An Iranian cleric walk in a street in Tehran Bild: EPA/REX/Shutterstock
Donald Trump considers to quit the nuclear deal with Iran. This could lead to a new war in the Middle East. There are better alternatives.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action concluded in July 2015 between Iran, the P5+1 and the EU resulted in the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran and was a major success for multilateralism.
The benefits seemed clear: painstaking diplomatic engagement had triumphed over hostility in defusing the Iranian nuclear programme crisis. A catastrophic war and further regional instability has been prevented. Iran-US enmity had ostensibly thawed after more than three decades of seemingly irreconcilable differences, creating a significant opportunity for not only Tehran-Washington rapprochement, but also improved relations between Iran and the rest of the world. In the past year, Iran’s trade with the EU alone has increased by over 60%, a figure that is still growing, and sanction relief, to date, has translated into USD $11bn in foreign direct investment.
It is therefore puzzling to observe trends emerging from the new administration in Washington aimed at undermining the agreement. The recent imposition of new sanctions risks unravelling the Iran Deal in toto. It also alienates the other architects of the accord, including European and Russian partners.
Continued engagement by the P5+1 and EU with Iran remains crucial to ensure the agreement is insulated from ideologically driven assaults, and stays true to the mutually beneficial strategic imperatives that formed the basis of that successful multilateral accord.
Undermining the nuclear deal would constitute a major setback for regional stability and increase the likelihood of a devastating regional war – a war that would make the Syrian catastrophe and the ensuing refugee crisis a walk in the park by comparison.
The Iran Deal, however, offers much more. It can present a first step towards a sustainable regional security architecture for the Middle East.
Here’s an inexcusable oddity: while the Middle East is one of the world’s most strategically significant and conflict-ridden regions, it lacks the necessary institutions and mechanisms to discuss, manage, and adequately respond to security crises.
The region’s chaotic security order needs a reset. The Iran Deal may offer that opportunity.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is proof that Iran is a pragmatic actor and can be a partner in moving the region towards greater regional security.
As early as 2010, I presented different scenarios for how the Middle East can move toward a new regional security order, arguing the adoption of mechanisms for dialogue and trust-building measures would be a crucial first step towards creating a region-wide security framework. The region’s security culture and norms could then over time create the conditions for the start of formal collective defence security discussions and negotiations.
In the immediate term, the lowest-hanging fruit is the creation of an annual regional summit for security dialogue in the Middle East. Such an indigenously conceived forum is desperately needed in the region. This forum can be hosted on a rotating basis in different capitals across the region. Core agenda items could include a credible, region-wide response to the threat of ISIS, cross-border terrorism, sectarianism, and internally displaced populations.
To be sure, the Iran Deal offers an opening for regional diplomacy. With the participation of major actors at the table, thorny questions like tensions between Persian Gulf littoral states, the Syrian conflict, the rise of ISIS, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, in time, a Middle East that is free of weapons of mass destruction, can be tackled.
So as to cajole the parties to work towards a common security vision, the proposed discussions must be rooted in the founding principles of the UN Charter – i.e. prohibition against the use of force, peaceful settlement of disputes, non-interference in the sovereign affairs of states – or the Decalogue in the Helsinki Final Act (1975).
Equally important will be the support of the UN, the P5+1 and the EU for such regional endeavours. Indeed, the architects of the Iran Deal should build on that successful precedent to continue to broker the region’s security arrangements and institutions through multilateralism. Irrefutably, a more stable and secure Middle East is vital to the security of Europe and beyond.
The Middle East is host to alarmingly frequent hot wars with devastating losses in blood and national treasure. The existing regional order is not only highly volatile, but increasingly inching toward collapse. It is, alas, a region with countless instances of mass atrocities. The carnage in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen in the last decade alone are cases in point. These challenges must incentivise the region’s states, with the support of external actors, to commit to serious diplomatic engagement on regional security.
Open and comprehensive dialogue is indispensable to brokering peace, reconciling differences and working towards greater regional cohesion. The vision of a shared future in the Middle East, or at a minimum, a less ruthless regional security landscape is possible. Let us have faith in the belief that to dare the seemingly impossible in the pursuit of peace is to inch ever closer to its attainment.
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