Senior analyst Kayhan Barzegar argues that states in the Middle East should drop conventional “ Up to Bottom” Western-style multilateralism and begin to adopt their own independent approach vis-à-vis multilateral practices.
Undoubtedly, the adoption of the “multilateralism” approach, in a bid to boost political-economic cooperation in the region and form a collective security system, is a major step for promoting peace and stability in the Middle East. However and in order for this approach to be more effective and adjustable with the regional changing geopolitics, the methodology of employing multilateralism should change to a “bottom to up” approach.
At present, multilateralism in the region is seen in its traditional and conventional format that is a “top to bottom” approach, and within the context of “globalization” and states’ economic-political interdependency in the form of transferring capital, commodities and technology from a global to a regional and national level. Accordingly, world’s major powers such as the United States, China, Europe and Russia, each with its own special objectives, view the settlement of the current problems in the Middle East within the context of preserving their own interests in light of global political interactions and the existing multilateralism.
Although, the US has deviated from this approach during President Donald Trump’s tenure, in my view the United States’ deep state and political-economic bureaucracy will force the US president to reverse this trend. Although Russia and China still distrust the Western-style globalization, yet they (especially China) reap the benefits of this trend in order to preserve their national interests and enhance their status in global politics. Europe, for its part, views the philosophy behind global peace in the context of preserving Western-oriented institutions and structures created after the Second World War In this respect, European governments regard “transatlantic relations” as a must to preserve the West’s hegemonic power in the global politics equation and are strongly opposed to Trump’s “inward-looking” policies.
Yet , the outcome of applying this West-oriented type of multilateralism in the Middle East has been the emergence of a new kind of “political realism”, increasing geopolitical rivalries between states in order to preserve and maximize their individual interests, leading ultimately to further tensions and instability in the region. Two vivid examples of such situation are the fate of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and regional crises such those of Syria and Yemen.
The JCPOA is gradually failing, mainly due to the fact that the United States, some European countries, their conservative Arab allies, and at the top Israel, believe that the combination of superior geopolitics and advanced technology in the case of Iran will enhance the country’s extensive regional role and power. region, shifting the balance of power in favor of Iran.
The intervention of international institutions such as the United Nations or Western countries has not only failed to help settle regional crises in Syria and Yemen, but further increased their complexity. These crises have somehow abated only when regional countries involved in the crises such as Iran, Russia and Turkey took measures compatible with the local, national and regional characteristics of these crises.
In fact, the conventional Western-style multilateralism has added to the intensity of the current geopolitical rivalries in the regional crises zones, through weapons’ sailing and transferring or behind the scene political-security bargaining. Perhaps the main reason is that Western countries perceive an increase in the regional role of rival powers such as Iran, Russia and even Turkey at the expense of their own and regional allies’ interests in the Middle East. Indeed, Trump’s justification for the US withdrawal from the JCPOA was based on this very conception.
Therefore, connecting to the concept of “economic interdependency,” the basic principle of global liberal economy, together with the political constraints imposed on Iran by the West in transferring technology and providing investments, the primary goal of the supposed lifting of sanctions, did not lead to positive results in Iran’s negotiations model. Although Russian, China and Europe are opposing with the United States’ current policies, they will ultimately have to rely, at least for the time being, on global economic networks, powerful banking systems, and generally the existing Western political-economic trends for preserving their interests.
Although European governments emphasize that they have strong interests in preserving the JCPOA, they don’t have the necessary capabilities to challenge their independent financial and banking networks and institutions, which are the real owners of technology and wealth, in a faceless global economy situation, created as a result of “top to down” multilateralism. In fact, they themselves are at the rein of these powerful networks. Therefore, there is little hope that their so-called independent financial mechanism such as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX),a mechanism for financial transfers to Iran, will be effective and help work out solutions.
Indeed, the conventional multilateralism diverge the two concepts of “technological cooperation” and “geopolitical interests” (deterrence against threats) among states in the Middle East. This situation makes it all the more necessary to move toward a “regional multilateralism,” model i.e., considering economic, political and security integration in a “bottom to up” approach. This method takes into account the current political-economic realities on the ground, adjustable with the dynamic and changing geopolitical environment in the region. In this approach, the simultaneous relations and role of international institutions become all the more important for economic, communicative and political-security integration in a bid to establish coordination at two national and regional levels, before going for an international integration. In other words, what takes priority is triangular integration and focusing on the simultaneous dynamic trends between “society”, “government” and the “region” in the first stage , and “the international community” in the second stage.
To this end, creating “political consensus” in countries’ domestic politics for convincing the public of the benefits of entering into regional cooperation to serve the national interests of their country will become significant. In other words, the path to the success of “regional multilateralism” crosses through enhancing national economic and political-security systems, the result of which would be the accumulation of economics, politics, and security at the national and regional level, that is already the focus of states’ foreign relations, due to the determination and significance of geographical and historical connectivity in creating stability and economic growth in today’s world.
Implementing this approach will result in each player employing its own share and, as a result, the necessary “coordination” for accumulation of national and regional efforts will be created for establishing peace and stability. As for international players, if they really favor regional stability and peace, the best approach for them would be to support “regional multilateralism” and prevent threats by nation-states in the region themselves. The Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE) initiative put forward by Iran is based on the same principle. The initiative is “subject-oriented” and “endogenous security-oriented” and seeks “inclusive engagement,” interpretive of the necessity of using a new model of regional multilateralism.
A vivid example with regards to the ongoing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia is resorting to the existing conventional multilateralism. As a result of Western sanctions, which are the fallout from the activities of powerful economic-financial networks and their putting pressure on their own governments, Tehran puts the main blame on Riyadh (and Tel Aviv), as the main responsible party to provoke Trump in adopting and continuing the so-called “maximum pressure” policy, or as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif puts it, “economic terrorism.” As a result, the dominant political-security trend in Iran logically conditions the possible easing of tensions with Saudi Arabia to seizing support for Trump’s current policy against Iran. This policy calls for the collapse of Iran’s economy, which is equivalent to the collapse of the state of Iran from Tehran’s view and considered currently as an “existential threat” to its national security.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia perceives the transfer of Western technology and capital to Iran, as a result of full implementation of the JCPOA amounts to a national security threat, as the move will tip the balance of power in favor of Iran in the region.
Saudi Arabia knows well that a combination of technology and superior geopolitics, territorial size, population, economic potentials and extensive human assets in Iran, will tip the balance of power in the region in favor of Iran, and hence, it wants to prevent it by all the means available. Indeed, concentration on the Western-style “globalization” has had no result for the two countries other than increased tension. Indisputably, Iran and Saudi Arabia will ultimately reach agreement, mainly due to their “neighborhood geographical determination” and “common concern” from the spread of instability in the region. Yet, the real solution to reach such a settlement, requires changing the current methodology and focusing on a regional multilateralism.
* Kayhan Barzegar made the remarks in an address to the China Foreign Ministry’s Middle East Security Forum held in Beijing on November 27-28, 2019.