According to reports, Russia is working to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran into a regional security arrangement and lessen the tensions between them. This builds on a Russian initiative called the "Collective Security Concept for the Gulf Region", which was first proposed in the 1990s. It aims, according to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, to work on “collective efforts at the international and regional levels to promote genuine peace, good-neighbourliness and sustainable development" in the Gulf region.
Russia is relaunching the plan, and recently organised a two-day meeting in Moscow hosted by Vitaly Naumkin, the president of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences and a senior specialist on the Middle East. Mr Naumkin noted that the countries of the region, “are fed up with what’s going on,” but are also “afraid of possible war”. Because they have reached a “sort of stalemate”, they regard some sort of negotiated solution as the only way out of this situation.
Most importantly, the US appears willing to go along with this effort, telling Newsweek that Washington would co-operate, except if its interests are threatened. The idea of a collective security framework is not surprising. Given the bankruptcy of regional institutions, such as the Arab League, and the disengagement of the US as the regionally dominant military power, a vacuum has been created in which states are advancing their regional interests and influence in an often chaotic, destabilising, way.
At the heart of this situation is the expansion of Tehran’s sway in the region, at a time when Washington appears reluctant to serve as a military counterweight to Iran. The Iranians have exploited fragmentation in Arab countries to their advantage, whether in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq or Syria, even as Iran has pushed forward in developing a nuclear capacity. For Arab countries nearest to Iran, this has been alarming.
When he was president, Barack Obama understood the dilemma. His aim was to reduce American military involvement in the region, which could only be done if Washington put the brakes on Iran’s nuclear programme. This led to an agreement over a nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015. Mr Obama’s reasoning was that this would open the door to a dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran, whom he felt could reach some sort of regional understanding to “share the neighbourhood”, as he put it in an interview in 2016.
The problem with Mr Obama’s scheme was that most Arab countries were never going to feel secure for as long as normalisation with Iran was seen by the Americans primarily as a way to prepare for their own exit. Nor did it make any sense for the US president to assume that Iran would have any desire to “share” the region, when it saw that the US was determined to cut back on its military commitments to regional allies.
That is why a collective framework, like the one proposed by Russia, makes more sense. For starters, it includes an element of international sponsorship and guarantees. It also introduces modes of interaction to reduce tensions, including confidence-building measures and mechanisms of dispute settlement. None of these are especially original, and certainly Moscow is keen to find a longer-term regional role for itself, but defining new patterns of behaviour is preferable to the void the Americans are leaving behind.
Moreover, such a framework could possibly address what many Arab countries consider the main problem with the American approach to the nuclear deal: It failed to address Iran’s destabilising activities in Arab countries. No one seriously believes that if the nuclear deal is revived, Washington will have the wherewithal, or leverage, to compel Iran to reduce support for proxy forces challenging legitimate Arab governments.
That is not to say the Russian initiative will necessarily do such a thing. However, a multilateral process, with backing from Russia and the US, could be the basis for broader support from the EU and China, all of which would welcome a stable Middle East. That, in turn, could create a new consensus that widens the range of outside stakes in the region, imposing certain red lines on Iranian actions.
After the present period, in which the states of the region are expanding their influence in preparation for a post-Pax Americana Middle East, there will be an impulse among many governments to consolidate their gains. While this need not generate greater stability, it would probably imply a greater willingness to negotiate. It makes sense to create a context that makes this possible, as unilateral actions will only produce more havoc.
The reality is that currently, as Mr Naumkin observed, there is no credible system to avoid war, while this situation and the inability to effect change satisfies no one. Some sort of internationally backed package deal that can reduce risks is required in the absence of a regional mechanism to do so. The Russian initiative is a good place to begin.