By Kayhan Barzegar
Concerns of increased tension, instability and possible conflict, mainly involving energy security, has inclined the international community to think of establishing a collective security system in the Persian Gulf. In this respect, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani proposed the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE) at the UN General Assembly in September, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has subsequently elaborated on the scope and purposes of such initiative, and just this week, Rouhani reached out to the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain urging them to participate. The main goal of raising such an initiative now is to emphasize that Iran is also concerned about increased tension in the region, while at the same time trying to adjust the regional and international geopolitical interests.
Indeed, the Initiative shows promise as one way to diminish current tensions. First, it is a “subject-oriented” initiative. Unlike other traditional security plans that have focused on state coalitions establishing a balance of power, which could lead to an extensive arms race, this initiative is based on “subjective coalitions” centering on common commitments. As Foreign Minister Zarif elaborated, agreements on subjects such as respect to sovereignty and territorial integrity, the inviolability of international borders, peaceful settlement of disputes, rejecting the use of force, energy security, freedom of navigation, arms control, security building measures, a zone free of WMD, etc., could overcome the existing mistrust, acrimony, and conflict. Addressing these problems can begin by signing a Hormuz community Non-Intervention and Non-Aggression Pact, and through measures such as setting up hotlines, early warning systems, military contact and the exchange of data and information for combating the drug trade, terrorism, and human trafficking as common threats to the international community.
Second, this initiative seeks an “endogenous” security system. It perceives that the path through reaching collective security crosses initially through enhancement of states’ sustainable and independent national systems in the different political-security and economic aspects. In other words, every state undertakes its own share of internal security reforms which can then transcend into greater collaborative and collective security arrangement. Here, international actors for the sake of sustainable stability should help enhancing national systems so that every state could perform its own share of preserving security. This, however, requires creating political consensus within states’ domestic politics on the possible benefit of establishing a collective security for states’ geopolitical interests. In this regard, Zarif proposes setting up meetings of experts, think-tanks, the private sector, senior officials, ministers and heads of state to deliberate on common objectives.” The main goal of this proposal is to create a common understanding of the roots of threats and how to tackle them. In this respect, the foreign minister has already ordered the reactivation of the traditional Persian Gulf conferences that have been held for several years in Tehran.
The third main component is the “inclusivity” of this initiative. Iran’s traditional strategy in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz has been to force foreigners to withdraw from the region, leaning only on the participation of littoral states like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, and Bahrain. Yet, in the course of the time and in order to adjust itself with the regional environment and especially the issue of international energy security, Iran is gradually accepting that the United States, Europe, and along with Russia, India, China, Japan, Turkey, and others also have their own interests in preserving regional security and should have a secondary participation. Except the U.S.—which still sticks with “maximum pressure” power-based policy though checking Iran’s role with the help of its regional allies i.e. Saudi Arabia and Israel—all the other involved countries are inclined in subject-oriented issues, referred above, in forming a collective security system in the region.
In this respect, Zarif and other Iranian officials such as the speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani emphasize that Iran has no “precondition” for establishing such a collective coalition and the implementation of this mechanism which could include regional and international dimensions. In fact, defining a vital role for the United Nations is aimed at preserving the interests of the international community, which itself consists the member states.
Yet, beyond the above-mentioned considerations, many political analysts believe that establishing such a collective regional security system is rather optimistic. States’ positions in entering such political-security initiatives are mostly dependent on their perceptions of the causes of insecurity, the way to tackle them, and more significantly, how to balance their geopolitical interests based on their potential, available resources, and strategic constraints.
At present, there are three different trends in the Persian Gulf. First, Iran and its friendly regional forces. The traditional reaction of the regional conservative Arab regimes to the “Hormuz Peace Initiative” has been skeptical and cautious, arguing that such an initiative is rooted at the so-called hegemonic view of Iran towards regional developments and therefore could be detrimental to their interests. From their perspective, by enhancing a regional multilateralism, and by including other concerned actors such as Russia and China, Iran is trying to weaken the conventional dominant trend of the West, especially the U.S., which has long been their main source of security.
At the same time, they believe, the centrality of Iran in this Initiative will add to the country’s strategic strength in its relations with foreign powers and in the long-term be detrimental to the legitimacy of Arab regimes, especially from a domestic politics aspect. They also argue that their main concern in not from Iran’s conventional military capabilities or a possible direct confrontation, rather it is from Iran’s unconventional capabilities and its extensive power to make a vast network of allied local forces, who have become able to resist against the host regimes’ governing plans.
A second trend is Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the U.S., some European countries, and other Arab regimes such as the UAE and Bahrain, overtly seeking to contain Iran’s power and continue complying with the U.S. to weaken Iran politically and economically. Of course, the anti-Iran position of the UAE has rather diminished in recent months, trying to explore feasible ways of conducting talks with Iran for solving existing problems. Other littoral countries such as Kuwait, Oman and Qatar have softer positions towards Iran and in any circumstances seek Iran’s participation in the regional security issues. Yet, for the sake of preserving their Arab identity and unity and maintaining hold on power domestically, they are more inclined to take the side of Saudi Arabia in any regional security system.
At the moment, a critical view inside Iran is that, with the existence of U.S. economic sanctions and the supportive policy of these regimes, whether efforts to establish closer ties with these regimes, thereby diminishing tensions would be in the interests of Iran in keeping its levers of influence and potentials in the region intact. In the course of history, the Persian Gulf has always been a “political asset” with an extraordinary strategic value for Iran. One should not ignore that the strengthening of Iran’s power in the region and the Strait of Hormuz is a historical determination. Iran for centuries was the regional dominant power. Today, Iran’s strengthening and active presence in the region is not just for tackling foreign or U.S. Navy threats, rather it is for asserting the Persian Gulf to be in its sphere of influence..
The third trend is those states with ever-shifting interests such as Russia, China, Turkey and India, who aim to adjust their positions based on current events. These countries have found the changing regional environment suitable to balance their geopolitical interests. For instance, Russia is benefiting from Donald Trump’s increased lack of interests in the region or perhaps the U.S.’s strategic constraints after waging several wars, and is therefore trying to influence the regional political-security trends in favor of its geopolitical interests. Indeed, Russia proposed its own collective security plan, aiming at establishing a regional security organization with trans-regional effects in the long-term. China, India and Turkey are also trying to adjust and balance their geopolitical interests with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Of course, each of them has its own specific perspective towards the regional issues. Yet, considering their potentials, available resources and strategic limits they are not interested in entering any meaningful coalitions that could act at the expense of the third party.
Despite all the existing constraints, I can say that the “Hormuz Peace Endeavor” is a turning point and an opportunity for starting a collective move in an interdependent security environment for the Persian Gulf, which could be further adjusted with regional and trans-regional interests during meetings and multilateral interactions. In this regard, however, two important moves are vital: First, the dominant trend in Arab countries must stop complying with the U.S. economic sanction policy against Iran. In return, Iran could regularize the activities of its allied forces in the favor of regional security. As Ali Larijani says again, “We could suggest (recommend) Ansar Allah [the Houthis in Yemen] and other groups to accept ceasefire and enter political process.”
Last but not least is that the success of any collective security system in the Persian Gulf is dependent on withdrawing from the current West-oriented “intellectual construct” coming to the region with landing of the Portuguese in India in the late fifteen century continuing until today. Western countries shifted the land route trade of the Silk Road to the sea route, making a turning point for the political-security and economic architecture of the region. Later, the discovery of oil and the issue of energy security and the goods and technology interdependency between the West and oil-rich countries of the region caused Western countries to claim initial participation over the regional issues, based on prioritizing their own interests. This construct must change. The aim of the “Hormuz Peace Endeavor” is to equate the West’s role in a multilateral order, acceptable initially for the regional states.
Dr. Kayhan Barzegar is the director of the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. He is also an associate professor of international relations at the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University. He tweets at @kbarzeg.