Crisis management mechanism as the first step
In contrast, it is clear that there is more than ever a need for some crises-management mechanism able to mitigate the potential consequences of new incidents, miscalculations, risks of escalation and so on. The absence of such a mechanism is already a significant factor of instability since it constantly generates mistrust and raises suspicions about intentions of adversaries. The immediate goal is not to resolve all the existing security problems within the region, but to provide for more predictability and mutual confidence in dealing with unavoidable micro, mini- and mega-crises, which are already looming on the horizon. In that spirit, we would like to offer the following suggestions.
First, Iran and the Arab states of the Gulf would gain from taking control over their security interests, at least in terms of crisis prevention and crisis management. If one may think that a form of Iranian deterrence (as regards to the threat posed by Iran and its proxies) against American interests in the region has been partially "reestablished", nothing has been done to enhance the security of the Gulf countries in the same way. They remain vulnerable and the reaction of the White House to an attack on american interests is unpredictable. At a time of acute tension with the US, by far the strongest military force in the region, we would also suggest it is not in the interest of Iran to antagonize their immediate neighbours.
Second, a starting point in terms of "escalation risk control" should be to establish lines of communication and crisis cells able to exchange early warning and information based on reliable technical monitoring instruments. Even such a limited aim will need courageous decisions. In this regard, maritime security in the Gulf could provide a potentially fruitful ground to explore the idea of such confidence building measures. There is obvious interest for all regional players that the freedom of the sea be preserved. In that respect, it is noticeable that the Iranian project "Hope" (Hormuz Peace Endeavour) has not been totally rejected by Gulf countries. However, while this diplomatic move by Tehran could indeed yield better bilateral relations between Iran and some of its neighbours, it does not necessarily guarantee progress in terms of multilateral dialogue. If rewarding for the Iranians, this is not the best way forward. A coordinated approach by the GCC making a counter-offer on the basis on a limited crisis management mechanism specifically focused on the maritime security in the Gulf (and taking off the table some Iranian proposals such as those related to foreign military bases, which are not realistic for the time being) would be much more appropriate.
Such a mechanism would be somewhat similar to the pattern of interaction between NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization back in 1970s and 1980s. There are clear limitations on what this mechanism can do. For instance, it cannot become a viable alternative to legally binding arms control. It cannot address such fundamental problems as geography of deployments, defence-offence balances, evolution of military doctrines and so on. Moreover, the crisis management mechanism can deter only an unintended (inadvertent) escalation; it cannot help in case of an intended (advertent) escalation. If one side of the conflict considers "strategic ambiguity" as its comparative advantage or pursues the strategy with the goal to "escalate in order to de-escalate", no crisis management mechanism is likely to work.
In sum, no crisis management mechanism is a panacea for security challenges in the region. Still, one should underestimate this mechanism, if the only alternative in the nearest future is the complete vacuum of de-escalation instruments that regional players could rely on in times of crises. Once this mechanism matures and the trust among key actors gradually grows, one could get back to more proposals that are more ambitious, including collective security in the Middle East.
A role for non-regional players