The elusive project of common security in the Persian Gulf

By Rouzbeh Parsi, Lund University

* This memo was prepared for the “Visions of Gulf Security” workshop, March 9, 2014.

The political and security landscape of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East changed drastically with the Iranian revolution in 1979. The United States became increasingly more directly present and involved in maintaining the security of its allies in the Gulf. Through different means the United States tried to balance and constrain the two countries with the most destabilizing behavior and potential: Iran and Iraq. The new security arrangement that grew out of the removal of Iran from the U.S. equation regarding the Gulf included greater emphasis on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a security organization and U.S. military bases.

While much of this was perceived as necessary due to an Iranian – and at times Iraqi – threat, and thus the focus on security, the concomitant political focus was and is lacking. Therefore, tidbits that barely amount to a regional security framework are primarily negative (containing and deterring Iran) and focused on hard security. In short the security agreement was and is doubly inadequate.

However, the basic parameters underwriting this security equation are now changing. In many ways the idea of a security arrangement that would contain, constrain, and essentially ignore a country of Iran’s geopolitical weight can by definition not be open ended. To maintain this imbalance (not to imply that there is a “natural” balance) requires political, military, and economic commitment to offset Iranian potential. As long as the revolutionary phase of the Islamic Republic dominated, and later haunted, the rhetoric and actions of Tehran (always more of the former than the latter) maintaining the imbalance was that much easier. The nuclear issue and its handling by Tehran during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency also contributed to prolonging the self life of this set up.

But that 30-odd-year period is now coming to an end. Tehran is trying (it remains to be seen if it succeeds) to climb out of the hole that it almost single-handedly put itself in, through its firebrand rhetoric and action and its mismanagement of the nuclear file. Even if the negotiations under President Hassan Rouhani do not result in a clear-cut solution, that anything less than cold war and outright hostility is possible is making waves in the region.

In short, if less is spent on upholding the imbalance, it will inevitably rebalance itself in the sense of Iran becoming part of the equation rather than something the equation is supposed to negate. A re-adjustment of the strategic landscape is the regional equivalent of the global stage debate of the transition from a bipolar or unipolar world to a multipolar world. For many this is policy theater, a buzz word exercise with little actual thought spent on what a rebalance could and will mean. It seems for some, in practice, the reality of multipolarity and its implications have not sunk in yet. Similarly, lip service is paid to the idea of Iran again “becoming part” of the region, but much less thought is paid to what this could mean and how it might or should be shaped. Instead it becomes a canvas on which pseudo-primordial fears are projected.

So regardless of whether Iran is fully reintegrated in the medium term the balance will change and this is the phase, the “transition,” when things are more fluid than usual, which is the most dangerous. For now, expectations and fears must be managed with an eye toward a future yet to be determined – a tall order.

Post-revolutionary Iran and the Gulf

The political elite in Tehran is slowly and reluctantly coming to grips with being a post-revolutionary state. The society has been way ahead of it for quite some time.[1] Thus the rhetorical element buttressing an ideological reading of the region is in high demand as the willingness to act on revolutionary ideals diminishes. Ironically, an ideological reading as an actual assessment of the political landscape seems to have taken hold on the southern shore of the Gulf. The Saudi Arabian perception of an Iranian threat seems to be more ideologically conditioned now than compared to 10 years ago. While this has to do with Iran’s nuclear program and Ahmadinejad, it has enough precedent and staying power to cloud judgment of some of the helmsmen in Riyadh. The reality of sectarianism is a hotly debated issue. It ought to be considered as seldom the beginning of the story, though it can become the red thread if it is treated as such and used to mobilize constituencies. In that sense it has a propensity to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: fairly easy to invoke, regardless of whether it was of any actual consequence at that point in time, and once in place so much more difficult to manage or dissolve. One reason for this discrepancy is that it entails mobilizing segments of the population as much as justifying things to the constituents. Not only will it wed the political elite to a certain perspective and course of action, it is also meant to engender popular consent and will, in turn, inevitably mobilize some of them for more direct participation. Once the wheels are set in motion it is increasingly beyond the control of the political powers to contain it.

At this point, Pandora’s Box of sectarianism is wide open. Sectarianism is now a politically expedient mobilizer and explanatory variable for the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Bahrain. But it does not only account for the internal dynamic of these countries – sectarianism is also said to explain the actions and behavior of regional powers involved, in various ways, in the conflict inside the aforementioned countries.

What next?

The idea of the Persian Gulf as a region in its own right is well established, but the idea that it has or could have its own regional security framework is more an object of scorn perhaps than realism.[2]

In this regard some attention should be paid to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)[3] as an endeavor undertaken under somewhat similar circumstances and with an equally implausible chance of coming into existence, let alone of succeeding. The act of creating the OSCE was a laborious process that took three years to finish (1972 to 1975). The final product encompassed a broad array of matters defined as within the purview of the organization, but the cornerstone was the “indivisibility of security”[4] i.e., that the security aimed for would not be directed at any party. Today, we would phrase this in terms of a win-win situation: that security is not a zero-sum game and that it must be established at no one’s expense, rather to the benefit of all involved. From this also flows the prerequisite that all parties to the latent and potential conflicts are involved, otherwise the project loses its integrative function and immediately transforms those excluded into spoilers. The forming of the OSCE was a political act that both required overcoming the deep set West-East mistrust and building a common perception and conviction that détente is a continuous process with the corollary of coexistence rather than vanquishing the enemy. The three security dimensions of the OSCE process are political-military, economic and environmental, and finally human (democracy and human rights).

In so many ways this is reminiscent of the situation in the Gulf. There are perceptions of existential threats, hegemonic aspirations (and here Iran is not the only one feared by some of its neighbors: Saudi Arabia is also viewed by some fellow GCC members as prone to hegemonic aspirations) and security is primarily defined in military terms (deterrence etc.). As Gregory Gause and Michael Barnett point out, in many ways the GCC has been an organization going backward, not managing to engender or build a security community but instead warding off the possibility of one. In their words: “…while Gulf leaders constructed the GCC for statist purposes, its very existence has encouraged, however unintentionally, greater mutual identification at the societal level.”[5] Recent developments with the intervention in Bahrain and a push toward greater security integration have not really brought the organization as such any closer to becoming a security community proper.

The real security community of the Persian Gulf cannot be built without or in spite of Iran and Iraq. Their inclusion is necessary not simply from a balance-of-power perspective but because the security that needs to be built cannot be built against any actor. Nor can this framework succeed without the participation of outside global powers especially the United States.[6] Here the beginning of a détente between Iran and the United States, no matter how cautious, is crucial. And for a security community to survive Saudi Arabia must be brought on board, not to tolerate but to participate.

In its first incarnation this security framework will only amount to what Barry Buzan has called a “thin” international society, i.e., one where there are hardly any shared values and the focus is on devising rules for coexistence.[7] This coexistence must however be of an active kind, i.e., more than just tolerating each other. While this may sound far-fetched, the number of issues and areas where there could be genuine cooperation as part of a broadened conception of security are plenty. Besides the obvious need to establish better communications on the political level, there are other issues: the day-to-day operations of military and maritime security, environmental issues (water), as well as a dialogue on human rights – something probably not welcomed by any party in this community to be.

While it is naive to suggest that this kind of common security framework can come into being simply because it is rational (is it really? for who?) it would be equally erroneous to suggest that the fact that it has not yet transpired as proof for why it never will and that the countervailing forces are constant. The OSCE was perhaps not a resounding success in preventing all conflicts but it was instrumental in creating a dialogue on many levels and fronts that helped keep the process of détente and state socialization alive during and beyond the last decades of the Cold War. While the states in the Persian Gulf, pace Barnett and Gause, may seem even more obdurate than their Cold War equivalents, their societies are much more dynamic and may show the way. Perhaps the Gulf version of the OSCE will grow from below?

Rouzbeh Parsi is a senior lecturer in the department of human rights studies at Lund University.

[1]For an overview of some of these aspects see Middle East Institute’s Iranian revolution at 30, 2009 [] and Parsi, Rouzbeh (ed.), Iran: a revolutionary republic in transition, Chaillot Paper, EU Institute for Security Studies, 2012 []

[2]Russell, Richard L., “The Persian Gulf’s collective-security mirage”, Middle East Policy Council, 2004 v.12 no. 4.

[3]For more on the history of the organisation see the OSCE web site, and Galbreath, David J., The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Routledge 2007.

[4]Pourchot, G., “The OSCE: A pan-European society in the making?”, European Integration, 2011 v.33 no. 2, p.180.

[5] Barnett, Michael & Gause III, F. Gregory, “Caravans in opposite directions: society, state, and the development of community in the Gulf Cooperation Council”, in Adler, Emmanuel & Barnett, Michael (eds.), Security Communities, Cambridge University Press 1998, pp.160-161.

[6] Sadeghinia, Mahboubeh, Security Arrangements in the Persian Gulf: With Special Reference to Iran’s Foreign Policy, Ithaca Press 2011, p.xxxvii.

[7] Buzan, Barry, From International to World Society? Cambridge University Press 2004, pp.59-60.

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