American, Asian and European officials and experts shared with their Gulf counterparts strikingly similar assessments of the region’s security threats and how to address them in the coming year, with a new administration in Washington and taking into account how Iran has conducted itself since signing the nuclear deal in 2015.
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Military experts went into some detail about how their combined forces in the Gulf region have deterred Iran’s maritime provocations, which were common a few years ago but have now been kept in check. The conventional military superiority of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and its American and British partners has, in general, deterred Iran from starting or provoking a conventional war.
Soon after the Iranian revolution of 1979, Tehran started utilizing unconventional tactics and strategies, many of which are unlawful, to train, arm and indoctrinate terrorists and religious militias to penetrate neighboring countries.
Those efforts intensified after the 2011 Arab Spring and especially after the conclusion of the nuclear deal in 2015. Now, Iran has added drones and cyberwarfare to its arsenal, upgraded its ballistic missile program, and has developed other, non-militarized, tactics.
There was a consensus at the Manama discussions that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as it stands is no longer enough as a basis for engagement with Iran.
There needs to be more precision on timelines, inspections, enrichment levels and safety standards. More importantly, it has to have a stronger regime to curb Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional activities.
Even Germany, which had been among the most passionate about the JCPOA, now appears to favor this enlarged approach to “update the agreement.” Miguel Berger, permanent secretary of the German Foreign Ministry, said he favored going back to “full compliance of Iran under the nuclear agreement,” but added that “back to full compliance is not enough. We have to address the role of Iran in the region and we also have to address the challenges which are posed by the ballistic missile program of Iran.”
There was less certainty on the sequencing of steps. Prince Turki Al‐Faisal asked pointedly:
“If you go back to the nuclear deal with lifting the economic and financial sanctions, why would Iran accommodate you by dealing with regional and missile issues?” Therefore, some appeared to favor starting with full compliance, followed by negotiations on upgrading the agreement. Sanctions could then be lifted after an agreement is reached. Others thought that Iran should go back to full compliance first, after which the US could start lifting sanctions as negotiations start on the other issues.
There were no clear answers to the questions about sequencing. Everybody was conscious that there will be a new administration in Washington in January and that it has not spoken on this issue yet, other than President-elect Joe Biden’s comments to the press, which indicate that he wants to listen to the region before ploughing ahead with reviving the JCPOA, either in its existing or some new format. But those were general comments and cannot be construed as the official policy of his upcoming administration.
Berger, however, suggested a tight timeframe based on the fact that the Biden administration will come into office on Jan. 20 and Iran will have presidential elections in mid‐June. He said that Germany wanted to “make some progress in the months ahead in order to move toward the compliance in the JCPOA. And then I would say work on an update, and in parallel we need to tackle the question of regional security… It is impossible to give you more details because I think we all need to discuss that first with the new US administration.”
If the timeframe for new negotiations with Iran was uncertain, there was a consensus that the region, especially the GCC states, should be involved in them in a meaningful manner. That involvement was absent in the negotiations leading to the JCPOA, despite the fact that the GCC states are potentially the most affected by Iran’s nuclear program.
They are also the most affected by its ballistic missile program and have been on the receiving end of its asymmetric war instruments.
Mere “listening” to the regional voices is not enough; some formal representation at the negotiation table may be needed so that, if an agreement is reached, there will be certainty that the regional parties are able to support it.
There was a consensus that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as it stands is no longer enough as a basis for engagement and that GCC states should be involved in the talks.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
In addition to Gulf security, the Palestine question was another issue that dominated the discussions in Manama.
Speakers made the case for linking the two issues, as a fair resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict would enable Israel to normalize its presence in the region and would deprive Iran of a pretext to meddle in Arab affairs. They all brought up the Arab Peace Initiative as the right basis for such a resolution. It stipulates full normalization with Israel in exchange for a peace deal with the Palestinians that includes a state of their own along the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The Palestine discussions registered the most animated exchanges in the otherwise sedate event. Prince Turki, in particular, lambasted Israel for its long history of mistreatment of the Palestinians, which he went into in some detail, and the Israeli interlocutors appeared to be taken aback.
Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi tried to appear more conciliatory and less triumphalist than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he could not offer anything more than a readiness to talk with the Palestinians, while not addressing any of the substantive issues raised by the GCC speakers.
The Palestine discussions may have disabused the Israeli participants of the notion that normalization would take place at the expense of the Palestinians, as GCC speakers made it clear that was not the case.
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