As the incoming Biden administration begins to map out its approach to the Middle East region, several things should be clear. The first is that it is not possible to simply return to the status quo ante—resurrecting the Iran nuclear deal or restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Consideration must be given to the new realities across the region and lessons that must be learned from past failures.
It will also be important to acknowledge that the United States, while retaining significant strengths and resources, no longer has the dominant leadership role it possessed just two decades ago. There are both regional and global actors (including Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt), who are engaged, in various combinations, in hot spots across the Middle East (Libya, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Somalia, the resource race in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the flow of goods through the Persian Gulf and Red Sea).
What is happening across the region may not yet be of the magnitude of the two world wars that ravaged Europe, but it is time we addressed these connected conflicts across the Middle East as the equivalent of a regional/world war. Given this, it is critical to recognize that it is not possible to pick around the edges and deal with issues piecemeal. Instead of attempting to address each conflict zone separately, the wiser course for the United States would be to work with the parties in the P5+1 coalition (the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany) to build broad international support for a comprehensive approach to resolving the connected crises currently tearing apart the Middle East.
The goal of this effort should be to convene an all-party international conference under the auspices of the United Nations. The main agenda item would be the creation of a regional security framework (something akin to a Middle East version of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) that would provide all states with security guarantees coupled with commitments to nonintervention and nonaggression. It might also work to create a regional structure that would promote trade, investment, and greater economic integration.
Such an international conference, in addition to becoming a permanent platform for dialogue and conflict resolution, would provide the umbrella for follow-up working groups, in which all relevant participants would engage in efforts to address each of the region’s issues of concern. For example, there would need to be focused discussions on the Israel-Palestine conflict; the wars raging in Syria, Yemen, and Libya; the elimination of weapons of mass destruction; the role played by sectarian religious extremism; and guarantees for the free flow of goods and resources in the region’s waterways.
Some Arabs may balk at sitting with Iranians, among others, to discuss Yemen. The Israelis may resist any multilateral effort to address their occupation of Palestinian lands. And the Turks may not initially agree to engage with other parties to discuss the Eastern Mediterranean. But, with the resolve of the United States and the international community behind this effort, and with the use of pressure and incentives, the parties can be brought to the table.
The work done during the George H.W. Bush administration to mobilize broad international backing to liberate Kuwait after Iraq’s 1990 invasion and then, at the war’s end, to convene the Madrid Peace Conference (despite initial Israeli and Arab resistance), and the Obama administration’s attempt to mobilize the P5+1 to address Iran’s nuclear program, provide clear lessons that can be applied here. These initiatives demonstrate that combined pressure by major powers, coupled with incentives, can bring success. The shortcomings of these efforts can also teach us important lessons.
For example, getting the Israelis to agree to participate in Madrid required an ingenious use of carrots (the Arabs ended their secondary boycott) and sticks (Israel agreed to a settlement freeze and to sit with the Palestinians—albeit as part of a Jordanian delegation). The problem was that Washington appeared to exhaust its arsenal of carrots and sticks simply getting the Arabs and Israelis to Madrid. With no arrows left in the US quiver to prod the parties along during follow-up negotiations, the effort foundered.
In the case of the Iran nuclear deal, by focusing on one issue, Tehran’s nuclear program, and ignoring Iran’s regional meddling, the effort aggravated insecurity among the Arab Gulf states concerned with Iran’s role in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and, especially, Yemen. Given developments during the past five years—for example, no reduction in Iran’s engagement in regional conflicts, and Saudi Arabia, with US backing, intensifying its bombing campaign in Yemen—it seems clear that a far better use of the combined strength and influence of the P5+1 and the UN Security Council might have been to take a broader regional approach.
Convening such an effort will, no doubt, be difficult and most likely initially rejected by hard-liners in some countries. But it holds advantages over the alternatives. Since all of these conflicts involve some of the same competing regional players, working piecemeal by addressing each of them as if they are merely products of local unrest will continue to result in a series of frustrating dead ends. In other words, thinking big may present difficult challenges, but acknowledging the connectedness of the region’s conflicts is a more promising expenditure of diplomatic energy than continuing to play Whac-A-Mole across the region for yet another decade.
There is another advantage of thinking big, and that is that it can help to advance a more promising vision of the region’s future. Our polling at Zogby Research Services tells us that the peoples of the Middle East want regional unity and investment in the future that can bring peace and prosperity. They’ve had enough of war and want employment opportunities, improved education and health care, and a better future for their children. If the Biden administration, working within the P5+1 framework, were able to project a compelling vision of a more hopeful future and then put its diplomatic weight behind mobilizing major global and regional players to at least give it a try, it may very well inspire an effective combination of the region’s leaders and opinion shapers to demand a change in course from the current downward spiral.