even defeats suffered in wars with Russia as far back as the 1800s – defeats that cost the country large parts of its former territory – have shaped the Iranian psyche, the country’s security perceptions and indeed its overall strategic culture. As such, any regional formula that recognizes Iran’s legitimate national security concerns, and is further capable of providing it with security guarantees, will have a constructive impact on diplomatic efforts aimed at arriving at a peaceful solution to Iran’s nuclear programme. But again, negotiating the nuclear disarmament of Israel or asking Iran to stop its nuclear programme is not at all realistic in the absence of a broader regional security discussion and general bargain that issues in a credible region-wide framework.

To be sure, the significant regional and international anxieties created by Iran’s nuclear programme, and the growing shadow of a regional war over this programme, could assist in a mental paradigm shift among a number of regional players; that is, the prospect of a major war may well provide the requisite pressure that allows for regional players, with the support of external actors, to commit to serious diplomatic engagement on a more comprehensive approach to regional security.

Should negotiations on a regional security framework wait until countries in the region become more democratic? Could the proposed regional security framework help to steer the region toward a more democratic order, or would it merely prolong the shelf-life of authoritarian regimes? And would the legitimacy of the proposed regional security framework suffer if negotiated by an oppressive regime that is later replaced by a popular uprising?

First, non-democratic governments are evidently capable of making peace, and there is little evidence to suggest that a security agreement brokered by an authoritarian government would necessarily be rescinded by a later democratic government (see the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in the Mohamed Morsi era). Second, a regional security framework for the Middle East and its potential for creating enduring peace could well support serious, indigenous political reform in the region (without the taint of foreign meddling). Historically, there has been a correlation between regional insecurity and repressive policies within regional states. A more secure regional environment could therefore arguably pave the way for more open political discourse at the domestic level. In practice, what regional security systems have shown themselves capable of doing – depending on how a system is designed, and what guiding principles are adopted – is to empower populations to demand – with ever-increasing intensity – respect for civil liberties. We famously saw this happen in Eastern Europe as a result of the Helsinki process.

Leadership is the obvious conditio sine qua non for initiating and successfully establishing such a regional framework. And yet, notwithstanding the demands of the times, the requisite leadership is largely absent from the region today. At this juncture, Turkey, as a traditional Middle Eastern power with relative regional sway and respect, is in many ways the region’s ‘indispensable nation.’ It is true, as some analysts argue, that Ankara’s handling of the Syrian crisis has somewhat diminished the Turkish government’s general popularity at home and in the region, in particular vis-à-vis Iran. The Gaza flotilla incident in 2010 also cooled Turkish-Israeli relations. However, at the time of writing Turkey continues to be the only country in the region that is able to cajole the Iranians and the Arabs (as well as the Israelis) to sit at the negotiating table. (The Pakistani military also looks to Turkey, en passant, as a model, and would arguably be open to Turkish diplomatic forays were the framework to eventually expand to the South Asian states.) Early signals suggest that Turkey would not only be supportive of the idea of creating a regional security framework in the region, but would also likely be willing to lead the effort to jump-start the initiative.

Leadership from every regional country is, of course, neither realistic nor required. But leadership from a handful of key countries may be sufficient for purposes of initial progress. Partnership by Turkey with at least a couple of other influential states in the region, ideally Arab states – say, Qatar or an increasingly bold Egypt – would be important for increasing the chances of convening a first diplomatic summit in order to explore a regional security architecture. Iran, as a historically significant regional player and a key player in the region’s geopolitics and security landscape, would also have to be involved from the beginning if the exercise is to have meaning.

As intimated, not all regional states need to participate in the first diplomatic summit or be involved in the overall project ab initio. What is important is that the undertaking commence with a cocktail of core and smaller regional states – a critical mass that should be ever-expanding – in order to send a transparent message to the effect that the project is not targeting or seeking to exclude any particular state, and that its raison d’être is to create greater security for all states in the Middle East. There is great symbolic value in this message alone. States can join the ‘conversation’ when they are ready to do so.

The traditional concept of security in international relations theory, at least in the realist school, posits that the only way to ensure one’s security is to increase one’s power at the expense of other states. This conventional wisdom is practiced with perfection in today’s Middle East. The general insecurity in the region is the result of this logic. New ways of thinking about state and regional security must be tried in this new century. An inclusive regional security framework in the Middle East, while not necessarily eliminating inter-state competition altogether, has real potential to bring greater stability to the region. Preliminary indications obtained from some of the region’s most senior diplomats and policy-makers suggest that there is broad agreement on the need for such a framework, and that the timing may just be right.


Sam Sasan Shoamanesh is Managing Editor of Global Brief. The views expressed herein are those of the author alone.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press / AP / Amr Nabil)

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