Several weeks ago, the able Iranian diplomat and scholar Seyed Hossein Mousavian suggested that I read his recent book. I found that in “A New Structure for Security, Peace, and Cooperation in the Persian Gulf” Mousavian offers a short, well-documented account of contemporary Iran’s fraught relationship with Gulf Arab states and the relevant differences among those states, both of which have greatly contributed to regional instability.
Mousavian is an unabashed advocate for Iran’s point of view. That said, his volume is valuable reading for anyone considering the situation in the Gulf as well as the role of the United States in that region and the Middle East more broadly. It is, however, a dense and complex presentation. Mousavian’s account includes history, analysis, and policy prescriptions, all drawing on his career as a diplomat, scholar, policy practitioner, and political actor, especially during President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s incumbency. The book requires careful reading.
The issues at stake in the Gulf are manifold. Iran’s development of nuclear capabilities is part and parcel of its struggle to ensure the perpetuation of its post-revolutionary political system and to secure its borders and sovereignty in what it considers a dangerous environment. That struggle contributes directly to other issues important to the region’s security, notably Iran’s development of missiles and the accumulation throughout the Gulf and the region, including Israel, of huge stockpiles of conventional weapons. The current situation is a dangerous, and sometimes violent, stalemate. But clearly, it is impossible to imagine a way out of this labyrinth without recognizing and dealing with the cross-Gulf divide. This cries out for a solution.
On this, Mousavian offers special, if incomplete, insights. He argues for a Gulf security structure that would permit Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors to participate in a forum to manage differences. It would be based on the principles of respect for state sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as religious tolerance and noninterference in the internal affairs of the member states. Mousavian looks to a future in which all the states of the Gulf region can also begin to address their needs for stronger economic performance as well as manage the existential issues of pandemic control and climate change.
Mousavian’s vision is appealing, and he documents his ideas carefully, drawing on ample historical precedent. United Nations Security Council resolution 598 of July 1987, which was drafted in the immediate aftermath of the devastating Iran-Iraq War, is Mousavian’s starting point. The resolution charged the U.N. secretary-general “to examine, in consultation with Iran and Iraq and with other states of the region, measures to enhance the security and stability of the region.”
In recent years, Iran has expressed its interest in Gulf security cooperation through the diplomatic initiatives it has advanced regionally and in international forums. At various times, Kuwait and Oman have signaled their willingness to pursue a dialogue with Iran but Saudi Arabia’s firm opposition to the regional dialogue Iran has in mind restrained their participation. In September 2019, at the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani advanced Iran’s latest version of a regional proposal in the form of the “Hormuz Peace Endeavor.”
Mousavian explains why, in his view, these initiatives have not gained traction. For starters, he recognizes the states on both sides of the Gulf have sharply divergent versions of the crises in the area. They disagree about issues involving religion, political systems, and the area’s arms imbalance. Iran, Mousavian admits, believes it must have “an active, presumptive and deterrent role to secure its borders, government institutions and national cohesion” – which may be a deal breaker for many Sunni Arab states.
Mousavian also makes it clear that Iran categorically opposes a U.S. security footprint in the area. Mousavian recognizes Iran’s policies have for four decades drawn the strongest U.S. opposition. Given the disparities of power, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in particular believe their security rests on close ties to the United States, a posture that they believe permits them to stand up to Iran. Mousavian recognizes their large arsenals of conventional arms and their backing of Sunni elements in Iraq and groups like Mujahedeen-e Khalq and Jundullah are part of their conception of deterrence. Support for these groups is an answer to Iran’s heavy involvement with nonstate actors in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In short, there are huge obstacles to building such a Gulf security architecture.
Those obstacles are compounded by U.S. opposition. During the administration of former President Donald J. Trump, the United States discouraged exploration of regional security arrangements and effectively closed doors to a Gulf dialogue. It remains unclear whether the new administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be more sympathetic or cooperative.
Mousavian’s ideas, while offering insights into a way forward, are not without problems. His proposal requires additional thought. The 1975 Helsinki Act and the resulting Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe offer interesting concepts, but they were based on different circumstances and are not an exact model for cooperation in the Gulf.
Furthermore, Mousavian’s prescriptions as advanced in his book do not give adequate space for the role of the United States and other Security Council members in a Gulf security dialogue. “Opposing US hegemony” as Mousavian calls it, may be Iran’s policy, but it fails to take into account the acute sensitivities of Gulf Arabs and their need for external protection. In fact, the area is subject to external intervention from many quarters – Russia and Turkey to name just two newly engaged actors. China is looming on the horizon and possibly India too. The interests of all these states need to be considered in shaping a Gulf security initiative.
Mousavian’s formula also sidesteps the important issue of Israel. Israel has a stake in overall Middle Eastern security arrangements, and the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain involve Israel in the Gulf’s future. Israel should not be a party to a Gulf security arrangement, but it must be kept in mind as one is developed. More importantly, Iranian foreign policy will continue to hit a brick wall if it seeks to completely exclude Israel from its conception of regional security.
U.N. Security Council resolution 598 gave Secretary-General Antonio Guterres a role in exploring measures to enhance Gulf security. As thankless and difficult as that task might seem, it is of vital significance to the United States, the Gulf region, and the world at large. The Gulf will not be at peace if it cannot manage its security and the United States will not have a way out of its “endless wars” and excessively large military presence. All parties need to aim for a coherent, shared end goal: a containment of the tensions that have persisted for decades. A regional security framework should be part of that future, and the work toward its definition needs to begin now, even while Washington and Tehran struggle to settle their differences over the resurrection of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.