The US makes no secret of its opposition to Russia’s stance on Gulf security, but that opposition may be even more pronounced during a Joe Biden presidency. After four years of friendly relations between Presidents Putin and Trump, president-elect Biden is expected to reconsider this troubling relationship. The announcement in Washington last month of the discovery of large-scale hacking operations, which America believes to be Russian-backed, will prompt a faster reconsideration of US-Russian relations.
The global rivalry over security in the Gulf is expected to be one of the most important issues before Biden. The incoming US president will no doubt discover that the foreign policy approach of the Obama administration, of which Biden was a key figure, is no longer sufficient in light of heightened contention between global superpowers, particularly Russia and China.
Despite the friendly relations between Putin and Trump, the US and Russia fundamentally disagree over Gulf security, regardless of who is in office at the White House. This was made clear in the discussions of the UN Security Council in October, when Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations rejected the Russian proposal for Gulf security altogether. This disagreement will be further entrenched in the event of a Biden-era Cold War.
Moscow has long been seeking greater influence in the Gulf, undertaking a number of covert initiatives, until deciding to finally reveal its latest plan in the summer of 2019. Moscow stated that is long-term goal was to establish an organization for security and cooperation in the Gulf, which would oversee the security of the region, and whose members would include all Gulf countries along with Russia, China, the US, the EU and India, in addition to “other relevant members as participants or observers.” The countries of the region would commit to disclosing and exchanging all information through this organization, including military and security information.
In October 2020, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov presented a brief of the proposal before the Security Council, stressing that Russia’s proposal stems from “the assumption that ensuring peace in the Gulf Region was an important goal for the entire international community. The unhealthy situation in this area destabilizes international relations.”
In an indirect reference to the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January, Lavrov said that this incident could have led to “the potential outbreak of a large-scale war in the Gulf” stressing the importance of collective action (i.e., the Russian proposal) to reduce tensions.
Lavrov’s choice of this example elicited surprise and showed a flaw in the Russian proposal, as Iran’s attack on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in September of 2019 was the most marking event of the recent period. Lavrov added that “blackmail and dictatorship, demonization and accusation of only one party are wrong and dangerous,” in reference to the US policy of pressure on Iran, but without balancing this with the mention of Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region.
Lavrov said that the nuclear deal with Iran succeeded in “averting the threat of an armed conflict.” However, there is clear evidence to the contrary; after the deal, Iran unleashed the Revolutionary Guard in the region from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and Yemen, as a reward for hardliners in Iran for accepting the deal.
Lavrov communicated President Putin’s proposal to hold a meeting of the leaders of the five permanent members of the Security Council, in addition to Germany and Iran, in order to “develop measures aimed at preventing further escalation and forming a reliable collective security system in the Gulf.” Arab Gulf states were noticeably not invited to this proposed founding meeting, but Lavrov said that at a later stage all the countries bordering the Gulf, in addition to the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and others, could participate in the “practical steps to implement these concepts.” In other words, GCC states would only be invited at the implementation phase of the ideas agreed upon by the participants in the first phase.
The Russian proposal for Gulf security raises many issues. First, it is unacceptable to exclude the GCC and its member states, who are primarily concerned with Gulf security, from participating in establishing any Gulf security agreement which they are subsequently expected to implement.
Secondly, the Russian proposal in its new form is oddly similar to that of Hassan Rouhani in 2007, then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council in Iran, in which he proposed the establishment of an organization for security and cooperation in the Gulf. This similarity may be an indication of coordination between the two sides on the proposal. Of course, it is in Iran’s interest to have such an organization to help lift its pariah status within the international community.
Third, the proposed security organization entails a large amount of sensitive information exchange, ignoring the current mistrust between the various parties, whether between the two banks of the Gulf, or between the superpowers involved, namely the US, Russia and China.
Faced with these questions, and many others, Moscow realized that the journey to form a collective security organization for the Gulf “won’t be short, nor will it be easy,” as Lavrov informed the Security Council last October. Therefore, he said that “the countries of the region must travel it themselves. The external players’ job is to help them create proper conditions.”
Lavrov added two very important points: the first is that confidence-building measures should be the starting point for improving conditions in the Gulf, and the second that these measures must be implemented with “respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of states in strict accordance with international law and the UN Charter.”
These points are consistent with the demands of the GCC, and with what he told Iran directly, that adherence to these principles, in words and actions, is necessary to build confidence and pave the way for greater cooperation. Adhering to them means Iran giving up the use of force to interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbors, and stopping the financing, training and arming of terrorist groups and sectarian militias that perpetuate violence and destruction in the region. It also means stopping the attacks on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with missiles and car bombs, and on oil tankers and maritime navigation in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea.
When Russia succeeds in persuading Iran to abide by the UN Charter, desist from activities that undermine peace and security in the region, and regain the confidence of its neighbors, the proposal to develop a new framework for collective security in the Gulf may become more credible and acceptable.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.