Constructive chapter

GULF SECURITY SCENARIO : The West viewed Iran as a military and nuclear 'threat', primarily to Israel and partly to the Western world as well.

Constructive chapter
It is nearly seven years since US President Barack Obama assumed office. With just another year left before his second term ends, peaceniks would agree that American foreign policy has become unrecognisable, having travelled a fair distance on the road from being a troublemaker tobecoming a troubleshooter.

The United States and five other world powers signed a nuclear deal with Iran about a fortnight ago to end “decades of animosity” with and international isolation of the Islamic republic. It also pushes to the margins the spectre of war with Iran, which reared its ugly head umpteen times during the last decade and a half.

More importantly, the deal opens a potentially constructive chapter not just in Iran-West relations, but also between Shiite Iran and the predominantly Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Even if these two different, but interrelated, relationships improve marginally, there would be room to recalibrate the Gulf region’s security architecture – from being US-centric to evolving a collective security mechanism. Herein lies the possibility of greater peace and stability in the region. The United States has been the sole security guarantor in the region, ostensibly guarding the GCC countries’ interests against Iran. Due to fractured US-Iran ties, there was little scope to mend GCC-Iran ties either. Simultaneously, there was little scope for any other country to also play a constructive role in the security architecture of the Gulf.

The US political influence on and military presence in the region prevented the NATO and Europe from gaining traction in the Gulf security scenario. Further, the US-Iran-GCC friction impeded a role for Asia, with which the GCC countries vastly improved their economic ties since 2000, without commensurate improvement in political or security ties.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s defence spending cuts, Asia pivot, ‘no boots on the ground’ policy (aimed at reviving the US economy) and now rapprochement with Iran, has rendered Gulf security vulnerable. Consequentially, all the parties – the GCC countries, Iran and the West – took their ideological-sectarian differences to the battlefield, each supporting opposing factions, both in the Gulf and wider West Asia, thus making the chances for peace rare and the chances for stability rarer.

Now that Washington considers Iran deal a clean break, the GCC countries should also seek a clean break – both in terms of viewing Gulf security in new light and reviewing its non-constructive relationship with Iran. Here, it is useful to clarify Iran’s fundamentally divergent differences with the West and the GCC countries, eventhough they are linked by the common nuclear programme thread. Loosely, the difference lies in what each perceives to be ‘threat’ and ‘fear’. The West viewed Iran as a military and nuclear ‘threat’, primarily to Israel and partly to the Western world as well. The GCC’s ‘fear’ has been that Iran’s nuclear programme would expand its regional domination, widen the Sunni-Shiite gulf and even expose them to environmental disasters.

Since there is a perceptible difference between the threat and fear factors, the West and GCC countries should have ideally approached problems with Iran differently. But ideological baggage prevented all sides from adopting any objective approach that could collectively address their concerns, until the deal a few weeks ago. Yes, the West-Iran deal concentrates mostly on the nuclear threat perception. But the Camp David Summit involving Obama and the GCC leaders partly addressed the GCC’s territorial, ideological-sectarian, political, security and nuclear concerns. The most important development of the deal for the GCC countries is that it liberates them to choose their own kind of bilateral ties with Iran, rather than be conditioned by the hitherto animosity-filled West-Iran ties.

Though the concerns of the West and the GCC countries have been and are different, the short and long term GCC-Iran ties are largely linked to West-Iran ties. Hopefully, the West-Iran factor will be a facilitator, not a spoke, in the next phase of GCC-Iran ties. This is where the United States, and Obama in particular, must take the lead once again.

Developing alternatives

 As the GCC countries would be naturally encouraged to explore developing alternatives to protect their security interests, Washington must encourage attempts to diversify GCC’s ‘strategic’ cooperation with European and Asian powers to explore alternative security arrangements.

Such a collective approach is important because the conflicts in the region and world are too big for one single power to handle on its own. As the United States begins to shirk its global military responsibilities to shore up its domestic interests, doors would be open for other players.

The fact that Britain opened a permanent naval base in Bahrain in December 2014 and French President Francois Hollande became the first Western head of state to attend a GCC summit in May 2015 augurs well for a diversified security mechanism. Equally important is the expanding defence capabilities, especially the navies of some Asian countries, which are relevant to the energy-supply chain in the region’s waters. Given the ongoing GCC-Iran conflictually-competitive relations, Asian involvement assumesimportance because of their positive working relationship with both the GCC countries and Iran.

This could be tapped to evolve a conflict resolution mechanism and reduceregional tensions.The GCC countries have no ideological preference when it comes to choosing security guarantors. Irrespective of the cost – political, economic or ideological – whoever can provide the best security is the GCC’s best ally. While a collective security mechanism could be handy for the GCC, it also offers Washington a perfect stage to remain relevant, while opening the doors to Europe and Asia to step up to the plate.

(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst, author and honorary fellow of the University of Exeter, UK)
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