Peace takes years to build; only seconds to destroy.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action concluded in July 2015 between Iran, the P5+1 and the EU, which received UN Security Council backing through Resolution 2231 and resulted in the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran, was a major success for multilateralism.
The benefits seemed endless: painstaking diplomatic engagement had triumphed over hostility in defusing the Iranian nuclear programme crisis, preventing a catastrophic war and further regional instability; the nuclear non-proliferation movement had just scored a major coup, and Iran-US enmity had ostensibly thawed after more than three decades of seemingly irreconcilable differences, creating significant opportunity for not only Tehran-Washington rapprochement, but also improved relations between Iran and the rest of the world.
Just over a year after its implementation, the accord is meeting its objective of keeping Iran’s nuclear programme peaceful, according to IAEA’s continuous monitoring. A close inspection regime is in place, and as quid pro quo for Iran’s willingness to limit uranium enrichment, sanctions have slowly been lifted. After more than 30 years of isolation and punishing sanctions, Iran seems poised to resume its rightful place in the community of nations, and is open for lucrative business.
In the past year, Iran’s trade with the EU alone has increased by over 60%, a figure that is still growing, and sanction relief, to date, has translated into USD $11bn in foreign direct investment.
Given the clear benefits of the Iran Deal, it is therefore puzzling to observe trends emerging from the new administration in Washington aimed at undermining the agreement. The recent imposition of new sanctions is a provocation that risks unravelling the Iran Deal in toto, and by so doing, alienate the other architects of the accord, including European and Russian partners.
Continued engagement by the P5+1 and EU with Iran remains crucial to ensure the agreement is insulated from ideologically driven assaults, and stays true to the mutually beneficial strategic imperatives that formed the basis of that successful multilateral accord.
To be sure, undermining the nuclear deal would constitute a major setback for regional stability, increasing the likelihood of a devastating regional war – a war that would make the Syrian catastrophe and its metastasis beyond the region’s borders a walk in the park by comparison.
In order to allow the Iran Deal to meet its ends, the P5+1, the EU and Iran ought to ensure the full implementation of the accord as per the terms of the negotiated agreement.
The Iran Deal, however, offers much more.
Here’s an inexcusable oddity: while the Middle East is one of the world’s most strategically significant and conflict-ridden regions, it is bereft of the necessary region-wide institutions and mechanisms to discuss, manage, and adequately respond to security crises. This state of affairs is a costly regional deficit in need of immediate redress. The region’s chaotic security order needs a reset. The Iran Deal may offer that opportunity.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is proof that Iran is a pragmatic actor and can be a partner in the preservation of international peace and security.
On the heels of the Iran Deal, the astute approach would be to cajole Iranian assistance and assurances in moving the region towards greater regional security.
The Iranians are on record with statements in favour of comprehensive dialogue to promote regional security, including the need to ease tensions with their Arab neighbours. Last year, at the 52nd Munich Security Conference, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had the following to say: “We cannot adopt a policy of exclusion. In our globalised world today, you cannot have security at the expense of the insecurity of others [...] We can either win together or lose together.” He added: “There's nothing in our region that would exclude Iran and Saudi Arabia working together for a better future for all of us." The international community must capitalise on such Iranian overtures through robust bilateral and multilateral engagement to ease regional tensions and promote stability.
Indeed, when properly conceptualised, the Iran Deal offers an opening for regional diplomacy, with the participation of major actors at the table, to tackle thorny questions like tensions between Persian Gulf littoral states, the Syrian conflict, the rise of ISIS, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, in time, a Middle East that is free of weapons of mass destruction.
As early as 2010, I presented different scenarios for how the Middle East can move toward a new regional security order, arguing the adoption of mechanisms for dialogue and trust-building measures would be a crucial first step towards creating a region-wide security framework. The region’s security culture and norms could then over time create the conditions for the start of formal collective defence security discussions and negotiations.
In the immediate term, I posit, the lowest-hanging fruit remains the creation of an annual regional summit for security dialogue. One can even envisage this annual forum to be hosted on a rotating basis in different capitals across the region. A first such summit should be organised as expediently as possible with core agenda items to include a credible, region-wide response to the threat of ISIS, cross-border terrorism, sectarianism, and internally displaced populations.
A sustained – indigenously conceived – high level platform for security dialogue in the Middle East is desperately needed.
The proposed discussions must be rooted in founding principles binding the parties to a common security vision. The principles of the UN Charter – i.e. prohibition against the use of force, peaceful settlement of disputes, non-interference in the sovereign affairs of states – or the Decalogue in the Helsinki Final Act (1975) as well as the various past Track II efforts focusing on regional security in the region all serve as useful references for this purpose.
Equally important will be the support of the UN, the P5+1 and the EU for such regional endeavours. Indeed, the architects of the Iran Deal should build on that successful precedent to continue to broker the region’s security arrangements and institutions through multilateralism.
The Middle East is host to alarmingly frequent hot wars with devastating losses in blood and national treasure. The existing regional order is not only highly volatile, but increasingly inching toward collapse. It is, alas, a region with countless instances of mass atrocities. The carnage in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen in the last decade alone are cases in point.
These pressures and challenges must surely incentivise the region’s states, with the support of external actors, to commit to serious diplomatic engagement on regional security.
Open and comprehensive dialogue is indispensable to brokering peace, reconciling differences and working towards greater regional cohesion.
The vision of a shared future in the Middle East, or at a minimum, a less ruthless regional security landscape is possible.
The precedent set by the Iran Deal has demonstrated what is indeed achievable when bona fides engagement is given space to harvest the fruit of artful diplomacy.
The Iran Deal has equally provided a unique opportunity to stabilise the region by championing the idea of a new regional security architecture in the Middle East. Irrefutably, a more stable and secure Middle East is vital to the security of Europe and beyond.
The challenges are undoubtedly formidable but game changing achievements have seldom travelled the path of least resistance.
Europe and the international community, writ large, must double down on their investment in the Iran Deal, and in partnership with Tehran and other regional actors help the Middle East move towards greater regional security and integration.
Let us have faith in the belief that to dare the seemingly impossible in the pursuit of peace is to inch ever closer to its attainment.
*This is a modified version of the original piece published by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The views expressed are the author’s alone.