At this year’s Munich Security Conference, several Middle Eastern leaders proposed the idea of a new “security architecture” in the Middle East to help usher in an era of lower tensions in the region.
The worsening relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been at the forefront of recent chaos in the region. The relationship, which had been deteriorating for decades, took a dramatic downward turn in January 2016 when Saudi authorities executed several members of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite community, including prominent cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
The executions triggered violent protests in Tehran, where demonstrators set fire to the Saudi Embassy, and prompted Riyadh to formally sever all ties with Iran. Lacking official channels to manage escalating tensions, the Middle East has descended further into instability.
Toward a new ‘security architecture’
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on Sunday reaffirmed his country’s position on establishing a “fresh security architecture” based on the 1975 Helsinki Accords.
The accords helped reduce Cold War tensions by forwarding 10 nonbinding principles aimed at “guiding relations” between Western countries and the Eastern bloc. The principle of the “territorial integrity of states,” in particular, helped ease both sides’ fears of attack by affirming each side’s sovereignty within their respective borders.
Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani on Friday proposed a similar vision. “It is time for wider regional security,” al-Thani said. “We can mirror the experiences of the European Union.”
For al-Thani, Europe’s history has shown that despite hundreds of years of conflict, entire regions can exercise diplomacy and move towards pragmatic principles to prevent conflict and ensure long-term security.
A Saudi adviser told DW on Friday that he was examining principles found in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended decades of war in Europe in the Middle Ages, to find a way forward in the modern Middle East.
The momentum is clearly there. But how can Europe’s historic experience directly contribute to reducing tensions in the Middle East?
Find guiding principles
As a first step, the Middle East could do well to establish its own Helsinki-type agreement to guide relations, especially when tensions between two countries risks sparking a conflict.
Such an agreement would “involve political and moral commitments aimed at lessening tensions and opening further the lines of communication between peoples,” as then-US Vice President Gerald Ford said in the run-up to the Helsinki Accords.
By recognizing even nonbinding principles, countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran could move towards reducing tensions through common understandings and shared interests.
In the last 50 years, Riyadh and Tehran have maintained diplomatic relations and repeatedly held official visits to each other’s countries. Any claims that sectarianism would prevent both sides from agreeing to a new pact fail to understand that more “normal” relations were there in the past.
As with any daring feat, there are risks in pursuing such an arrangement. But without taking those risks, the prospect of peace becomes an unattainable ideal, and may never become a concrete reality.