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A Crisis Management Mechanism in the Middle East Is Needed More Than Ever

BLOG - 10 February 2020

The beginning of 2020 was marked by yet another major crisis in the Middle East region. The crisis culminated with the US elimination of General Qasem Soleimani and could have slipped towards direct military confrontation between the US and Iran - with unpredictable consequences not just for the MENA region but also for the international system at large - had the Iranian retaliatory strikes on US military bases in Iraq not paused the escalation of tensions. However, one should not be under any illusion: if there is a pause, it can be only temporary.

Growing volatility

As events unfolded, the US-Iran tensions crystallized over the political situation in Iraq. There, their struggle for influence seemed to tilt in Iran’s favour as the Iraqi Parliament voted a resolution demanding the withdrawal of American forces; Tehran appeared to be in a position to redirect the anger of the Iraqi population from their discontent with the Baghdad government to an anti-American feeling.

A few hours – and the tragic accidental downing of the Ukrainian plane near the capital airport of Tehran – were enough to bring about another reversal of the overall picture: "Iranians out" soon added to the "Americans out" shouts of Tahir square protesters in Baghdad. Iranian citizens started  taking to the streets again, despite the massive crackdown on the last protests a few months ago, to denounce the incompetence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and going as far as questioning the role of the Supreme leader himself. Drawing from these events, and more generally the past six months, observers and decision makers cannot restrict their analysis to traditional geopolitical dynamics anymore, but have to acknowledge popular unrest dynamics at work in a number of countries including Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. Regional governments would delude themselves if they were to believe that popular unrests are exclusively the product of foreign interferences.

The general assumption is that President Trump "doesn’t want a war".

This new factor adds another element of uncertainty to the unstable balance of power in the  region. One should also keep in mind the very particular situation of the two main players.

The general assumption is that President Trump "doesn’t want a war". That’s likely, as much as it is obvious that his priority is to withdraw American troops as quickly as possible. These assumptions feed the general perception in Gulf countries that the American security guarantee is much weaker than it used to be. Having said that, nobody can predict how the presidential campaign already started in America is going to influence Donald Trump’s game. The incumbent candidate is torn between his willingness to "end endless wars" and the need for him to show he is not an Obama-like appeaser.

An additional complication comes from the fact that Iran has virtually left the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) while the current UN embargo on conventional weapons to Iran is due to expire in October of 2020 and there are practically no chances for it to be extended by the UN Security Council. These developments reinforce the perception that Trump’s strategy of maximum pressure has led nowhere.

On the Iranian side, the leadership of the country is facing grave difficulties : the dreadful state of the economy, the unprecedented challenge to the legitimacy of the system and the loss of Islamic Republic’s biggest source of influence in the region General Soleimani. Resuming the nuclear program will do nothing but further isolate the country from the international community, including losing the  already lukewarm support of Russia and China.

Why a collective security system is premature

Although both sides turned out to be cautious enough to avoid direct confrontation in January, none of the fundamental problems between Washington and Tehran has been resolved. Moreover, one may fear that the January crisis destroyed all hopes of a substantive US-Iranian dialogue finally taking off and of an agreement on some compromise version of the "Macron oil plan" being signed. While Trump did reconfirm his readiness to meet with Iranian leaders with no strings attached, he also imposed additional sanctions on key sectors of the Iranian economy. Predictably, the Iranian side rejected the US offer, arguing that no dialogue is possible without American sanctions being lifted or, at least, eased. Tehran also reserved its right to respond to future "US provocation" with any means it considers appropriate. 

One can only hope that channels of communications between the two states will survive the January crisis and continue to operate until the 2020 US presidential election.  However, will these channels be sufficient to handle another crisis? Is there any trust left between the US and the Iranian military - or their respective intelligence services? What about another impulsive decision by the US President, or another human error, or a technical failure? What about likely irresponsible actions by autonomous non-state actors that could trigger the chain-reaction leading to a large scale Middle East war?    

There are a number of reasons why the risks of an inadvertent escalation seem to be particularly high in the MENA region.

  • First, most of the political regimes combine weak institutions with centralized personal power, which makes the decision-making process quite dependent on personal perceptions and misperceptions, as well as emotions and improvisation.
     
  • Second, regional escalation can be not only vertical, but also horizontal, involving many hotspots at the same time: for instance, escalation might take place simultaneously in Yemen, in the Strait of Hormuz, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq, etc.
     
  • Third, this escalation can result from unauthorized actions by proxies and "loose cannons", which remain abundant in the region.
     
  • Fourth, many leading regional players have in their possession not only the most sophisticated modern weapons (which they often fail to muster properly), but also substantial means of cyberwarfare able to  inflict critical damage to command, control, communication and intelligence capabilities of their adversaries.
     
  • Fifth, as it has been noted, international escalation might emerge as a side effect of unforeseen domestic developments in one of the MENA countries, and such unforeseen developments will almost certainly take place in the region in 2020 and later.        

In those dire circumstances, the time is not ripe for big schemes for the future, in the form for instance of a collective security system. Nobody would argue against such a system and many roadmaps leading to various models of collective security have been put forward. However, moving toward this goal would be an extremely long, precarious and bumpy road with very unclear prospects of getting to the final destination.

    In those dire circumstances, the time is not ripe for big schemes for the future, in the form for instance of a collective security system. Nobody would argue against such a system and many roadmaps leading to various models of collective security have been put forward. However, moving toward this goal would be an extremely long, precarious and bumpy road with very unclear prospects of getting to the final destination. Even in Europe, it took fifteen years to move from the Helsinki Act of 1975 to the Paris Charter of 1990. Besides, the Paris Charter has never been implemented in full; today Europe is moving away from a collective security system, not towards it. There are absolutely no reasons to believe that one can successfully implement in the MENA region a model that failed in the most spectacular way in Europe.

    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.

    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

    We need a "coalition of the willing" ready to come up with a consolidated position on this matter and to encourage their local partners to take the first steps toward a crisis management mechanism.

    While regional players should be in the lead, there is room for some external players to bring a contribution. We need a "coalition of the willing" ready to come up with a consolidated position on this matter and to encourage their local partners to take the first steps toward a crisis management mechanism. Such a coalition could for instance be based on the JCPOA "P5+1". Another and more creative format – given the current level of hostility between Washington and Tehran – could be a "EU3 +3" grouping (excluding US, but adding India).  Such a format could be instrumental to work on the basis of the Iranian HOPE project on the one hand and a counterproposal coming from the GCC on the other hand. If both Iran and Saudi Arabia were to join the endeavour launched by this potential EU3+3, a new animal could appear progressively (no love at first sight is to be expected) which could be labelled "P4+4" (China, France, Russia, UK plus India, Iran, Germany, Saudi-Arabia).

    Should the United States be excluded from such an endeavour?  Of course, no. On the contrary, an American engagement should be welcomed, no matter when or if it wants to join. In the current situation, it is realistic to think that American regional allies will not go very far in this direction as long as there is no green light from the US. Our point is that even without any American engagement or green light, Arab Gulf states have good reasons  to at least engage in a preliminary discussion between themselves, and with external players, on those ideas. Furthermore, it would make sense from an American point of view to go along with a modest and specific step related to maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz.

    More generally, one of the obvious lessons of the January crisis is that the United States is not at this stage neither willing nor capable of performing the role of the unquestionable security provider in the region. The challenge for regional and non-regional players is therefore not to impose this role on Washington, but rather to convince the US side to abstain from blocking any multilateral or bilateral de-escalation initiatives between Iran and its Arab neighbours.

    However, one can hope that, at some point in the future, the US will change its current skeptical attitude to multilateral security arrangements and can become an indispensable participant to the core of a crisis management mechanism in the MENA region. A seat at the table should  be reserved for the United States no matter how long this seat will remain empty.

     

    See also

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