Tensions in and around the Persian Gulf are persisting, with regular attacks on land and at sea. At the same time, a broad shift of alliances is taking place, whether through the United States’ continued distancing, a new rapprochement between Israel and Arab states, or an acceptance by the Arab world that Iran is a factor to be reckoned with, rather than wished away. In this fragile environment, the European Union is generally not regarded as a power but is nonetheless equipped with certain resources. The union should — in its own interests and those of the countries concerned — prepare to support the creation of a regional mechanism for collective security. That way, the EU can bring its influence to bear if and when an opening for talks emerges.
COLLECTIVE SECURITY COMES WITH PRECONDITIONS ––– Collective security requires an understanding among the parties involved of the way their security is interdependent. Collective security is different from collective defense, which is directed at a common enemy, not at members of the group itself. Effectively, governments must acknowledge that “the security of one is the concern of all,” in the words of several security experts. The Iranian regime, in particular, has repeatedly demonstrated with its presumed attacks on neighboring countries that no state can be secure until all states are — or feel — safe. The Middle East Strategic Alliance, formed primarily by the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), unsuccessfully pursued by the previous US administration, fell into the category of collective defense as it was clearly aimed at countering Iran.
Both the dividing line between Arab countries and Iran and the intra-Arab rift, which is most pronounced around Qatar, point to a second precondition for collective security: countries’ self-awareness that they are members of a regional grouping. In the Persian Gulf, a body of water and a religion unite just as much as divide the littoral states. While Iran and Saudi Arabia share aspirations for regional hegemony, there are also stark religious differences in terms of doctrine and demographics: Shias are more numerous in the region in total, but there are more Sunni-majority states. This situation manifests itself in the presence of military proxies — particularly Iran’s Hezbollah in Lebanon or Houthis in Yemen — throughout the region. Moreover, this rivalry plays out against a backdrop of mutual suspicions of conspiring for regime change — such opposition would have to be overcome for collective security to work.
Regardless of Riyadh’s and Tehran’s current lack of regional self-awareness, a focus on the Persian Gulf as a geopolitical region is in order because the epicenter of conflict has moved there in recent years. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict no longer sets Arab countries against the Jewish state, but instead, the 2020 Abraham Accords between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — themselves a product of the long-term US withdrawal from the Middle East — indicate the signatories’ joint opposition to Iran. In addition, the assumed existence of a regional setting formed by the six GCC countries, Iran, and Iraq helps governments accept that no individual country is a problem but rather has to be part of the solution.
There is no blueprint for what a system of collective security should look like. True, there are established practices, such as consultations and protocols, but the creation of this kind of system will have to be unique to its particular context. Any security arrangement for the region would therefore not be about setting up a ready-made equivalent of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for the Gulf; rather, it would be about agreeing on conflict de-escalation and confidence-building measures in an open-ended process that could conceivably lead to some sort of institutionalization. Importantly, such an initiative would have to come from the states concerned and then receive support and, eventually, guarantees from external powers.
MARITIME SECURITY AND NUCLEAR SAFETY ––– Two policy areas, in particular, offer themselves for step-by-step cooperation: maritime security and nuclear safety. The first one, which has been recognized as a critical element in the Persian Gulf, encompasses areas from the demarcation of borders and exclusive economic zones to maritime connections and shipping passages to environmental concerns and the effects of climate change. That means the Gulf’s littoral states have a lot of ground to cover in very practical terms before touching on hard-security — as in military — matters. Importantly, a beginning has already been made when, in July 2019, after tankers had been attacked or seized, presumably by Iran, an official delegation of the UAE traveled to Tehran to discuss “maritime border cooperation and the flow of shipping traffic, including illegal movements.”
These incidents prompted the deployment of two international missions in the region. First, the US created — with the support of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) with its Operation Sentinel to protect commercial ships in the Gulf. Second, due to transatlantic differences in policies toward Iran, EU members refused to join the IMSC and launched their own initiative, the European-led Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH), with its military arm, Agénor. The EU can build here on its maritime security strategy that dates back to 2014. Similarly, the EU can build on its long-standing work on nuclear safety. With atomic energy programs active in two littoral states — Iran and the UAE — and soon to be running in Saudi Arabia, the nuclear file, which in the past two decades has focused only on Iran, has become a regional issue. Hence, since any accident would surely lead to a collective damage, the policy response should also be regional, and the less politicized aspects of nuclear safety would be a good place to start bulding collective security.
In addition, increased nuclear proliferation is of growing concern. While the UAE, which uses South Korean — built reactors, has accepted internationally recognized constraints, such as foregoing enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, Riyadh has made clear that it will not agree to these limitations. Like Tehran, the Saudi leadership appears to attach a strategic dimension to its nuclear quest. In that sense, the existing Iranian and the nascent Saudi nuclear programs pose similar challenges that ought to be tackled at the regional level. Interestingly, long before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Washington had begun to mistrust the shah’s purely peaceful intentions for the nuclear program it had helped set up in Iran. Today, Saudi Arabia is a close US ally but refuses to sign up to the nonproliferation gold standard while initiating its own missile program with support from China. To leave no doubt, the Saudi crown prince threatened that his country would “follow suit as soon as possible” if Iran ever acquired a nuclear weapon. Security — whether from an attack or from an accident — can be achieved only at the regional level.
PREPARING FOR AN OPENING WITH PRACTICAL STEPS ––– The ground is shifting in the Middle East, which is why the EU and the US should prepare for any opening to launch a regional initiative. The 2020 Abraham Accords may have been directed primarily against Iran, but they were equally a sign of the US retreating from the region. In particular, Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt a lack of tangible support from Washington in the wake of the 2019 attacks, leading them to seek a strong ally closer to home — Israel — while de-escalating tensions with Tehran in an evident desire to avoid a war. The Iranian-Saudi talks held in Iraq earlier in 2021 were also a response to Joe Biden taking over as U. president and promising more tough love for Riyadh. The period of Iran and Saudi Arabia cooperation in the 1990s indicates that the two states’ enmity thus need not be cast in stone. In addition, regional players have already put some thinking into how to organize regional security more cooperatively, such as evidenced in the Iran’s ex-president Hassan Rouhani’s Hormuz Peace Endeavor initiative. The Iranian proposal built on earlier Russian concepts of collective security for the Persian Gulf.
On maritime security, the EU should strengthen the existing diplomatic track of EMASOH to enable an inclusive regional dialogue. One starting point could be to establish a Persian Gulf charter on maritime security, in which the littoral states reaffirm the basic principles of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beginning negotiations on how to apply such well-recognized principles should lead to a broader dialogue on related issues of maritime security. In addition, the Europeans should strive to turn EMASOH into a proper EU operation, which would give Brussels a bigger stake in regional affairs. This could also be the moment to turn the mission into an international, rather than anti-Iranian, endeavor by asking Washington to end Operation Sentinel and inviting the UK, India, Japan and South Korea to participate in the upgraded European operation. If the talks in Vienna create new breathing room for the 2015 nuclear deal, there is also scope for regionalizing some of the accord’s provisions by addressing nuclear safety issues. From disaster preparedness through civilian protection to early warning, there is ample space for dialogue among the three countries with current or imminent nuclear programs — Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — as well as neighboring states.
Before becoming US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan argued in favor of a structured regional dialogue in the Middle East. However, there is no security architecture that could be taken from the shelf and applied to the region. Instead, one way to seek de-escalation and manage mistrust is to begin a dialogue on maritime security and nuclear safety. By exploring the principles for governing regional relations in less politicized fields, neighboring countries can, in the long run, build the mechanisms and, possibly, the institutions that they find suitable for their concerns. The EU is in a good position to start with practical issues that can bring immediate tangible benefits to all sides concerned.
‘Collective Security in the Persian Gulf: Preparing for an Opening’ — Article by Cornelius Adebahr — Carnegie Europe.