IPIS, 6-7 January 2020
Statement by the Director General ISSI at the Plenary Session
Opening New Horizons in the Persian Gulf: Current Issues and Future Scenarios
- Global horizon has seen far reaching changes.
- The situation on the regional horizon is equally grim.
- What is causing tensions in the Gulf and how to address them?
- And Where do we go from here?
Global Horizon: far reaching changes.
- Major power competition: At the global horizon, we can see major changes taking place, especially in Asia, where the rise of China has necessitated a new balance of power. The United States now regards China and Russia as its competitors as per its National Security Strategy. The US has embarked on an Indo Pacific Strategy, and chosen India as its extra regional anchor. This too is perceived as China containment policy by the US.
- Multilateralism is being marginalized, and challenged by Unilateralism. United Nations is being side-lined. However, there are still some sane voices calling for respecting globalism. China has emerged as the champion of globalism at a time when the world is increasingly being marked by unilateralism. China’s BRI engages over sixty countries in Eurasian landmass.
- Narrow nationalism is rising. Many other phobias like Islamophobia, xenophobia are intensifying. Immigrants are now viewed as a security or economic threat. There is now greater struggle for resources, both within each country and between countries.
- Trade wars are emerging, undermining the progress made in decades on free international trade.
- Arms control regimes between the US and Russia are falling apart, giving rise to new arms race between the US and Russia and also igniting arms races in different regions of the world.
- Hot spots: while old hot spots are still alive, new ones are emerging. The ISIS continues to pose threat to the stability of several countries.
- Emerging technologies are making the world ever more complex, especially cyber security, artificial intelligence. Yet, not much is happening in terms of international rule making.
- Several other challenges, like climate change, water security, energy security, food security, are not being addressed through concerted global effort.
- Trump administration has introduced new forms of global governance through tweets, unpredictable behavior, and brinkmanship. There is now chatter of third world war, which could be devastating.
Regional Horizon: The situation is equally grim.
- Afghanistan. US is losing its long war in Afghanistan. There is a glimmer of hope though by US-Taliban talks. However, much still needs to be done to secure a lasting peace.
- Iraq remains unstable after years of bloodshed and violence. Iraqi parliament now wants an end to foreign troops presence in Iraq.
- Syria too has been kept on the boil by a multi-dimensional conflict.
- Yemen continues to witness a fratricidal conflict.
- Overall situation in the ME is not stable. The Palestinians are being denied their right to self determination. Within the ME, there are several inter state conflicts. The entire experiment of bringing regime change by using foreign force and imposition of western style democracy to ME countries has failed. Arab spring has turned into Arab winters.
- Tensions in the Persian Gulf region have peaked to dangerous levels. The US and Israel continue to have hostility towards Iran. The efforts for peace and mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia have also not made much progress.
- The situation in Kashmir is also worrying. It’s been over 155 days of curfew, lockdown and communications blockade imposed on the Kashmiri people. The Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens have created tensions within India.
What has been causing tensions in the Gulf? And how do we address them:
- US perceptions of Iran. Let us try to understand what is the US charge sheet against Iran?
- that it is a threat to Israel,
- that it has spread its influence from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Yemen.
- That it stood by Syrian regime and opposed the regime change agenda of the West.
- That it increased influence in Iraq despite US occupation of that country for several years.
- That it would rather align with Russia and China than with the US.
Iran for its part wants no external powers to interfere in the region and prefers that regional issues be resolved by dialogue among regional powers without any intervention by the US or Israel. It is a kind of system of collective security by the regional states themselves. The initiative by President Rouhani in the UN General Assembly last September called HOPE, Hormuz Peace Endeavor was premised on the central elements of Dialogue, CBMs, Freedom of Navigation. Energy security. Non-aggression. Non-interference. Counter terrorism.
- Iran-Saudi tensions have continued despite attempts for peace and dialogue. What is causing this tense relationship between these two pillars of the Muslim world? Arab Persian competitionhas a historical context. In the past few years, the tensions have risen and played out in Syria, and also in Yemen. The absence of dialogue between the two has also contributed to continuance of negative perception of each other.
- Role of external powers, especially the US and Israel. The US, which has a formidable presence in the Gulf region, has not contributed to resolution of the issues of the region. In 2018, the Trump administration pulled out of JCPOA which had been negotiated so painstakingly over a period of ten years. The United Nations too has not been effective in playing its due role for peace in the region.
- Recent developments: The 14 September strikes on Saudi oil facilities and now recent provocations especially the killing of Iranian general have raised the level of tensions even higher.
Where to now?
There is a greater realization that everyone would lose out if a war breaks out:
- The strikes on oil strikes on 14 September 2019 have shown that the Saudi oil supply and the world oil supply could be adversely affected.
- Americans too realize their vulnerability as all their bases and other assets could be targeted if the war breaks out.
- Iran too wants peace as it is already suffering from sanctions and the inability to sell its oil.
So there is a real basis for everyone to turn away from the present explosive situation to one where everyone benefits. At the same time, the risk of war is real. Any harsh action by any one country could lead to a disastrous war.
As for my country, Pakistan, it is deeply concerned over the recent developments.
Our leadership has underscored the imperative of avoidance of conflict, exercise of maximum restraint, and de-escalation of tensions.
We believe that all parties must abide by the UN Charter principles of international law to settle differences through peaceful means.
Pakistan stands ready to play a role in preventing further escalation and maintaining regional peace and stability.
Provide 5-7minute introductory comments and input.
On-stage debate among the panelists.
The guiding questions for your panel include:
1. In what ways is HOPE similar or different from past proposals and initiatives for regional dialogue and cooperation?
Regional approach has six critical elements:
Dialogue – All concerned parties can help resolve issues by talking to each other.
Non-interference from external powers: US has built alliances and heavy presence.
Non-aggression by anyone in the region or by external forces like the US.
Freedom of Navigation and Energy security.
Counter terrorism: ISIS.
Past attempts for dialogue:
- During Iran Iraq war, UN tried to mediate.
- OIC sp summit 1997, sidelines Rafsanjai and Abdullah met for four hours.
- Rafsanjani visited KSA in 1998 as former president.
- Musharraf 2004 visited Iran to try and help.
- Post Yemen crisis, NS government also offered to help.
- Post UNGA summit 2019, PM IK also visited both Iran and KSA.
2. What are the main qualifications and principles for a successful regional architecture?
Common interests: energy security, freedom of navigation.
3. What is the role of the UN and the broader international community in contributing to the future peace and stability of the region?
UN is best suited to help bring peace in the region based on UN Charter principles. The UN’s help would also have greater legitimacy.
However, this may not be a realistic option as the UN is impeded by the veto power that the US and four other major powers possess. Getting a consensus of all veto powers is difficult.
4. What are the most probable scenarios for the region in the coming year? More fragmentation or integration?
Uneasy peace is likely to prevail as everyone realizes that war could have disastrous consequences for all.