The Persian Gulf crisis triggered by President Trump announcing his ‘maximum pressure’ strategy against Iran in April this year and the subsequentseries of attacks on oil shipping in the Gulf, amid Iran repeating its threats of closing the Strait of Hormuz, have once againraised the issue of regional security and stability in the region. This paper analyses the emergent visions of regional security in the Persian Gulf.
The recent spate of attacks on oil shipping in thePersian Gulf and deployment of additional military assets by the United States (US) in theregion have once again heightened the fears of an impending military conflict between Iran and the US. Tensions between the two countries have been rising sharply since the US’ ‘maximum pressure’started in April, 2019, when President Trump ended the initial waivers granted to biggest buyers of Iranian oil and designated Iran’s IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation, effectively placing it in the category of groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS. Iran’s response has been to defy the logic of coercive diplomacy. In a June 2019 speech, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, rejecting the possibility of negotiations with the US, argued that ‘oppressive sanctions are a clear act of injustice against Iran’ and that Iran will not negotiate on strategic issues of revolution and military capabilities.iHe also declared that the phase of ‘strategic patience’ was over and Iran would use its own instruments of pressure.
Since July, 2019, Iran has been pursuing a strategy of phased partial withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, primarily to pressurise the European signatories of the deal—Germany, France and Britain—to do more to help Iran circumvent unilateral American sanctions. But the series of attacks on oil shipping and facilities in the Gulf, for which the United States has blamed Iran, have once again underlined the fact that the Persian Gulf remains highly conflict-prone and beset by a high level of insecurity.
The US response has been to keep upthe pressure on Iran, and mobilise its Arab Gulf allies ina security coalition. Russia has stepped-up support to the Iranian proposal for a regional security dialogue. This paper attempts to understand the three dominant security visions for the Persian Gulf region.
American attempts to create a Security Community of Arab Gulf States
Sinceassuming presidency in 2017, President Trump’s opposition to JCPOA, his predecessor’s ‘foreign policy legacy,’ was accompanied by efforts to mobilise the US Arab allies in what seems to be an anti-Iran coalition. During President Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May 2017, Middle East Security Alliance (MESA) was announced as a holistic partnership –with economic, energy, political and security components – between the GCC members and Egypt and Jordan (GCC+2), with the declared aim of ‘achieving peace, stability and development, on regional as well as international stages.’ii Dubbed by many as President Trump’s effort to create an Arab-NATO to contain Iranian influence, the fate of the alliance was marred by divisions among the GCC countries, especiallythe blockade on Qatar by fellow GCC countries of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain.
GCC as a collective security organisation has disintegrated since the Arab uprisings, when Saudi and Qatari interests clashed; as the latter’s support to Islamist groups,especially Muslim Brotherhood (MB), posed a direct challenge to Saudi interests of preserving the existing status quo.iiiSaudi Arabia, UAEand Bahrain together formed the Anti-terror Quartet, which imposed a land, sea and air embargo on Qatar in June 2017, punishing it for its ties with MB and Iran. Further, Saudi Arabia and UAE entered into a new economic and military partnership separate from the GCC in December, 2017, ahead of the annual GCC summit in Kuwait, effectively pushingthe GCC into redundancy.iv
Departure of Egypt, a key US ally and pillar of the MESA, in April 2019 raised further doubts over the efficacy of the nascent alliance.vThe attempts to create a US-backed and anti-Iran regional security framework were once again revived in the shape of ‘International Maritime Security Construct’ cobbled together in the wake ofthe series of attacks on shipping in the Gulf waters since May 2019. The US led coalition has been joined by the UK, Bahrain, and Australia and more recently by Saudi Arabia and UAE. It defines its objectives in terms of defending the “freedom of navigation, promoting maritime security and de-escalating regional tensions” in the Gulf, but like previous US-led regional security alliances, it is largely centred on containing the threats emanating from Iran.vi The initiative has not had much success in deterring Iran or its regional allies. The US-backed efforts to create security community in the Persian Gulf region have failed to take off as they base themselves on a highly politicised ‘Iranian threat’ narrative which impinges on the national and economic interests of several Gulf states such as Qatar and even UAE, who have advocated a political approach to resolve the current crisis in the region.
Furthermore, the recent attacks by Yemeni Houthi insurgents on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province and the unwillingness of the Trump administration to retaliate against Iran has only strengthened the emergent thinking in the Gulf states that they can no longer rely on the USfor their security.
(In June, 2019 Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln was steaming in international waters east of Oman, and about 200 miles from Iran’s southern coastline, Source: https://www.voanews.com)
Iranian push for Indigenous Collective Security in the Persian Gulf
Iranian leaders have longpropagated the idea of indigenous collective security inclusive of all the regional countries and without any foreign interference. However, Iranians have intensified their efforts for common security mechanism every time the US escalates its pressure on the Islamic Republic. In 2007, when United Nations Security Council (UNSC) imposed sanctions on Iran after it refused to suspend its enrichment program and the US threatened military action, Hassan Rouhani, then the President of the Center for Strategic Research, the research arm of powerful Expediency Council, proposed a “10-Point Plan to Promote ‘Cooperation, Security, and Development’ in Persian Gulf” at the World Economic Forum in Qatar.vii Rouhani, as the special envoy of Supreme Leader of Ayatollah Khamenei to the forum, argued that the six member states of the GCC along with Iran and Iraq should come together in a Persian Gulf Security and Cooperation organisation in accordance with Clause 8 of Resolution 598 of the UNSC, which called for a ceasefire between Iran and Iraq after an eight-yearlong devastating war. Advocating a political approach to resolve the nuclear issue, Rouhani called for confidence building among regional countries in the nuclear field towards making the Middle East free of weapons of mass destructions.
In the face of President Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, Iranhas responded with a strategy of controlled escalation, namely rolling back its commitments under JCPOA and threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. At the same time, itis also seeking to play a constructive role by advocating apolitical-diplomatic approach to resolve the crisis. Since the US withdrawal from JCPOA in May, 2018, Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif has renewed calls for a security dialogue forum among Persian Gulf littoral states, ncluding GCC states, Iraq and Iran. Atthe 2018 Munich Security Conference and Valdai Discussion Club Conference, Zarif outlined his vision of ‘security networking’ as opposed to collective security and alliance formation and the balance of power logic, which has guided the US strategy in the region.viiiElaborating the concept, Foreign Minister Zarif noted that ‘security networking is a non-zero-sum approach that accepts that security is indivisible, as opposed to alliance and blocks, which are fundamentally based on the defunct zero-sum approach of gaining security at the expense of insecurity of others.’ix The Iran nuclear deal, Zarifargued, was an outcome of non-zero-sum thinking, where all parties to the difficult negotiations recognised differences but also a common goal and maintained respect for the interest of others. At the Vadlai conference in Moscow, Iranian Foreign Minister suggested that Russia could use its increasing influence in the region to play a fundamental role in enabling this paradigm shift in the security architecture in the region.
Iran’s proposal for regional architecture does not ignore the conflict of interest and disparity of size among littoral states; instead the concept of ‘security networking’ recognises the security interdependence of the countries in the region. The very fact that regime values of Gulf states are threatened by anti-monarchical Islamism of Iran and MB underscores the extant security interdependence in the Persian Gulf sub-region.In other words the sub-region constitutes a regional security complex.x Therefore, the efforts for lasting security and stability will require recognition and acceptance of the core state values of each other and acceptance ofthe principles ofrespecting sovereignty and territorial integrity of others and non-interference in the internal affairs of others. Adherence to these principles is identified as the ‘ticket principle’ and confidence building measures in the Iranian proposal.
(Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly 2019 where he unveiled the Hormuz Peace Initiative (HOPE). Source: United Nations News)
Most recently, at the 2019 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), President Rouhaniinvited all the states in the region to join the ‘Hormuz Peace Endeavour’ (HOPE) with the declared goal of“promoting peace, stability, progress and welfare for all of the residents of the Strait of Hormuz region.”xi The initiative, he added, will promote cooperation on a whole gamut of interests such as “energy security, freedom of navigation and free transfer of oil to and from the Strait of Hormuz and beyond,” under the principles of “non-aggression and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs.”xiiContrasting his proposal with American security vision for the region, he argued that security and peace in the region will only be ensured through “inward democracy and outward diplomacy” and will not be provided with “American weapons and intervention.”xiii
Russian Proposal for Collective Security in the Persian Gulf
As the attempts to revive American dominated security order in the Persian Gulf region are proving difficult because of the divergent threat perceptions and security interests of the Arab states, Russia, which has been able to cultivate working relations with all players on both sides of the Gulf, is seeking to play a leading role in creating a regional security system that will end the dominance of the US as the key security provider in the region. The key premise of the Concept of Collective Security in the Persian Gulf -presented by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in late July 2019, at the height of US-Iran tensions -is the giving up of the permanent deployment of military groupings of non-regional states on the territory of Persian Gulf.xiv It espouses a regional and multilateral approach in developing a security system by ‘holding bilateral and multilateral consultations between interested parties.... including the UN Security Council, League of Arab States, GCC etc’.xv Russian proposal to the UNSC for organising an international conference on security and cooperation in the Persian Gulf was immediately backed by China.
(Russia's Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Dmitry Polyanskiy speaks to journalists about Russia's Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region during a press conference at the UN headquarters in New York, August 8, 2019, Source: http://www.xinhuanet.com)
In the course of US sanctions on Iran since its JCPOA withdrawal, both Russia and China have proactively helped Iran circumvent the American sanctions. While China continues to buy Iranian oil despite US threats of sanctions; Russia, after an Iranian oil tanker was seized by Royal Marines off the shores of Gibraltar in July, offered Iran to transport its crude oil to its Mediterranean customers through the Crimean ports.xvi Furthermore, Russia and Iran also reached an agreement in July 2019 to conduct joint navy drills in the northern Indian Ocean including Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf.xvii According to Iranian state media, China will also participate in the joint drill underscoring political and strategic convergence among the participant countries.xviii
Notwithstanding the differences in threat perceptions and security interests of the Persian Gulf states and Iran, the common aversion to further instability or warfare in the region may lead them on the path of collective efforts to manage differences and achieve stability in the region. The desire to avoid further escalation explains why the UAE refused to single out Iran as the culprit behind the recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities and instead reiterated its calls for de-escalating tensions. Earlier in July 2019, the UAE also dispatched two delegations to Iran to discuss maritime and border security in the wake of mounting tensions in the Persian Gulf. While the Iranian media represented the visit as a “peace delegation”, the UAE downplayed the visit as “nothing new.”xixAt UNGA, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, while criticising the Iran nuclear agreement for not addressing all aspects of Iran’s behaviour, called for sustainable solution to region’s problems through political initiatives supported by the international community. While raising the issue of disputed Persian Gulf islands with Iran, he supported political action to ease tensions and underlined the necessity of confidence building among states in the region.xx
Russia-Saudi relations have also deepened in recent years. The two countries have been cooperating in OPEC+ format to decide on output cuts and keep the world oil prices stable. Since the historic visit of King Salman to Russia in October 2017 – first visit to Russia by a reigning Saudi monarch – there have been reports of the Saudi kingdom seeking defence purchases from Russia, including the S400 missile system. Russia’s outreach to the Middle East is guided by both commercial and strategic interests. Cultivating close relations with traditional US allies, Russia’s role is no longer limited to balancing against Washington. If the recent meeting between Russia, Iran and Turkey, which helped broker a peace-deal in Syria’s Idlib region, is aguide, Russian proposal for the Persian Gulf may find takers among US allies in the region.
The two visions of security architecture in the Persian Gulf, emanating from the US and Russian backing for the Iranian initiative, are part of the larger geopolitical struggle in which the US under President Trump is striving to maintain the US-led security order, while prodding its local allies to share the common defence burden, and Russia, with support from China, is articulating new non-hierarchical vision of security, especially in Asia. The Russian proposal of collective security, coming at a time when the Gulf States’ trust in the US as a reliable security remains low and the likelihood of a regional military conflict continue to remain high, may appeal to those looking for a political option to diffuse the current crisis in the region.
* The Authoress, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
* The Author, Research Intern, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researchers and not of the Council.
i Speech by Ayatollah Khameinei, the Supreme Leader of Iran (2019) The Negotiation with the Enemy is Deception. URL:http://english.khamenei.ir/news/6866/Negotiation-with-the-enemy-is-deception[Accessed on 15 Sept. 2019]
iiUS Department of State (2019). Middle East Security Still Critical to the US.URL:https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/News/Article/Article/1829813/middle-east-security-still-critical-to-us/[Accessed on 10 Sept. 2019]
iiiAzzam, Z. and Harb, I. (2018). The GCC crisis at one year. pp.101-109. [Online]URL :http://arabcenterdc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/The-GCC-Crisis-at-One-Year.pdf [Accessed on 9 Sept. 2019]
ivThe Hindu (2017). UAE, Saudi Arabia form a new group separate from GCC. [Online] URL: https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/uae-and-saudi-form-new-group-separate-from-gcc/article21268680.ece[Accessed on 20 Sept. 2019]
vThe National (2019). With Egypt’s withdrawal, hopes for Mesa alliance are diminished but not dead. [online] URL: https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/with-egypt-s-withdrawal-hopes-for-mesa-alliance-are-diminished-but-not-dead-1.849401 [Accessed on 13 Sep. 2019]
viUS Central Command, Statement from General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., Commander, U.S. Central Command, Welcoming the Kingdom of Bahrain into the International Maritime Security Construct (2019) URL:https://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/STATEMENTS/Statements-View/Article/1937733/[Accessed on 12 Sept. 2019]
viiWorld Bulletin.Iran Unveils a Persian Gulf Security Plan. URL:https://www.worldbulletin.net/iran-unveils-a-persian-gulf-security-plan-makale,475.html [Accessed on 10 Sept. 2019]
viiiThe Iran Primer. Zarif, Lavrov Call for Gulf Security Dialogue.URL: https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2018/mar/06/zarif-lavrov-call-gulf-security-dialogue[Accessed on 10 Sept. 2019]
xAcharya, A., 1992. ‘Regional Security Complexes’ in the Third World: Stability and Collaboration. Unpublished Essay. [online]URL : https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e424/160ae9ca3575f9b77c1b225ac7376143040b.pdf
xiHassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, addresses the general debate of the 74th Session of the General Assembly of the UN (New York, 24 – 30 September 2019). URL:
xivVestnikKavkaza, Russian Foreign Ministry Presents Concept of Collective Security (2019) URL:http://vestnikkavkaza.net/news/Russian-Foreign-Ministry-presents-concept-of-collective-security-in-Gulf.html
[Accessed on 11 Sept. 2019]
xviPressTV, Crimea ready for transit of Iranian oil after tanker seizure (2019). URL:
https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2019/08/28/604688/Iran-Russia-Crimea-oil-Gibraltar-US-Britain-tanke [Accessed on 11 Sept. 2019]
xviiPressTV,Iran, Russia to stage joint drills in Persian Gulf: Iran Navy chief (2019).
URL:https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2019/07/29/602186/Iran-Hossein-Khanzadi-Russia-joint-naval-drills [Accessed on 11 Sept. 2019]
xviiiPressTV,Top military official: Iran, Russia, China to hold naval drills ‘in near future’, September 29, 2019. URL: https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2019/09/21/606738/Iran-Ghadir-Nezami-naval-drills-Russia-China-Indian-Ocean-Oman-Sea [Accessed on 11 Sept. 2019)
xixLCafiero, G. (2019). The UAE and Iran’s Maritime Talks. [online] LobeLog. URL: https://lobelog.com/the-uae-and-irans-maritime-talks/. [Accessed on 20 Sept. 2019)
xxGulf News, UN General Assembly: Sheikh Abdullah urges 'political solutions to crises in the Middle East', URL:https://gulfnews.com/uae/government/un-general-assembly-sheikh-abdullah-urges-political-solutions-to-crises-in-the-middle-east-1.1569701364414 [Accessed on 20 Sept. 2019]