Gulf region - a new security architecture?

Posted in Asia , Peace and Conflict , Other | 24-Oct-10 | Author: Dieter Farwick

"At the moment, Iran is most problematic."
"At the moment, Iran is most problematic."
It is quite understandable that the political and public attention on security affairs focuses on worldwide hot spots, for example Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Iran, Iraq,
North Korea and so on. In addition, there is the power struggle between China and the U.S., and the growing influence of other emerging countries.

But there is an urgent need to look beyond the current crises. There is a need for medium and long term perspectives. As all current conflicts are interrelated and interwoven, there is no surgical solution for a single problem. Simultaneous politics and diplomacy are the only viable approach.

That is also true for one of the most volatile regions of the world: the Persian Gulf, extending to its regional neighbours and external but involved global players like India and China.

Robert E. Hunter is a renowned expert on international security affairs, a senior analyst at Rand, and a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and a member of the International Advisory Board of the World Security Network Foundation. In his recent book, "Building security in the Persian Gulf" he undertakes an ambitious attempt to paint the big picture of a possible future for this region (Robert E. Hunter: Building Security in the Persian Gulf).

Brig Gen (ret) Dieter Farwick, WSN Global Editor, took the opportunity to interview Robert E. Hunter.

1. Dieter Farwick: What are your main aims and objectives in developing a new security architecture for the Persian Gulf?

It is clear that the United States will continue to have critical interests in the Middle East, particularly in the region of the Persian Gulf; and it will have no choice but to remain deeply engaged. However, it is less clear that the American people will be prepared to sustain, for the indefinite future, the kinds of costs we are now incurring, in terms of blood, treasure, and opportunities foregone elsewhere in the world. I thus believe we need to find other means of securing our interests, at lower costs and with a greater chance both of meeting our needs and of meriting popular support at home.

2. Dieter Farwick: How do you define this region geographically and politically?
Who are the main players in and outside the region?

There is, of course, no neat dividing line. I have chosen the "Persian Gulf" because so many of today's issues and challenges are focused there - beginning with Iraq and Iran - and because of the vital nature of the supply of hydrocarbons from that region. In fact, however, there is a broader "region" that extends at least from the Levant to the Pakistan-India border, and perhaps beyond in both directions. One problem, however, is that the United States, certainly the US government, tends to look at different parts of this overall region in penny packets, as six or seven different issue areas, instead of realizing that, in fact, it is one overall "issue" with the interconnection and intersection of six or seven different parts. Obviously, all the regional nations have a stake, from Israel and Egypt in the West to Pakistan and India in the East, with everyone in between. In addition, outside countries with interests - making them "players" - include the United States, all the rest of the NATO countries, the EU, China, Russia, and Japan, as well as "partners" such as Australia. With the importance of the region to the global economy, it is possible to argue that no one is really unaffected by what happens in the Persian Gulf region.

3. Dieter Farwick: In your analysis, you focus on eight region-specific parameters which need to be considered when designing a new security structure for the region. Could you elaborate on these parameters?

These are somewhat arbitrary, in order to try bounding a problem that has a wide variety of aspects. In my judgment, the key parameters are:

• the future of Iraq - this is obviously true, because of the continuing conflict there, the interest and engagement in Iraq of a number of other regional countries, and uncertain prospects for Iraq' stability;

"I fear that, if something like what I have suggested here is not pursued, security will continue to deteriorate from…
"I fear that, if something like what I have suggested here is not pursued, security will continue to deteriorate from one end of the region to the other"

• the continuing challenge posed by Iran - this is so not just because of concerns over Iran's nuclear programs, but also because of its central location in the region, its size and ambitions, and other behavior to which the US, Israel, and some other countries take exception. Clearly, there can be no stability in the region unless Iran is prepared to play what we would call a "constructive" role; but that also means taking account of Iran's own legitimate concerns, especially for security;

• the rise of asymmetric threats (including terrorism) - this is one of the most important considerations in trying to build a new security structure for the Persian Gulf region, especially because asymmetric warfare has risen in importance, as a technique employed against the major Western powers, both directly within the region and elsewhere;

• the impact of other regional tensions, crises and conflicts - these include Turkey's concerns with the challenge from the PKK in Iraqi-Kurdistan, tensions among various Arab states in the Persian Gulf region, Pakistani-Indian tensions and risks of conflict, especially over Kashmir, the threat of piracy, and the congeries of stresses that can be loosely grouped under the rubric of radical Islamism; there is also the factor of potential conflict through miscalculation, especially with the proliferation of conventional weaponry in a region of short distances;

• expectations of regional actors for continuing US engagement, including military deployments and security assurances - in the final analysis, virtually all regional countries, other than Iran, look to the United States to play some sort of stabilizing role and to be the "provider of security of last resort." This will no doubt include the continued deployment of US forces, at some level, other engagements by the United States and, depending on developments (especially with Iran and in Iraq and Afghanistan), one or another form of US security guarantee to one or more regional countries, most likely several of them;

• the roles of other external actors, including the European allies, Russia, China, and India - even though the United States is now the preeminent external power in the region, others also have interests and some are likely to have increased engagements in the not-too-distant future. The Europeans clearly have a major stake in what happens in the region, and they will be called upon, either through NATO, the European Union, or as individual nations, to play signficiant roles in helping to provide regional security. Russia obviously has a stake in the region, as reflected in many of its policies; and, increasingly, both India and China are becoming engaged and will not doubt be increasingly so;

• the impact of Persian Gulf security issues on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan - while it can be argued that Afganistan and Pakistan are not part of Persian Gulf security, it is impossible to separate them into water-tight compartments. Not only are there confessional connections - through Islam - both also what transpires in each part of the broader region will have a critical impact on the other part, not least in terms of calculations about the wisdom and effectiveness of US policy, US staying power, and the roles of other countries, both internal and external to the region; and

• the relationship of the Arab-Israeli conflict to developments in the Persian Gulf region - while there is no inherent linkage between the countries of the Persian Gulf and either Israel or Palestine (or even Syria and Lebanon), this linkage is made in the minds both of regional governments and of peoples. Whether there needs to be progress in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy in order to make possible with the creation of a new and effective Persian Gulf security structure is an open question, as is the question whether progress in the latter can help to promote progress in Israeli-Arab diplomacy. None of these issues can, in fact, be considered in isolation, even if the precise linkages are not clear.

4. Dieter Farwick: We learn from history that common interests and common objectives are the prerequisite for any robust political cooperation. Do you see overlapping interests in the region and beyond?

This is a key question: how can one bring regional countries - at least a "critical mass" of them - to see that they have more to gain, individually, from cooperating in developments that can produce a new security structure that benefits all of them, instead of pursuing what could be called "beggar-thy-neighbour" policies, which so far have been notoriously unsuccessful in advancing the long-terms interests and ambitions of any of them? This is one reason for the process of trying to create a new regional security structure to proceed in stages and with a goal - at least at some point - of including all major regional countries. Thus there would be merit in pursuing confidence-building measures, such as regional political and military commissions; an incidents-at-sea agreement for the Persian Gulf (like that between the US and Soviet Union in 1972); a freedom of shipping convention, especially for the Strait of Hormuz; and counter-piracy cooperation. At some point, as well, there would need to be some agreements, or at least understandings, on the flow of conventional arms into the region and means to keep them from potentially provoking crisis or conflict, even by accident. Again, the region cannot be isolated, either within itself or from the outside world. Any "solution" will thus have to be comprehensive.

5. Dieter Farwick: There are some question marks over the future politics of some regional players, especially Iran. Iran has become an important player in the region. Do you see Iran in or out of the new security structure?

Ideally, a regional security structure that is able to work, to be effective over time, must include all countries of the area. At the moment, Iran is most problematic. Whether at some point it would consider being part of a regional security structure will depend on its calculations that it has more to gain, in terms of security, from being in rather than from being out, and, in the latter case, being considered to be the "other" that is to be countered by other members of the stru

"It is possible to argue that no one is really uneffected by what happens in the Gulf region."
"It is possible to argue that no one is really uneffected by what happens in the Gulf region."

What Iran decides cannot now be predicated, although it should be noted that it has itself proposed the creation of a regional security structure, but with one qualification that is unacceptable: that the United States (and presumably other Western states) be excluded. To discover whether Iran might be willing to be a positive player will also require that the US be willing to do something that it so far has been unwilling to do: to say to Iran, publicly, clearly, and unambiguously, that, if Iran will meet US requirements, the US will take Iran's legitimate security needs seriously, up to and potentially including security guarantees for an Iran that both gives satisfactory assurances (fully inspected) about its nuclear programs and meets others' requirements in other ways.

6. Dieter Farwick: In your book you emphasize the importance of the potential future U.S. role in the region. It is clear to me that any new structure must have a ‘regional face.' Yet several countries in the region regard the U.S. as the guarantor of their security and stability against internal and external threats. Moreover, the American public has become war-weary and reluctant to support further U.S. commitment abroad. What is the way forward for American politics in the region?

The first requirement is for the United States to recognize at least four things: 1) it will continue to have deep interests in the region for the indefinite future; 2) it will need to be engaged in many ways, of which military engagement is one element, but certainly not the only element; 3) the American people will need to be assured that US engagement in the region is being pursued at the least expensive cost in terms of blood, treasure, and opportunities foregone - and that the United States is not alone among Western (allied) countries in being so engaged; and 4) it will not be possible to exclude any country, ab initio, from a role in regional security, although whether a country like Iran will be willing to play a constructive role is far from clear. At least the United States should set that as a goal, and not be hampered in its efforts by a history of bad relations with Iran, just as Iran - to be taken seriously as a potential player - will have to get over its obsession with the United States.

7. Dieter Farwick : You do not stop at analysis, but also offer a great number of recommendations. Is this a to-do list for the players involved, or a framework for the way ahead?

I don't believe it is sufficient to diagnose a problem and set out the key factors involved without offering at least some ideas for the way forward. I have already mentioned some of these, the confidence-building measures. Other steps involve seeing what lessons might be applied - without making false analogies - from other experience, including possible roles (or examples) of NATO, the EU, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and ASEAN. Leadership will be key; but so will local "ownership" of whatever is developed. While the United States, and perhaps others, can have roles to play in providing guarantees and maintaining a presence, local knowledge and local effort will, if anything, be more important over time; as will steps toward the basic transformation of societies, their "modernization," so to speak, where this has not already happened. Most important for the US and the West, perhaps, is to gain a far greater understanding of individual regional societies than so far exists, as well as a role in adapting existing security structures and practices to regional particularities.

8. Dieter Farwick: Looking at current conflicts in the region and beyond it is not easy to imagine how your vision might become long term reality. This complex structure cannot be formed overnight. What could be intermediate milestones and building blocks? And how can mutual trust and confidence be improved? Are there existing models which could serve as a blueprint?

In the preceding questions, I think I have laid out a number of steps that can be taken, both in terms of efforts like confidence-building measures and in drawing upon experience with other security structures and processes.

9. Dieter Farwick: Do you believe that the involved governments have the resolve and the capacity to pursue this complex approach parallel to their current crisis management? What could be their first steps?

This is the most important question, I think. It is not at all clear that the United States or other Western countries, much less regional countries, yet understand both the value and the need for a new regional security structure for the Persian Gulf, plus the real possibility that something could be realized over the next several years. This will require, among other things, that the United States government recognize that it must see all the different elements of the region from the Levant to the Indian frontier as aspects of the whole, not as disparate "problems" to be "solve" separately. Looking for regional approaches needs to be the next step, after recognition of both what must and can be done, as above. This is a tall order, which will require a radically different mind-set, especially in Washington, from that which exists, today.

10. Dieter Farwick: To underline the importance of your work, what are the consequences if those involved in the region fail to start and develop a new security structure in the Persian Gulf?

I fear that, if something like what I have suggested here is not pursued, security will continue to deteriorate from one end of the region to the other; the bill presented to the United States and others will increase; the West will find itself increasingly estranged from one society after another; the patience of the American people will go down; and there will also be serious problems posed for the Western alliance, with the United States preoccupied with its own problems in the region and resentful of inadequate support from the Europeans; and with the European allies increasingly distrustful of US wisdom and capacity to "get it right" in the Middle East.