[Prefatory Note: My interveiw on the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE); Gulf Peace & Security—Javad Heiran-Nia (Oct 6, 2019), to be published in Farsi.]
1-President Rouhani, President of Iran, in his speech at the UN General Assembly depicts Iran’s plan for Persian Gulf security and sub-regional order. What is your assessment of this plan?
As I understand President Hassan Rouhani’s plan it concentrates upon regionalizing the protection of navigation and safeguarding of energy flows in the Persian Gulf with a particular emphasis on providing security for oil tanker traffic. The proposal comes against a background of months of warmongering threats, harsh sanctions, and dangerous incidents that pose unacceptable risks of provoking violent incidents, and even war. The Hormuz Peace Endeavor as set forth by Rouhani, with the brilliantly appropriate acronym of HOPE, relies upon, and proposes a regionalization of responsibility as the recommended method for upholding future peace and security, vesting exclusive authority for this new undertaking in countries with territories neighboring the Persian Gulf. To make the plan operative, and contribute to a broader stability, the Rouhani plan insists on the prior removal of U.S. military forces from the Gulf countries as a vital precondition. This is an understandable, and constructive, vital element in this innovative approach, yet it is likely to be such a major stumbling block as to make HOPE a non-starter. Such an outcome would be sad and discouraging, and it would be up to enlightened governments and an aroused public opinion to prevent this from happening.
In its most fundamental features, HOPE should be perceived as an initiative that contrasts with the American backed Alliance for Safety and Protection of Maritime Navigation (MESA). The suggested initial membership of MESA consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Australia, UK, and of course the US. MESA is an undisguised geopolitical alliance structure that presupposes the perpetuation, and even the aggravation, of present conflict patterns rather than proposing a scheme that looks toward reconciliation. The dominant members of MESA are global actors that have a colonial past in the Middle East, while its regional members are central players in the anti-Iran coalition. The contrasting visions of HOPE and MESA security for the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz could not be more divergent.
I agree with the motivations for the arrangement as outlined by President Rouhani in his speech to the General Assembly. It is structured in a manner that identifies security with peace, regional presence, and territorial proximity, and seeks both the exclusion of global geopolitics and a sidelining of sectarian tensions, which is to be achieved by the inclusion of the Sunni-led Gulf Cooperation Council GCC) in the administration of the plan. HOPE also favors giving the UN a supervisory and backup role, while showing respect for international law. As would be expected, MESA conspicuously ignores the UN and international law. I wish that political conditions allowed HOPE could become the framework for reducing tensions and establishing a Gulf peace system, which if successfully implemented would likely have additional stabilizing effects throughout the Middle East. HOPE could also set a valuable precedent for resolving other intra-regional conflicts non-violently, especially those rooted in legacies of colonial exploitatiion.
Unfortunately, the initiative seems unrealistic at this time given the way geopolitics is being practiced in the region as epitomized by the ‘maximum pressure’ approach adopted by the Trump presidency, which includes unlawful sanctions inflicting severe hardships on the Iranian people. This shift to coercive diplomacy is also leading to the total breakdown of the 2015 JCPOA, which while operational, had met regional nonproliferation concerns until the provocative Trump unilateral withdrawal from the agreement in 2018.
The United States will doubtless refuse to remove its military presence from the Gulf, and will almost certainly be supported in that posture by several Arab governments, most notably Saudi Arabia, and by the non-Gulf state of Israel whose leverage in Washington should never be overlooked. In justification for this refusal it would be argued that without the military capabilities of the U.S. there could be a breakdown of internal order in several Gulf countries. This prospect point both to the crippling lack of self-confidence on the part of the monarchies on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf. It calls attention to the awkward reality that several of these government would likely collapse if not propped up by the American military presence.
The wider concern surrounds the widely held view that such an American disengagement from the Gulf would alter the regional balance of power throughout the Middle East. Further, it would be assumed that the new balance would swing in favor of Iran if the event U.S. agrees to end its military presence in the Gulf sub-region even if it does so gradually, and in a manner coordinated with the effective implementation of HOPE. Overall, such a process would undoubtedly contribute to peace and stability throughout the entire Middle East.
2- The important point of this plan is to give the United Nations a supervisory role. This role did not exist in Iran’s earlier plans for the Persian Gulf. Why is such a role justified for the UN?
The UN role is essential and highly desirable, but would only become feasible in the event that it enjoyed the passive backing, that is, at least the absence of active resistance, on the part of the United States and Saudi Arabia. For reasons set forth in the prior response, it seems wildly improbable to expect any acceptance of a UN role in relation to any proposal of the sort that Rouhani outlined so long as Donald Trump is the U.S. President. Even without Trump, there would likely be strong resistance in Washington, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv to the removal of American military forces. The UN could not undertake such a delicate mission without the genuine political backing of the Arab Gulf countries, and this cannot be obtained under current conditions without encouragement by the United States.
3-While the United States seeks to link Persian Gulf security to the Bab al-Mandeb Strait and the Shamat region, Iran believe that the security 0f Persian Gulf region is belong to this region. Linking Persian Gulf Security to Other Areas Doesn’t it complicate the region’s security issues?
The agreement is only understandable and constructive if limited in its scope to the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Introducing other areas within the scope of the plan makes it even more unlikely to be seriously considered, much less politically capable of realization. An expanded ambition for HOPE introduces several complications into a setting that is already an almost impossible diplomatic impasse. Such broadening would also make opposition to the initiative seem more reasonable. Iran should maintain its advocacy of HOPE as the alternative to the kind of precarious situation that exists presently, which would likely deteriorate further if the counter-plan of MESA becomes operational.
4-The United States is working to make the issue of Persian Gulf security more international in the form of a maritime coalition and more countries entering the Persian Gulf. Iran, however, believes that regional security should be provided by regional countries, including the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council, along with Iran and Iraq. Which perspective will find the dominant aspect?
The underlying conceptual issue is whether to entrust the security of the Persian Gulf to an arrangement that relies on an accommodating initiative overseen by regionalgeopolitics rather than to continue the high-tension pressures exerted by globalgeopolitics. In the abstract such reliance makes great sense, but if the proposal is evaluated politically is seems situated more in the realm of utopianism rather than in the domain of pragmatic problem-solving, The political difficulty with a regional approach is the question of whether enough trust exists, or can be brought into being, to embark on a plan that so undermines the intrusive regional role of the United States and requires a highly unlikely show of national self-confidence by the Gulf monarchies. Any removal of the U.S. as military supporter of the conflictual status quo, as already suggested, would be fiercely resisted given the present atmosphere by at least Israel and Saudi Arabia, and maybe by others as well, including the UAE and Egypt.
It should be remembered that ever since World War II, and to some extent earlier, the West regarded control of the Persian Gulf and the region to be a high strategic priority. After World War I the region was effectively subject to the authority and administration the European colonial powers. This European security arrangement persisted until the U.S. displaced Britain and France in 1956 in the aftermath of the Suez Operation, which had the unexpected outcome of shifting global management of regional affairs from Europe to the United States.
The Carter Doctrine, as enunciated in 1980 in the context of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, made it clear that the United States was committing itself to recourse to a major war, if necessary, to keep the Soviet Union from increasing its regional influence in ways that threatened Western control over access and supply lines associated with energy markets in the Gulf.
After the Cold War ended, the increasingly conservative American foreign policy establishment saw the Middle East as replacing Europe as the core of its global strategic ambitions, and interfered in the internal affairs of several countries believing it could solidify this ambition for regional hegemony in the Middle East by promoting regime change in countries that resisted its geopolitical policies in the region, centering on Gulf oil, Israeli security, and nuclear nonproliferation. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 became another policy rupture that made the American homeland seems vulnerable to extremism that emanated from the Islamic world, although ironically its ally Saudi Arabia with which the U.S. had a Special Relationship was closely and visibly linked to this mega-terrorist while Iran, the supposed adversary, had no connection whatsoever. Nevertheless, the Middle East became a primary combat zone in the new American emphasis on global counterterrorism, which along the way produced the first battlefield without borders in human history, while hostility toward Iran was actually intensified.
The 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq shattered the viability of a Washington option to impose its political will on crucial Middle East countries beneath the banner of ‘democracy promotion,’ counter proliferation, and counterterrorism, but it didn’t transform alignments or give rise to any intention to disengage militarily, although there were significant shifts in tactics after the Iraq disaster. The failure in Iraq to produce a stable sequel to the autocratic rule of Saddam Hussein reminds us that the confrontation between Iran and the West can be traced back to the 1953 coup, notoriously engineered by the CIA. This epic instance of a regime changing intervention restored the Shah to power, displaced the democratically elected nationalist leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, from power 25 years later, handed out economic prizes to the largest American oil companies, reasserting colonialist priorities at the expense of Iran’s inalienable right of self-determination. It also led to Islamic Republic, a total repudiation of both the internal and international goals of what had been hailed by Washington in 1953 as a great strategic victory.
This historical narrative suggests that for the United States to give HOPE a chance it would have to become willing to repudiate its approach to Gulf security maintained over the course of more than 60 years. Yet HOPE offers the region and Washington a new opportunity to realign its foreign policy with peace, justice, international law, and the authority of the UN. The plan outlined by President Rouhani should be further developed by the government in Tehran. It should be presented to the world as a serious and constructive proposal. As such it would constitute a formidable diplomatic challenge to the ways of war, threat, and risk that currently prevail and cannot end well. HOPE needs to win the struggle to convince world public opinion before it can expect to achieve the intended, highly desirable, diplomatic breakthrough. Such a result would be a great victory for those forces dedicated to peace, justice, and law, and not only in the Gulf.