Now is the time for a collective Gulf security

The new West-Iran relations should be a facilitator in the GCC-Iran ties.

By N. Janardhan

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Published: Thu 30 Jul 2015, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 31 Jul 2015, 10:25 AM

With just another year left before US President Barack Obama's second term ends, peaceniks would agree that American foreign policy has become unrecognisable, having travelled a fair distance on the road from being a trouble-maker to becoming a trouble-shooter.
The United States and five other world powers signed a nuclear deal with Iran about a fortnight ago to end "decades of animosity" and push to the margins the spectre of war with the Islamic Republic.
More importantly, the deal opens a potentially constructive chapter not just in Iran-West relations, but also between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Even if these two different, but interrelated, relationships improve marginally, there would be room to recalibrate the region's security architecture - from being US-centric to evolving a collective security mechanism.
The United States has been the sole security guarantor in the region, ostensibly guarding the GCC countries' interests against Iran. Due to fractured US-Iran ties, there was little scope to mend GCC-Iran ties either. Simultaneously, there was also little scope for any other country to play a constructive role in the region's security milieu.
The US political influence on and military presence in the region prevented Nato and Europe from gaining traction in the Gulf security scenario. Further, the US-Iran-GCC friction impeded a role for Asia, with which the GCC countries vastly improved their economic ties since 2000, without commensurate improvement in political or security ties.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration's defence spending cuts, Asia pivot, 'no boots on the ground' policy (aimed at reviving the US economy) and now rapprochement with Iran has rendered Gulf security vulnerable. Consequentially, the GCC countries, Iran and the West took their ideological-sectarian differences to the battlefield, each supporting opposing factions, both in the Gulf and wider Middle East, thus making the chances for peace rare and the chances for stability rarer.
Now that Washington considers the Iran deal a clean break, the GCC countries should also seek a clean break - both in terms of viewing Gulf security in new light and reviewing its non-constructive ties with Iran.
Here, it is useful to clarify Iran's fundamentally divergent differences with the West and the GCC countries, even though they are linked by the common nuclear programme thread.
Loosely, the difference lies in what each perceives to be 'threat' and 'fear'. The West viewed Iran as a military and nuclear 'threat', primarily to Israel and partly to the Western world as well. The GCC's 'fear' has been that Iran's nuclear programme would expand its regional domination and widen the sectarian gulf.
Since there is a perceptible difference between the threat and fear factors, the West and GCC countries should have ideally approached problems with Iran differently. But ideological baggage prevented all sides from adopting any objective approach, until the recent deal.
Yes, the West-Iran deal concentrates mostly on the nuclear threat perception. But the Camp David Summit involving Obama and the GCC leaders partly addressed some of the other GCC concerns. The most important development of the deal is that it liberates the GCC countries to choose their own kind of bilateral ties with Iran, rather than be conditioned by the hitherto animosity-filled West-Iran ties.
Hopefully, the new and evolving West-Iran relations will be a facilitator, not a spoke, in the next phase of GCC-Iran ties.
This is where the United States, and Obama in particular, must take the lead once again. As the GCC countries would be naturally encouraged to explore alternatives to protect their security interests, Washington must encourage diversification of the GCC's 'strategic' cooperation with European and Asian powers to explore alternative security arrangements.
Such a collective approach is important because the conflicts in the region and world are too big for just Washington to handle. As the United States begins to shirk its global military responsibilities to shore up its domestic interests, doors open for others.
The fact that Britain opened a permanent naval base in Bahrain in December 2014 and French President Francois Hollande became the first Western leader to attend a GCC summit in May 2015 augurs well for a diversified security mechanism. Equally important is the expanding defence capabilities, especially the navies of some Asian countries, which are relevant to the energy supply chain in the region's waters.
Asian involvement also assumes importance because of its working relationship with the GCC countries and Iran. This could be tapped to reduce regional tension.
The GCC countries have no ideological preferences while choosing security guarantors. Irrespective of the cost, whoever can provide the best security is the GCC's best ally. While a collective security mechanism could be handy for the GCC, it also offers Washington a stage to remain relevant, while opening the doors to Europe and Asia to step up to the plate.
The author is an Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter, UK

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