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It's time for a regional security framework for the Middle East

By Sam Sasan Shoamanesh (Originally published by Al-Jazeera)

Threatening and cornering Iran will only create more hostility and lead to instability in the region as a whole.

The EU has imposed tough sanctions on Iran's oil as well as targeted financial institutions

Stanford, CA - "Peace cannot be kept by force, it can only be achieved by understanding," Einstein once said. A sober assessment reveals that the policies adopted to date towards the Middle East, by and large, are not conducive to regional stability, or capable of resolving some of the region's most thorny issues, from the Syrian crisis and the Arab-Israeli conflict to Iran's nuclear program.

If we are genuinely committed to sustainable peace and seeing relations improve amongst states in the Middle East and the wider Arab world, as I have previously suggested, a wholly different formula is required - a formula based on a bold new vision, the strength of which is its promise of collective security and regional integration.

In recent conversations I have had with statesmen and senior diplomats from the region, there is a common feeling that the status quo is simply not sustainable; that an inclusive regional approach which embraces the region's common history and geography and looks to ensure collective well-being, and the realisation of a viable state for the Palestinians is required, and unquestionably, past due.

Fusing raw national interests is where there's potential for regional cohesion and stability in the Middle East - given the realities on the ground, chief amongst these interests are national security concerns.

A region-wide security framework for the Middle East, which includes a collective security dimension, may offer an answer to the existing deadlock, and the security Catch-22 that is keeping the region chained to a paranoid existence, addicted to weaponisation, and filled with internecine wars and animosity.

By assuaging the security fears of protagonists and regional stakeholders, the proposed security framework can open the doors, as it were, to solving the region's most stubborn points of contention.

For this exercise to be effective, by definition, it has to be an indigenous venture - by conception and design - grounded in the recognition that it is incumbent on Middle Eastern states themselves to take greater responsibility for the state of affairs in their own region, including regional security.

A new era of peace?

The all-inclusivity of the proposed regional security framework is paramount to its success. The geo-politics of the region simply require that in addition to all the Arab states, Iran, Israel and Turkey (to start with) are included and have a seat at the negotiating table. The preceding statement is sure to be unpopular in some quarters; this much is conceded. However this is not a popularity contest, but a strategic vision based on the bare facts on the ground, capable of ushering in a new era of peace and regional stability for the Middle East and its long-tormented people.

Those who intimately understand the region, its geopolitics and undercurrents know that an initiative by say Turkey or an Arab State - suitable candidates could be an increasingly influential Qatar or possibly the new Egypt, contingent upon the outcome of the upcoming presidential elections - aimed at assembling all states in the region to sit at a negotiating table to discuss regionalism and regional security is possible. With political sway and diplomatic tact, this includes securing the participation of regional rivals.

Multi-lateral discussions organised to explore the creation of the proposed security framework ipso facto can reduce tensions on the most polarising and heated regional issues. This can be achieved by providing a much needed platform for dialogue where differences can be openly discussed alongside common and vital interests, within a workable framework with the participation of all the region's states.

Negotiations over a regional security framework can and should be coupled with parallel negotiations over challenging regional issues which have significant security dimensions as part and parcel of the same discussions. Realising a viable state for the Palestinians and ending the protracted Israel-Palestinian conflict, Iran and Israel's nuclear programs, and the proposal for a WMD-free Middle East - all requiring a regional solution - are just a few obvious examples of items for discussion in the framework of regional security. Water security and joint investments in alternative energy sources - solar, wind, etc - to free up oil and gas for export, after domestic needs have been met, may form other topics of interest related to a broad definition of regional security.

But how are we to get there? The boiling crisis over Iran's nuclear program and the upcoming UN-sponsored conference to be held in Finland later this year to discuss the proposal for a Middle East nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction free zone - an idea, parenthetically first tabled by Iran in 1974 at the twenty ninth session of the UN General Assembly - may offer a golden opportunity to give serious consideration to the idea of establishing a regional security framework for the region.

Confrontation and provocation

Tensions over Iran's nuclear program have reached an all-time high. A devastating polarising war is no longer a distant fear, but a real possibility. The absence of any workable diplomatic solution or modus vivendi capable of decompressing tensions has only heightened the crisis.

Hoping to curb Iran's nuclear program and to prevent nuclear proliferation in the region, resort has been made to a tenacious policy of confrontation, complete with the threat of the use of force, choking sanctions (escalated by EU's recent embargo on Iranian oil), clandestine covert operations aimed at sabotaging Iran's nuclear program including the murdering of scientists in violation of international law. Far from attaining the desired results, these policies have achieved the opposite.

Iran insists that its nuclear program is intended for civilian purposes and that it is not currently developing nuclear weapons - an assertion, US intelligence has not been able to refute by evidence to the contrary. Ironically, aggressive policies which pressure and isolate an already anxious Tehran, force the Iranians, perhaps more than ever before, to favorably consider the 'strategic depth' of a nuclear weapons program as a tool of self-preservation and as an indispensable component of their national defense strategy. Such policies are simply validating the strategic imperative of nuclear deterrence as a necessary evil in Iranian calculations. In other words, the end is being undermined by the means.

At the same time, the more a nuclear Iran becomes a possibility, the more intensely Israel will hold on to its nuclear arsenal as a non-negotiable strategic asset. And while Israel's nuclearisation has not yet precipitated a region-wide nuclear race, a Middle East with two major regional players boasting nuclear weapons and/or capability, although far from certain, may do so. In turn, the necessity for capitals across the region to keep the option (to go nuclear) open may dash any hopes that the forthcoming UN-sponsored conference to be held in Finland will yield progress on the proposal for a WMD-free Middle East.

The US push to create new or bolster old bilateral military relationships with Iran's neighbours; increasing its military presence in the region; or equipping regional rivals with billions of dollars of state of the art militarily goods to point at Iran (and at each other) only serve to raise the stakes and increase regional tensions. Such policies apart from encouraging an arms race in the region are again another instance of US policymakers' insensitivity to the deep sense of Iranian vulnerability and insecurity that underpin the country's provoked belligerence. If we are at the brink of war, it is due to the path that has been followed to date.

Cornering Iran

Threatening and cornering Iran, whilst neglecting and worse, aggravating the country's security concerns will only beget hostility and encourage regional instability. Due to its history and geopolitics, Iran is fixated on the possibility of external threats to its national security.

Iran of course is not alone in the region with grave security concerns. To be sure, a security dilemma and fears that one's sovereignty is constantly at peril is felt across the region.

Contrary to such policies that have not borne fruit, as outlined above, there is another path. A more constructive regional approach which can address the Iran nuclear quandary and a host of other security related regional disagreements. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for instance, the ability to provide comprehensive security guarantees is key to obtaining the necessary concessions and gaining concrete ground towards realising a viable state for the Palestinians.

As mentioned, negotiations over the establishment of a region-wide security framework can and arguably ought to be joined with parallel negotiations over the two state-solution. In sum, a homegrown security framework in the region can constructively alter the existing zero-sum geo-strategic calculus in and against the Middle East, which to date has only awarded temporary gains for transient winners while ensuring a permanent net loss for the region as a whole.

False polarisation and fear of the unfamiliar 'other' grow in obscurity. Open and comprehensive dialogue is what is required to broker peace, reconcile differences, make amends and move towards regional cohesion. It is past time to recognise the merits of a vision which calls for a shared future. It is hoped that the region's elites and leaders step up, show courage and work towards building sustainable peace through a commitment to diplomacy and common security. First step: call for and organise a multilateral diplomatic conference to discuss the establishment of a region-wide regional security framework for the Middle East.

Similarly, it is difficult to fathom how any progress on a Middle East WMD-free zone can realistically be achieved without adequately addressing the question of collective regional security. To start with, under the current circumstances, it is naive to assume that Israel or Iran will forfeit their nuclear programs without comprehensive and lasting security guarantees. At the upcoming UN sponsored conference to be held in Finland, the prospect of creating an indigenous regional security organisation, which can monitor and enforce compliance of a comprehensive security-based treaty should be raised as a subset and integral part of discussions on the establishment of a WMD-free Middle East.

It should not require much of an imagination to recognise the high paying dividends of such a logical investment in peace for the future of the region, its people and beyond. All that is required is leadership and the triumph of strategic vision and courage over 'group think' and tribalism.

About the author: Sam Sasan Shoamanesh is the co-founder and managing editor of Global Brief. He is currently a SPILS fellow at Stanford University where he's focusing his empirical research on regional security in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

... Payvand News - 02/05/12 ... --

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