The only region in the world without a security framework must at long last set about the task of creating one

The Middle East is once again the theatre for one of the world’s major crises- this time in Syria. Sophists and spin doctors are, to be sure, reducing the complexity that is Syria to a credulous good versus evil moral play. This convenient packaging obscures an inconvenient, more fundamental truth- to wit, that it is the existing regional order that is largely responsible for the perpetual insecurity and the endless recurrence of conflict in the Middle East. Confusion about this diagnosis leads to blindness about an obvious remedy – that is, that this outdated order, a colonial concoction of the last century established after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire must be overhauled, indigenously, for the benefit of regional peace and security in this new century.

In order to correct the regional order, Middle Eastern states must imagine a shared, more prosperous future, and work towards establishing a long-overdue regional security architecture- recalling that the Middle East today remains the only region in the world without a regional security and cooperation framework. Of course, the question is begged: how is it that a hyper-volatile region like the Middle East does not yet have a regional mechanism for managing and defusing conflict?

To be sure, the region suffers from an acute case of ‘security dilemma,’ which could arguably be offset through the creation of an indigenously conceived regional security framework for the Middle East.

If a security architecture is to have any chance of succeeding in the region, it must have buy-in first and foremost from the region’s political elites. In other words, it must not only be region-wide and inclusive, but also indigenously conceived, by and for the region. There is, to be sure, an important role to be played by extra-regional actors. But given the differing and often contradictory alliances and ad hoc partnerships of the region’s states and important external actors-  European states, the US, Russia and China, not to mention international institutions-  the most workable formula is one that is divined, driven and dominated by the region’s states themselves.

Of course, outside involvement in the development of a regional architecture will likely be impossible to avoid altogether in virtue of, amongst other things, the major role that oil continues to play in the economies of major outside states. The largest percentage of the world’s proven oil reserves (some 56 %) is found in the Middle East region. Some 20 % of the oil traded worldwide transits the Strait of Hormuz.

A number of Middle Eastern states also have bilateral military agreements with countries like the US (i.e. Israel and the Persian Gulf Arab states), meaning that the eventual regional security regime will have to manage and reconcile (or renegotiate) the various external commitments and positions of future member states.

Moreover, external involvement can offer certain default security guarantees that some Middle Eastern states will surely demand. It can provide financial assistance, as well as technical expertise on a variety of policy matters. But again, such external involvement must be secondary and subordinate to the leading role of the Middle Eastern states themselves.

The Middle East-  discussions of the etymology of the term aside – is most helpfully defined as the 22 members of the League of Arab States, plus Israel, Iran and Turkey. The traditional boundaries of the Middle East- typically understood to include the sub-regions of the Maghreb, the Levant and the Persian Gulf- are where one finds the nucleus of the security dilemma in the region, and where the focus of establishing a comprehensive regional security ought to be. Targeting the Arab states and the three aforementioned largely non-Arab countries is an obviously ambitious project, requiring significant political courage, diplomatic engineering, ingenuity and finesse. Afghanistan, India and Pakistan are additional potential candidates for membership due to their geographical proximity to the region, as well as the ongoing instability within Afghanistan, and between India and Pakistan-  instability with non-negligible spillover into the Middle East proper. These three countries could well participate in the preliminary phases of development of the security scheme as observers.

The security framework must adopt founding principles in order to bind the parties to a collective security vision. Fortunately, there are plenty of precedents to review – the UN Charter, the Decalogue in the Helsinki Final Act (1975) or the Ten Principles of Bandung, etc.- in creating a custom-made set of guiding principles and norms for the region. The would-be founders of a regional security structure in the Middle East would have to give due consideration to harmonizing the mandate of the regional security framework with the UN system and the UN Charter.

Two considerations are apposite in respect of the form that a regional security framework ought to take- that is, as between collective defence and cooperative security. First, both collective defence and cooperative security structures can co-exist in the Middle East, just as they have in other regions of the world (consider Europe, where NATO and the OSCE work in concert on the Old Continent). Second, in view of some of the current inter-state tensions in the region, a cooperative security regime may be the more realistic first step in creating a region-wide security framework. Once established and mature, the region’s collective security culture and norms could eventually create the conditions for the start of formal collective defence security discussions and negotiations (as a second step, as it were).

In a cooperative security model, in lieu of seeing each other as threats, states would view the existing regional security dilemma as the core problem that needs to be tackled in order to reduce violence and conflict in the Middle East. Regional states would work collectively in order to create mechanisms that encourage and incentivize regional security through increased intra-regional transactions- from the negotiation of various arms control agreements, to joint collaboration and policy-making to combat terrorism, to increased trade and cultural exchange. Increasing the intensity of intra-regional traffic in commerce, people and ideas, as in Europe, would increase interdependence among states and trust- or at least familiarity- among the region’s populations.

The creation of a permanent annual regional forum for Middle Eastern states to regularly convene and discuss regional security concerns would also be a constructive step toward improving the region’s security dilemma. Such a forum would seem to be low-hanging fruit, and yet is absent in the region today: it would generate a host of benefits, from relationship- and trust-building among regional leaders, to serving as a venue for brainstorming and policy generation, to defusing regional tensions and dispelling misperceptions through dialogue, to mediating conflicts as they arise.

The proposed security architecture may even have a positive impact on facilitating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a regime for regional security, the framework could be engineered to provide comprehensive and lasting security to Israel (with external guarantees, as discussed above). This may in turn encourage reciprocity through Israeli concessions that help in the creation of a viable state for the Palestinians.

A regional security scheme could have a direct role in helping to create a WMD-free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East. The idea of a WMDFZ for the Middle East has been a topic of discussion for some time. The concept was first championed by Iran and Egypt in 1974. Recent declarations by senior Iranian- Ali Akbar Salehi- and Egyptian- Nabil Elaraby- officials suggest an unbroken commitment to this idea. Experience tells us that a WMDFZ cannot exist without a robust and structured regional security scheme that provides for monitoring and, more importantly, enforcement mechanisms.

A region-wide security framework may also help to defuse tensions over the Iranian nuclear programme, averting a potentially catastrophic war. If Iran has nuclear ambitions beyond mere civilian use- something still contested among analysts and intelligence agencies – the presumptive rationale for pursuing this strategic logic would be to enhance its national security. Iran is an isolated country in the region with significant security concerns: porous borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan; regional threats; and US military presence (encirclement) in the region. The 1980-1988 war with Iraq remains etched in the psyche of the Iranian people. Even defeats suffered in wars with Russia as far back as the 1800s- defeats that cost the country large parts of its former territory- have shaped the Iranian psyche, the country’s security perceptions and indeed its overall strategic culture. As such, any regional formula that recognizes Iran’s legitimate national security concerns, and is further capable of providing it with security guarantees, will have a constructive impact on diplomatic efforts aimed at arriving at a peaceful solution to Iran’s nuclear programme. But again, negotiating the nuclear disarmament of Israel or asking Iran to stop its nuclear programme is not at all realistic in the absence of a broader regional security discussion and general bargain that issues in a credible region-wide framework.

To be sure, the significant regional and international anxieties created by Iran’s nuclear programme, and the growing shadow of a regional war over this programme, could assist in a mental paradigm shift among a number of regional players; that is, the prospect of a major war may well provide the requisite pressure that allows for regional players, with the support of external actors, to commit to serious diplomatic engagement on a more comprehensive approach to regional security.

Should negotiations on a regional security framework wait until countries in the region become more democratic? Could the proposed regional security framework help to steer the region toward a more democratic order, or would it merely prolong the shelf-life of authoritarian regimes? And would the legitimacy of the proposed regional security framework suffer if negotiated by an oppressive regime that is later replaced?

First, non-democratic governments are evidently capable of making peace, and there is little evidence to suggest that a security agreement brokered by an authoritarian government would necessarily be rescinded by a later democratic government (see the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in the Mohamed Morsi era). Second, a regional security framework for the Middle East and its potential for creating enduring peace could well support serious, indigenous political reform in the region (without the taint of foreign meddling). Historically, there has been a correlation between regional insecurity and repressive policies within regional states. A more secure regional environment could therefore arguably pave the way for more open political discourse at the domestic level. We famously saw this happen in Eastern Europe as a result of the Helsinki process.

Leadership is the obvious conditio sine qua non for initiating and successfully establishing such a regional framework. And yet, this requisite leadership is largely absent from the region today. At this juncture, Turkey, as a traditional Middle Eastern power with relative regional sway and respect, is in many ways the region’s ‘indispensable nation.’ It is true, as some analysts argue, that Ankara’s handling of the Syrian crisis has somewhat diminished the Turkish government’s general popularity at home and in the region, in particular vis-à-vis Iran. The Gaza flotilla incident in 2010 also cooled Turkish-Israeli relations. However, Turkey continues to be the only country in the region that is able to cajole the Iranians and the Arabs (as well as the Israelis) to sit at the negotiating table. (The Pakistani military also looks to Turkey, en passant, as a model, and would arguably be open to Turkish diplomatic forays were the framework to eventually expand to the South Asian states.) Early signals suggest that Turkey would not only be supportive of the idea of creating a regional security framework in the region, but would also likely be willing to lead the effort to jump-start the initiative.

Leadership from every regional country is, of course, neither realistic nor required. But leadership from a handful of key countries may be sufficient for purposes of initial progress. Partnership by Turkey with at least a couple of other influential states in the region, ideally Arab states- say, Qatar or an increasingly bold Egypt- would be important for increasing the chances of convening a first diplomatic summit in order to explore a regional security architecture. Iran, as a historically significant regional player and a key player in the region’s geopolitics and security landscape, would also have to be involved from the beginning if the exercise is to have meaning.

As intimated, not all regional states need to participate in the first diplomatic summit or be involved in the overall project ab initio. What is important is that the undertaking commence with a cocktail of core and smaller regional states- a critical mass that should be ever-expanding- in order to send a transparent message to the effect that the project is not targeting or seeking to exclude any particular state, and that its raison d’être is to create greater security for all states in the Middle East. There is great symbolic value in this message alone. States can join the ‘conversation’ when they are ready to do so.

The traditional concept of security in international relations theory, at least in the realist school, posits that the only way to ensure one’s security is to increase one’s power at the expense of other states. This conventional wisdom is practiced with perfection in today’s Middle East. The general insecurity in the region is the result of this logic. New ways of thinking about state and regional security must be tried in this new century. An inclusive regional security framework in the Middle East, while not necessarily eliminating inter-state competition altogether, has real potential to bring greater stability to the region. Preliminary indications obtained from some of the region’s most senior diplomats and policy-makers suggest that there is broad agreement on the need for such a framework, and that the timing may just be right.

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The views expressed herein are those of the author alone.