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To Succeed, the GCC Requires Cooperation with Iran for Regional Security

Mehran Haghirian

April 29, 2024

Stimson Center

On March 28, 2024, the Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Jassim Al-Budaiwi, unveiled a GCC Vision for Regional Security. The document, the first explicit articulation of a collective security vision in the GCC’s 43-year history, builds on past statements and a 2000 joint defense agreement, which loosely stipulated that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all.

The document also bears some similarity to prior proposals from Iran, Russia, and China that aim to foster dialogue and cooperation in the Persian Gulf.

The GCC put forward this vision after years of internal strife, seeking a stable environment conducive to advancing ambitious development agendas. It follows the January 2021 Al Ula Summit that ended the Qatar blockade and the March 2023 Beijing agreement that restored normal diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The initiative emphasizes broadening security-oriented discussions to include shared environmental challenges, energy transitions, food security, and regional and interregional connectivity agendas.

Though not directly mentioned, peaceful coexistence and cooperation with Tehran is necessary to realize the vision’s goals. The tension-filled period from 2016 to 2020 included attacks in 2019 on tankers off the coast of Fujairah and drone and missile attacks on Saudi oil installations that were largely attributed to Tehran and its proxies. GCC members understand that none of the mega projects they envision can be realized under the shadow of military confrontation with Iran.

The recent direct confrontation between Iran and Israel has arguably redoubled the importance of constructively engaging Iran. An isolated Iran is likely to disrupt any progress towards development and peace.

If Iran and Saudi Arabia had not reconciled in 2023, the region would have been in a far worse situation today. Since the Beijing agreement, there have been numerous positive developments in GCC-Iran relations as well as in intra-GCC and GCC-Iraq ties. Saudi Arabia hosted an Iranian president for the first time in 11 years and allowed Iranian pilgrims to travel to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman added to economic ties with Iran. There has also been an influx of GCC investments in Iraq. Tensions between Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain have decreased.

Moreover, these diplomatic and economic engagements have been encouraged by European and Asian players, particularly China. The main inhibitor for expansion of regional ties continues to be U.S. sanctions reimposed on Iran after the Trump administration quit the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as well as U.S. efforts to normalize Persian Gulf ties with Israel while isolating Tehran. While some initially championed Washington’s approach, regional players are no longer seeking the same objectives today.

Other Visions for Regional Security and Integration

Iran’s Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE) initiative, presented in 2019, sought to leverage the mandate given to the UN Secretary-General by Resolution 598 (1987) which eventually ended the Iran-Iraq war. It provided “the necessary international umbrella” for discussions among the GCC, Iran and Iraq about energy security, freedom of navigation, non-proliferation, creating a weapons of mass destruction-free zone, hotlines and early warning systems, and conflict resolution mechanisms such as non-aggression pacts. The proposal encountered obstacles amid escalating tensions in 2019 and the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, which was supported at the time by some GCC states.

At the same time, Russia used its UN Security Council presidency in October 2020 to reintroduce its 2019 “Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region.” Russia envisioned creation of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Persian Gulf encompassing the eight littoral states, along with Russia, China, the United States, the European Union, India, and other interested parties as observers or associate members. This initiative aimed to build confidence and foster cooperation in a step-by-step way on arms control, including a nuclear weapons-free zone, and counterterrorism, while also encouraging economic, humanitarian, and environmental collaboration. However, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine led Moscow to drop its efforts to advance the proposal.

China, since 2020, has also called for a multilateral effort to turn the Persian Gulf into an “oasis of stability.” The primary reasons are the region’s strategic importance for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, coupled with its growing energy needs. The inclusion of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS could further facilitate Chinese mediation.

The Europeans, too, have been redoubling efforts to engage the region. In 2023, the European Union appointed a new EU Special Representative for the Gulf Region, Luigi Di Maio, to expand European ties with the GCC states, as well as with Iran and Iraq. France has also been a key advocate for regional dialogue. With the support of President Emanuel Macron, Iraq managed to gather regional players, as well as regional and international organizations, at the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership in 2021 and in 2022 in Jordan.

While European capitals and the EU have diplomatic ties with Tehran and all other regional players, the U.S. is still trying to forge regional alliances to counter or contain Iran. Initiatives like the Middle East Strategic Alliance, the Warsaw coalition, and various joint air defense and maritime exercises have struggled due to their exclusionary nature and focus on hard security issues. Today, there is more appetite for dialogue and cooperation in the region than military posturing.

Moving Beyond Confidence-Building Measures

These diverse security visions share principles from the Charter of the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the League of Arab States, the GCC Charter, and foundational tenets of international law. These principles champion respect for sovereignty, political independence, non-interference, and peaceful resolution of disputes. Beyond confidence-building measures, there is readiness for more substantial steps.

A critical aspect of the GCC Vision for Regional Security is its call for enhancing “economic cooperation between regional countries in a way that serves the interests of dialogue, communication, and building bridges.” The document mentions the need to address water and food security challenges through strengthened coordination and cooperation with regional and international partners, aiming to sustain global food supply chains and stabilize prices. The implementation of this inclusive approach is projected to alleviate hard security issues as well, such as maritime security challenges and threats of military conflict.

Addressing environmental challenges is highlighted as a paramount security concern. The vision advocates realistic, responsible, and balanced solutions to climate change, achievable only through enhanced coordination and cooperation not only among GCC states but also with Iran and Iraq. In addition, the vision mandates GCC states to work towards a Middle East free from weapons of mass destruction and guarantees the right of states to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. This underlines the necessity of cooperation between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran to mitigate environmental risks associated with nuclear development, prevent nuclear proliferation, and even possibly integrate Iranian, Emirati, and Saudi nuclear energy outputs in the future.

Iraq’s initiative, particularly through the Baghdad Conference, illustrates a commitment to widening security considerations to include shared environmental challenges, energy transitions, food security, and broader regional and interregional connectivity. Regional integration in the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East was a key stated goal during the second meeting. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Al Sudani emphasized the importance of “strengthening the bonds of cooperation and partnership between our countries” through infrastructure interdependence, economic integration, and joint investments. He proposed “transforming the region from consumer-oriented economies to manufacturing nations by establishing joint industrial zones, enhancing collective industrial capacity, and linking supply chains to one …. capable of competing in global markets and launching mega projects in various sectors.”

The GCC Vision represents a significant step forward in addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing the region. By focusing on collaboration, peaceful resolution of conflicts, and sustainable development, the GCC not only aims to enhance the security and prosperity of its member states but also contribute to a more stable and peaceful international order. Engaging Iran in this dialogue is pivotal to ensuring the success of the vision.

Anticipated diplomatic engagements in 2024 offer pathways to advance this framework. This could be in the form of a third Baghdad Conference, an expected Beijing Summit of regional leaders, or an invitation to Iran to attend a GCC summit. The U.S. presidential election looms as a potential disruptor but also highlights the need to urgently solidify bilateral and multilateral relations in the Persian Gulf. None of the regional players in the Persian Gulf are yearning to revert to the pre-2021 era.

Photo Credit: Stimson Center, 2024

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