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How Can the United Nations Facilitate Dialogue in the Persian Gulf after Biden’s Inauguration?

Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Mehran Haghirian

Institute for Peace and Diplomacy

November 17, 2020

In the October debate on the Comprehensive Review of the Situation in the Persian Gulf at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, arguedthat the experience of the Cold War “shows that independent of confrontations and the deep divisions of the time, it was possible to launch the Helsinki process” which led to peace and cooperation between countries once at war. The Helsinki process was also mentioned by a number of other speakers as a model that could be applied to this region. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) which led to the Helsinki Final Act and the creation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had an objective to foster engagement and cooperation between neighbouring and regional countries.

Russia, as the UNSC president for the month of October, represented a concept note for this debate which was largely based on a previous Russian proposal for collective security in the Persian Gulf. With the aim “to exchange views on concrete options for the creation of collective security mechanisms in the Persian Gulf,” Russia sought to find a role for the UN to “be involved in creating a non-conflict atmosphere, encouraging regional actors to engage in dialogue, mediating efforts, and guaranteeing respect for future agreements.”

China, for example, represented its own proposal for security and stability in the Persian Gulf region, and argued that with a multilateral effort, the Persian Gulf region can become “an Oasis of Security.” Niger, as another example, argued that not only the UN had a role to play, but that he recommended the appointment of an envoy tasked with the promotion of regional security in the Persian Gulf.

Trump’s Ambassador to the UN, for her part, repeatedly objected to the idea that peace and security can be achieved through an inclusive dialogue that included Iran. While the other GCC states were absent, the Secretary-General of the GCC presented a statement. He said that the ball is in Iran’s court to move beyond mere calls for dialogue to actions that illustrate its seriousness to de-escalate tensions in the region. Qatar, as the only GCC member state that was present during the debate, has called for “meaningful dialogue” with Iran since 2015, even before the imposition of the blockade on the country by three of its GCC partners, and it has been calling for the settlement of differences under a collective framework ever since.

Most of the 23 speakers including Europeans present at the debate agreed that as the Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres has a significant role to play. Paragraph 8 of Resolution 598 (1987), which was the basis of the ceasefire for the Iran-Iraq War “requests the Secretary-General to examine, in consultation with Iran and Iraq and with other states of the region, measures to enhance the security and stability of the region.”

Iran presented the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE) to the UN General Assembly in 2019 and has since been attempting to build on it. However, similar to what the representative of the UK argued, “as a party to conflicts across the region, Iran is not an impartial actor and it would not be appropriate for any initiative to be Iranian led.” Largely, this can be presumed to be the position of the GCC states as well.

With the Biden administration coming to office in January, it is expected that the new US foreign policy will also be supportive of such a role for the UN to play in de-escalating the situation in the Persian Gulf. After all, the Obama administration encouraged such dialogue towards the end of his term, and it could be expected that the Biden team will continue that approach. Saudi Arabia needs to “share” the neighbourhood with Iran; Obama stated in an interview with The Atlantic in 2016.

The new US administration should support the UN Secretary-General’s proposal to initiate action under the Helsinki Accord in the Persian Gulf to achieve a sustainable peace and cooperation between countries. An inclusive regional cooperation could include: a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) free zone in the Persian Gulf, combating terrorism, extremism, and sectarianism, engaging in peaceful nuclear cooperation, finding solutions to environmental issues such as sandstorms and water scarcity, increasing investment and trade, and jointly preparing for disasters and pandemics.

The basic tenets of such a process for the Persian Gulf region include finding a common ground on principles that could guide relations between stakeholders, facilitating economic, scientific, technological and environmental cooperation amongst states, as well as cooperating on humanitarian issues and people-to-people exchanges.

Prior to arriving at that point, however, confidence building measures must be taken by all sides to allow for the fruitful progression of the process, if and when it starts. Basic steps could include modest measures such as “reducing inflammatory rhetoric,” issuing “unilateral statements in support of dialogue,” and “joint statements outlining shared principles and interests,” as suggested by Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group in his recent address to the UN Security Council on the danger of conflict in the Gulf and across the Middle East. Establishing a deconfliction hotline could also be helpful.

It is faulty to forget that there are other issues in the Persian Gulf region aside from tensions with Iran. There is a myriad of intra-GCC conflicts, including the blockade on Qatar, border disputes between virtually all GCC states, as well as political interference by some states in the internal affairs of others.

The fact is that the UNSC has a role to play in maintaining or restoring international peace and security, including in the Persian Gulf region. The UN Secretary-General also has a mandate to provide his good offices to resolve the conflicts in this region. Thus, the United Nations can surely facilitate dialogue in the Persian Gulf and acting on what was preached during the UNSC debate would be the best starting point. While an overwhelming majority of the international community supports the idea, the next US administration’s position would be key to launch such a process.

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