by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
In today’s turbulent Persian Gulf, geopolitical and geostrategic discord and rivalry have the upper hands. The idea of collective security, floated by Russia and backed by China, appears to be a lofty but unrealistic objective that is at best a distant dream, dwarfed at present by the rapidly escalating tensions between Iran on the one hand and the U.S., UK, and their regional allies on the other hand. Irrespective, this concept remains a useful tool to navigate beyond the limitations of the alternative security discourses on Persian Gulf and chart a map for a peaceful and secure Gulf in the future.
On the whole, the idea of collective security in the Persian Gulf operates on two intertwined principles that underwrite its ability to deliver a plausible scenario—namely, trans-Gulf security cooperation, based on common interests and goals, and self-reliance. Accordingly, instead of security bifurcation and competing alliances dividing the region, the littoral states of Persian Gulf would join hands and chart a new course on an all-inclusive security cooperation based on the UN Charter, international law, and such shared national interests as anti-terrorism, anti-narcotics, and anti-smuggling. Environmental security is important as well and deserves to be incorporated in the main outline of subjects around which the Persian Gulf states could coalesce and implement a concrete plan of action for collective security.
Lest we forget, the idea of collective security in the Persian Gulf has been championed by Iran for some time. Case in point: 12 years ago at a meeting in Doha, Iran’s current President Hasan Rouhani, who was at the time the special representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, unveiled a 10-point plan for collective Gulf security framework, consisting of the following:
- Establishment of a Persian Gulf Security and Cooperation Organization comprising the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as well as Iran and Iraq in accordance with Clause 8 of Resolution 598 of the United Nations Security Council.
- Preparing common security grounds for fighting terrorism, organized crime and drug smuggling, as well as other joint security concerns.
- Gradual removal of all restrictions in political, security, economic and cultural fields.
- Development of trade ties by taking the countries’ potentials into consideration and conducting joint investment in economic projects to achieve a regional free-trade mechanism.
- Guaranteeing the security and energy export of regional countries to secure their interests and achieving a sustainable mechanism for energy needed by the world.
- Building confidence among regional countries in the nuclear field.
- Setting up a joint consortium for uranium enrichment among regional countries to procure nuclear fuel and other peaceful nuclear activities under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
- Forging serious cooperation among regional countries for having a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
- Putting an end to arms races in the region by providing resources for the purpose of economic development and fighting poverty.
- Making foreign military personnel exit the region and establishing full security by the regional countries.
Both then and now, Iran’s use of this idea has been primarily to build confidence with the Gulf Cooperation (GCC) states. The GCC comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and was formed in 1981 to foster cooperation among the member states and simultaneously to deter the threat from Iran. Of course, much has happened since then, i.e., the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the resulting 1991 US-led war to liberate Kuwait, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2014-2019 war against the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), and the current tensions between the U.S. and Iran, warranting attention by those seeking to transcend the Gulf’s divisive history toward building a perpetually peaceful region. History weighs heavy here and the existing (geo) political and sectarian rivalries cemented by creed, ideology, as well as recent bloodshed, resist any quick dissolution to pave the way for the prerequisite harmony operating in a system of collective security.
Another significant impediment to collective security is the foreign dependency of the GCC states and the traditional protective role of the U.S., which has not diminished despite all the rhetoric of a Middle East draw down. With numerous bases in the Gulf and the ‘over the horizon’ island of Diego Garcia in Indian Ocean, the U.S. underwrites the GCC states’ security while funneling massive amounts of sophisticated weaponry to them, thus fueling a dynamic arms race. In turn, this raises an important question: is self-reliance an indispensable part of collective security and, moreover, can it be achieved in a gradual process commensurate with greater and greater security and military cooperation among the Persian Gulf states, instead of a shock exit that can bring new insecurities and instabilities? In other words, a process-oriented approach to this issue is required, one that takes into consideration the horizon of possibilities and the importance of incremental steps to fulfill the various requirements of collective security.
Notwithstanding the above, the China-backed Russian proposal for collective security has the merit of signaling the proactive intention of these two world powers to play a more active role in addressing the endemic insecurities of a crucial region. Although this initiative is prone to be interpreted in the West as a sign of greater Russia-China meddling in U.S.-dominated Persian Gulf affairs, there is an alternative narrative that assigns value to this initiative as a responsible big power intervention on a crucial issue of global peace and security, particularly as neither the U.S. nor Europe has offered any vision on creating a durable Persian Gulf peace. The West’s behavior simply augments existing Gulf cleavages and precludes collective security as basically antithetical to U.S. and European interests. Little wonder, then, that Russia’s proposal has met with silence in Western capitals, eliciting no official response from the Trump administration, which is wary of Russia’s increased role in Middle East affairs. But, to conclude, while this idea seemingly does not appeal to Western governments—and their military-industrial complexes, which bask in Gulf divisions that translate into billions of dollars in arms sales—it is in the interests of the Persian Gulf states and their populations in the years and decades to come. As a result, this concept is bound to gain traction with policy-makers in the region because it is an apt alternative that fosters the need for greater cooperation and avoiding insecurity in the oil hub.
Kaveh Afrasiabi has taught at Tehran University and Boston University and is a former consultant to the UN Program on Dialogue Among Civilizations. He is the author of several books on Iran, Islam, and the Middle East, including After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Books, 1995) and most recently Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (2018). He is the co-author of the forthcoming Trump and Iran: Containment to Confrontation.