Dr Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
When Joe Biden is sworn in as US president in January, one of the critical issues his administration will have to address is superpower rivalry in the Gulf. The Obama administration’s toolbox may no longer be adequate to do the job; competitors may have some contrarian views on the matter, including Russia, China and Europe.
After four years of apparent rapport between the Kremlin and the White House, Biden might initiate a reset. Revelations last week about a massive cyberattack against the US, blamed on Russia, could make such a shift inevitable.
Furthermore, Moscow’s view of Gulf security appears to conflict with that of Washington, regardless of who is the president, as a recent discussion at the UN Security Council revealed. The security of the region could therefore become a thornier issue of disagreement if the US-Russia cold war intensifies under Biden.
Moscow has long sought a greater role in the Gulf. It has authored several permutations of its view of regional security and its role in it. In August 2019, Russia’s representative to the UN revealed his nation’s latest blueprint for a collective security system in the Gulf. The long-term objective of the proposal, he said, was the creation of a security and cooperation organization in the region that would include “in addition to the Gulf countries, Russia, China, the United States, the EU, India and other stakeholders as observers or associated members.”
In October this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov presented an abbreviated version of the proposal, which he said was premised on the “assumption that ensuring peace in the Gulf region is an important goal for the entire international community” and that “the unhealthy situation in this area destabilizes international relations.”
In an indirect reference to the assassination in January of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Lavrov said the incident could have triggered a “large-scale war in the Gulf,” thus highlighting the need to work collectively to de-escalate.
His choice of example was curious, as many thought that Iran’s massive attack on Saudi Arabia in September 2019 was a greater potential trigger for war, compared with taking out a master terrorist in the field of his operations. But that choice revealed some of the weaknesses of the Russian view.
Lavrov went on to say that “blackmail, … demonization and accusation of only one party are wrong and dangerous,” clearly singling out the US pressure on Iran for criticism, and not the latter’s destabilizing behavior in the region.
He asserted that the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, “made it possible to avert the threat of an armed conflict.” However, there is evidence to the contrary – that the nuclear deal unleashed greater destabilizing activities from Iran in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, as hardliners thought expanding Tehran’s influence in the region was their reward for acquiescing to the deal.
Faced with this skepticism from key players in the region, Moscow has recognized that the goal of establishing a collective security architecture “won’t be short, nor will it be easy,” as Lavrov told the UN Security Council in October
Lavrov also mentioned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initiative to hold an online meeting of the heads of state of the UN Security Council’s P5 nations (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US), plus Germany and Iran, to “develop measures aimed at preventing further escalation and forming a reliable collective security system in the Gulf.”
Note that at this initial meeting there is no mention of representatives from the Arab nations of the Gulf. At a later stage, Lavrov said he envisages the participation of “the coastal countries, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and other stakeholders” in “the practical steps to implement these concepts.”
In other words, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and/or the organization itself will be involved only in the implementation stage of what others have already decided.
Critics have raised important questions about the Russian proposal. Firstly, there is a serious problem with imposing a security system from the outside, or excluding GCC countries during the planning stages of a proposed system and expecting them to take part only in the implementation phase.
Secondly, the Russian proposal is quite similar to one that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani proposed in 2007, when he was secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, for the establishment of a security and cooperation organization in the Gulf. This indicates some alignment between the two countries on this idea, as a way for Iran to shed its rogue-state image.
Thirdly, the proposal in its current form is quite invasive, overlooking the mistrust that exists among the parties — not only between the two sides of the Gulf, but also between international players, especially the US, Russia and China.
Faced with this skepticism from key players in the region, Moscow has recognized that the goal of establishing a collective security architecture “won’t be short, nor will it be easy,” as Lavrov told the UN Security Council in October. He said that “the countries of the region must travel it themselves. The external players’ job is to help them create proper conditions.” This was an important recognition that previously was overlooked.
Lavrov also added an important new element: that confidence-building measures must be the starting point for improving the situation in the Gulf region, which is something the GCC has stressed for some time. He said that those measures should be “based on respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of states, in strict accordance with international law and the UN Charter.”
In its communications with Iran, the GCC has stressed that a commitment to these principles is necessary to establish trust and prepare the way for more-constructive engagement. Commitment to those principles means that Iran should stop using force to meddle in the affairs of its neighbors, and cease funding, arming and training terrorists and sectarian militias to wreak havoc in the region, from Iraq to Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. It also means that Tehran should halt missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia, and stop harassing oil tankers in the Gulf and the Red Sea, whether directly or through its proxies.
When Moscow succeeds in persuading Tehran to commit to the UN Charter and restrict its regional destabilizing activities, as a way to rebuild trust with its neighbors, the proposal for a new collective security organization might become more acceptable.
The writer is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist.