Tensions in and around the Persian Gulf are persisting, with regular attacks on land and at sea. At the same time, a broad shift of alliances is taking place, whether through the United States’ continued distancing, a new rapprochement between Israel and Arab states, or an acceptance by the Arab world that Iran is a factor to be reckoned with, rather than wished away.
In this fragile environment, the EU is generally not regarded as a power but is nonetheless equipped with certain resources. The union should—in its own interests and those of the countries concerned—prepare to support the creation of a regional mechanism for collective security. That way, the EU can bring its influence to bear if and when an opening for talks emerges.
Collective Security Comes With Preconditions
Collective security requires an understanding among the parties involved of the way their security is interdependent. Effectively, governments must acknowledge that “the security of one is the concern of all,” in the words of several security experts. The Iranian regime, in particular, has repeatedly demonstrated with its presumed attacks on neighboring countries that no state can be secure until all states are—or feel—safe. The most prominent recent assault was the September 2019 drone strike against Saudi oil-processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. Riyadh’s very restrained reaction was a strong indicator of the Saudi leadership’s understanding that it had better come to terms with Tehran rather than continuously raise tensions through the then U.S. administration’s policy of maximum pressure.
Collective security is different from collective defense, which is directed at a common enemy, not at members of the group itself. The Middle East Strategic Alliance, also pursued by the previous U.S. administration, fell into the category of collective defense as it was clearly aimed at countering Iran. Such an alliance, formed primarily by the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has so far failed to materialize. This is due not only to a lack of U.S. willingness to make a NATO-style commitment to Arab states’ security but also to those states’ internal differences over what the ultimate security threat is. For some, the greatest danger is the expansionist Shia nation on the other side of the Gulf, while for others it is the domineering Sunni monarchy on their own side.
Both the dividing line between Arab countries and Iran and the intra-Arab rift, which is most pronounced around Qatar, point to a second precondition for collective security: countries’ self-awareness that they are members of a regional grouping. In the Persian Gulf, a body of water and a religion unite just as much as divide the littoral states. While Iran and Saudi Arabia share aspirations for regional hegemony, there are also stark religious differences in terms of doctrine and demographics: Shias are more numerous in the region in total, but there are more Sunni-majority states.
This situation manifests itself in the presence of military proxies—particularly Iran’s—throughout the region. Whether Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, or the Houthis in Yemen, these military actors with friendly links to Tehran are often heavily immersed in local politics and represent a security threat and a permanent challenge to the respective governments. Moreover, this rivalry plays out against a backdrop of mutual suspicions of conspiring for regime change, given the two sides’ antagonistic political systems, with Saudi Arabia’s feudal monarchy pitted against Iran’s theocratic republic. Such opposition would have to be overcome for collective security to work.
Regardless of Riyadh’s and Tehran’s current lack of regional self-awareness, a focus on the Persian Gulf as a geopolitical region is in order because the epicenter of conflict has moved there in recent years. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict no longer sets Arab countries against the Jewish state, even after the May 2021 clashes with Hamas. Instead, the 2020 Abraham Accords between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—themselves a product of the long-term U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East—indicate the signatories’ joint opposition to Iran. In addition, the assumed existence of a regional setting formed by the six GCC countries, Iran, and Iraq helps governments accept that no individual country is a problem but rather has to be part of the solution. (Yemen, which does not border the Persian Gulf but is the arena of a bloody proxy war, is likely to start out as the subject of security talks, which may lead to a security arrangement later on.)
There is no blueprint for what a system of collective security should look like. True, there are established practices, such as consultations and protocols, but the creation of this kind of system will have to be unique to its particular context. Any security arrangement for the region would therefore not be about setting up a ready-made equivalent of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for the Gulf; rather, it would be about agreeing on conflict de-escalation and confidence-building measures in an open-ended process that could conceivably lead to some sort of institutionalization. Importantly, such an initiative would have to come from the states concerned and then receive support and, eventually, guarantees from external powers.
Maritime Security and Nuclear Safety
Two policy areas, in particular, offer themselves for step-by-step cooperation: maritime security and nuclear safety.
The first is at the intersection of commercial, security, and political interests and has been recognized over the years as a critical element in the Persian Gulf. The term encompasses areas from the demarcation of borders and exclusive economic zones to maritime connections and shipping passages to environmental concerns and the effects of climate change. That means the Gulf’s littoral states have a lot of ground to cover in very practical terms before touching on hard-security—as in military—matters.
Importantly, a beginning has already been made. In July 2019, at the height of tensions in the region’s waters, an official delegation of the UAE traveled to Tehran to discuss “maritime border cooperation and the flow of shipping traffic, including illegal movements.” The visit came after tankers had been attacked or seized, presumably by Iran, leading to an increase in oil prices and shipping premiums.
These incidents prompted the deployment of two international missions in the region. First, the United States created the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) with its Operation Sentinel to protect commercial ships in the Gulf. For this mission, Washington enlisted the support of Bahrain (home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet), Saudi Arabia, and the UAE as well as Australia and the United Kingdom.
Second, due to transatlantic differences in policies toward Iran, EU members refused to join the IMSC and launched their own initiative, the European-led Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH), with its military arm, Agénor. This eight-member endeavor, which operates out of the French naval base in Abu Dhabi, similarly aims to ensure freedom of navigation, although the two missions do not coordinate their activities. While this maritime operation is organized independently by the participating member states, the EU as a whole can build on a maritime security strategy that dates back to 2014. Given that this document specifically called on the union to strengthen “regional responses to maritime security,” the EU should not need another prompt to become active in the Persian Gulf.
Similarly, the EU can build on its long-standing work on nuclear safety. With atomic energy programs active in two littoral states—Iran and the UAE—and soon to be running in Saudi Arabia, the nuclear file, which in the past two decades has focused only on Iran, has become a regional issue. Hence, the policy response should also be regional, and the less politicized aspects of nuclear safety would be a good place to start. That is because of the collective damage any accident would do: Iran’s Bushehr power plant is much closer to Arab capitals than it is to Tehran. Likewise, the UAE’s Barakah nuclear power plant is only a stone’s throw from Doha, Bahrain, and the Saudi port of Dammam.
In addition, increased nuclear proliferation is of growing concern. While the UAE, which uses South Korean–built reactors, has accepted internationally recognized constraints, such as foregoing enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, Riyadh has made clear that it will not agree to these limitations. Like Tehran, the Saudi leadership appears to attach a strategic dimension to its nuclear quest: acquiring a nuclear capability that it can use for more than just energy generation, either so it can extract international concessions for not crossing the bomb-making threshold or so it can do just that at a moment of its choosing.
In that sense, the existing Iranian and the nascent Saudi nuclear programs pose similar challenges that ought to be tackled at the regional level. Interestingly, long before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Washington had begun to mistrust the shah’s purely peaceful intentions for the nuclear program it had helped set up in Iran. Today, Saudi Arabia is a close U.S. ally but refuses to sign up to the nonproliferation gold standard while initiating its own missile program with support from China. To leave no doubt, the Saudi crown prince threatened that his country would “follow suit as soon as possible” if Iran ever acquired a nuclear weapon. Security—whether from an attack or from an accident—can be achieved only at the regional level.
Preparing for an Opening With Practical Steps
The ground is shifting in the Middle East, which is why the EU and the United States should prepare for any opening to launch a regional initiative. The 2020 Abraham Accords may have been directed primarily against Iran, but they were equally a sign of the United States retreating from the region. In particular, Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt a lack of tangible support from Washington in the wake of the 2019 attacks, leading them to seek a strong ally closer to home—Israel—while de-escalating tensions with Tehran in an evident desire to avoid a war.
The Iranian-Saudi talks held in Iraq earlier in 2021 were also a response to Joe Biden taking over as U.S. president and promising more tough love for Riyadh. While Iran and Saudi Arabia have been regional rivals all along, including when they were both U.S. allies before 1979, they also had a period of cooperation in the 1990s, when diplomatic visits took place and security accords were signed. The two states’ enmity thus need not be cast in stone, in particular now that Israel is embarking on a new era after the ouster of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal are ongoing.
In addition, regional players have already put some thinking into how to organize regional security more cooperatively. Iran’s outgoing President Hassan Rouhani presented his Hormuz Peace Endeavor at the United Nations in 2019. The initiative called for broad regional dialogue on issues such as energy security, freedom of navigation, and the free transfer of oil and other resources while reaffirming a commitment to the UN Charter, notably the principles of nonaggression and noninterference. The project was well received by Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, whereas Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE remained skeptical.
The Iranian proposal built on earlier Russian concepts of collective security for the Persian Gulf. For Moscow, suggesting such a regional system for tackling common concerns like terrorism, extremism, and energy security allows Russia to mediate between partner countries without appearing to impose itself as an external power. Moscow formally presented its security concept for the Gulf area to the UN Security Council in 2020, similarly stressing adherence to international law, the UN Charter, and Security Council resolutions.
Concretely, on maritime security, the EU should strengthen the existing diplomatic track of EMASOH to enable an inclusive regional dialogue. One starting point could be to establish a Persian Gulf charter on maritime security, in which the littoral states reaffirm the basic principles of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. One hundred and sixty-eight countries, including Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, apply this international agreement on nations’ rights and responsibilities with respect to use of the world’s oceans. The only Gulf holdouts are Iran and the UAE, which have signed but not ratified the convention.
Beginning negotiations on how to apply such well-recognized principles should lead to a broader dialogue on related issues of maritime security. In addition, the Europeans should strive to turn EMASOH into a proper EU operation, which would give Brussels a bigger stake in regional affairs. This could also be the moment to turn the mission into an international, rather than anti-Iranian, endeavor by asking Washington to end Operation Sentinel—and urging Estonia and Lithuania, two EU member states that joined the IMSC in 2020, to swap missions. The United Kingdom would be welcome to participate in the upgraded European operation, as would countries like India, Japan, and South Korea, some of the biggest oil consumers that rely on the passage of tankers through the Strait of Hormuz.
If the talks in Vienna create new breathing room for the 2015 nuclear deal, there is also scope for regionalizing some of the accord’s provisions by addressing nuclear safety issues. From disaster preparedness through civilian protection to early warning, there is ample space for dialogue among the three countries with current or imminent nuclear programs—Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—as well as neighboring states. In addition, this would allow for the involvement of countries beyond the six that are leading the nuclear talks, for example Japan and South Korea, two champions of nuclear industry. One first practical step should be to bring Tehran in to join the Convention on Nuclear Safety.
Before becoming U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan argued in favor of a structured regional dialogue in the Middle East. However, there is no security architecture that could be taken from the shelf and applied to the region. Instead, one way to seek de-escalation and manage mistrust is to begin a dialogue on maritime security and nuclear safety. By exploring the principles for governing regional relations in less politicized fields, neighboring countries can, in the long run, build the mechanisms and, possibly, the institutions that they find suitable for their concerns. The EU is in a good position to start with practical issues that can bring immediate tangible benefits to all sides concerned.
This article is based on the author’s May 28, 2021, oral testimony to the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs.