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How Can the United Nations Facilitate Dialogue in the Persian Gulf after Biden’s Inauguration?

Image credit: Zack Lee

By Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Mehran Haghirian

In the October debate on the Comprehensive Review of the Situation in the Persian Gulf at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, argued that the experience of the Cold War “shows that independent of confrontations and the deep divisions of the time, it was possible to launch the Helsinki process” which led to peace and cooperation between countries once at war. The Helsinki process was also mentioned by a number of other speakers as a model that could be applied to this region. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) which led to the Helsinki Final Act and the creation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had an objective to foster engagement and cooperation between neighbouring and regional countries.

Russia, as the UNSC president for the month of October, represented a concept note for this debate which was largely based on a previous Russian proposal for collective security in the Persian Gulf. With the aim “to exchange views on concrete options for the creation of collective security mechanisms in the Persian Gulf,” Russia sought to find a role for the UN to “be involved in creating a non-conflict atmosphere, encouraging regional actors to engage in dialogue, mediating efforts, and guaranteeing respect for future agreements.” 

China, for example, represented its own proposal for security and stability in the Persian Gulf region, and argued that with a multilateral effort, the Persian Gulf region can become “an Oasis of Security.” Niger, as another example, argued that not only the UN had a role to play, but that he recommended the appointment of an envoy tasked with the promotion of regional security in the Persian Gulf. 

Trump’s Ambassador to the UN, for her part, repeatedly objected to the idea that peace and security can be achieved through an inclusive dialogue that included Iran. While the other GCC states were absent, the Secretary-General of the GCC presented a statement. He said that the ball is in Iran’s court to move beyond mere calls for dialogue to actions that illustrate its seriousness to de-escalate tensions in the region. Qatar, as the only GCC member state that was present during the debate, has called for “meaningful dialogue” with Iran since 2015, even before the imposition of the blockade on the country by three of its GCC partners, and it has been calling for the settlement of differences under a collective framework ever since. 

Most of the 23 speakers including Europeans present at the debate agreed that as the Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres has a significant role to play. Paragraph 8 of Resolution 598 (1987), which was the basis of the ceasefire for the Iran-Iraq War “requests the Secretary-General to examine, in consultation with Iran and Iraq and with other states of the region, measures to enhance the security and stability of the region.” 

Iran presented the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE) to the UN General Assembly in 2019 and has since been attempting to build on it. However, similar to what the representative of the UK argued, “as a party to conflicts across the region, Iran is not an impartial actor and it would not be appropriate for any initiative to be Iranian led.” Largely, this can be presumed to be the position of the GCC states as well.

With the Biden administration coming to office in January, it is expected that the new US foreign policy will also be supportive of such a role for the UN to play in de-escalating the situation in the Persian Gulf. After all, the Obama administration encouraged such dialogue towards the end of his term, and it could be expected that the Biden team will continue that approach. Saudi Arabia needs to “share” the neighbourhood with Iran; Obama stated in an interview with The Atlantic in 2016.

The new US administration should support the UN Secretary-General’s proposal to initiate action under the Helsinki Accord in the Persian Gulf to achieve a sustainable peace and cooperation between countries. An inclusive regional cooperation could include: a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) free zone in the Persian Gulf, combating terrorism, extremism, and sectarianism, engaging in peaceful nuclear cooperation, finding solutions to environmental issues such as sandstorms and water scarcity, increasing investment and trade, and jointly preparing for disasters and pandemics. 

The basic tenets of such a process for the Persian Gulf region include finding a common ground on principles that could guide relations between stakeholders, facilitating economic, scientific, technological and environmental cooperation amongst states, as well as cooperating on humanitarian issues and people-to-people exchanges. 

Prior to arriving at that point, however, confidence building measures must be taken by all sides to allow for the fruitful progression of the process, if and when it starts. Basic steps could include modest measures such as “reducing inflammatory rhetoric,” issuing “unilateral statements in support of dialogue,” and “joint statements outlining shared principles and interests,” as suggested by Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group in his recent address to the UN Security Council on the danger of conflict in the Gulf and across the Middle East. Establishing a deconfliction hotline could also be helpful.

It is faulty to forget that there are other issues in the Persian Gulf region aside from tensions with Iran. There is a myriad of intra-GCC conflicts, including the blockade on Qatar, border disputes between virtually all GCC states, as well as political interference by some states in the internal affairs of others. 

The fact is that the UNSC has a role to play in maintaining or restoring international peace and security, including in the Persian Gulf region. The UN Secretary-General also has a mandate to provide his good offices to resolve the conflicts in this region. Thus, the United Nations can surely facilitate dialogue in the Persian Gulf and acting on what was preached during the UNSC debate would be the best starting point. While an overwhelming majority of the international community supports the idea, the next US administration’s position would be key to launch such a process.

Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian is Middle East Security and Nuclear Policy Specialist at Princeton University, Associated Professor at University of Kashan and a former Chief of Iran’s National Security Foreign Relations Committee. His latest book, “Iran and the United States: An Insider’s view on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace” was released in May 2014. Routledge published his new book: A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction, in May 2020. The views expressed are the author’s and not of Princeton University or the government of Iran.

Mehran Haghirian is a PhD. Candidate at Qatar University and a researcher and assistant to the director at the Ibn Khaldon Center for Humanities and Social Sciences. He is a graduate of American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC, with a master’s degree in International Affairs. His research focus is on Iran, the Persian Gulf region, and US foreign policy. Previously, he worked at Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative as a project assistant and at American University as a Graduate Assistant.


Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor