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HomeBlogNuclear Diplomacy with Iran and Regional Perceptions

Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran and Regional Perceptions

Image credit: U.S. Department of State

By Darya Dolzikova and Tobias Borck

This article is published as part of IPD’s project and policy paper series, Deconstructing the Changing Middle East Security Architecture.

Abstract

Over the course of the negotiations for the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal – as well as efforts to revive the agreement following the US unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 and subsequent decreases in Iranian compliance – Iran’s regional neighbours have consistently voiced their concerns about the structure and content of the negotiation process. In particular, Israel and – to varying degrees – the six Gulf Cooperation Council states (GCC)[1] have criticized the parties to the agreement for excluding them from the Iran nuclear talks and for what they have perceived as a prioritization of the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue at the expense of what they consider to be more pressing threats to regional security – including Iran’s missile programme and its support for destabilizing non-state actors across the region. This article, based on a longer report published by the authors in July 2022 for the Royal United Services Institute,[2] summarizes how the GCC states perceive the interaction between the Iranian nuclear file and broader regional security dynamics. It argues that – if the ultimate objective is a stable and secure Middle East – the US, Europe and other like-minded governments need to reassure partners in the Gulf of their commitment to supporting the resolution of other regional concerns, independent of the outcomes of nuclear diplomacy with Iran.     

Background

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), concluded in 2015 between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China), was lauded at the time – by many experts and officials alike – as a landmark diplomatic and nuclear non-proliferation achievement.[3] The agreement placed restrictions and imposed extensive monitoring and verification measures on the Iranian nuclear programme, following more than a decade of mounting concerns over the nature of Iranian nuclear activities. In exchange, Iran saw the lifting of the nuclear-related sanctions, imposed by the US, EU and UN, on its economy, offering Tehran a much-needed respite from years of international economic pressure.[4]

Despite these achievements, from the start, the agreement faced significant criticism in Washington and – critically – in Iran’s own neighbourhood; namely, from Israel and – to varying degrees – the six Gulf Cooperation Council states (GCC).[5]  In negotiating the JCPOA, the P5+1 excluded regional states and issues of regional security from direct negotiations and the contents of the agreement, choosing instead to focus strictly on the nuclear issue. Yet, governments in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf questioned the feasibility of such compartmentalization. Regional actors felt that the agreement did not address what they perceived to be much more direct threats to their regional – and respective national – security than the Iranian nuclear programme. Namely, they cited concerns over Tehran’s rapidly advancing missile programme and Iran’s support for destabilizing non-state actors across the Middle East. Furthermore, they feared that sanctions relief and reduced political pressure resulting from the conclusion of the nuclear agreement would embolden Iran, making it less likely to come to the table on these other issues.[6]

As of November 2022, the future of the JCPOA is uncertain. The efforts to secure a mutual return to the deal, following the US withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018 and Iran’s subsequent roll-back of its compliance with the agreement’s provisions, have not officially collapsed but have been stalled for months.[7] As with the negotiations leading up to the 2015 agreement, regional actors have once again voiced concerns over the process and content of the negotiations for a return to the agreement. While Iran’s Gulf neighbours have generally been supportive of P5+1 efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear issue – and certainly prefer it to military escalation over the programme – they worry that the US and Europe may be willing to compromise on other regional security issues in order to secure a nuclear agreement.[8]

Gulf capitals view the state of the Iranian nuclear programme and related diplomacy as one factor of many in a more complex regional security picture. The ability or failure of Western allies to recognize and address the various regional security concerns of the GCC States – often differing significantly among themselves – plays a much greater role in how regional actors assess regional security dynamics than the specifics of the Iranian nuclear programme.[9] Integrating discussions on the Iranian nuclear issue into broader policy considerations towards the region should therefore be front of mind for Western policymakers interested in promoting a sustainable security framework in the Gulf, independent of the outcomes of nuclear diplomacy with Tehran.

This article briefly examines the interaction between the Iran nuclear issue and regional security dynamics in the Gulf. It argues that efforts by the US and Europe to address concerns over the Iranian nuclear programme should be contextualized within the broader regional security dynamics. If the ultimate objective is to ensure a secure and stable Middle East, regional allies will need to be reassured that Iran’s other destabilizing activities will not go unaddressed. The article is based on a longer report, completed by the authors for the Royal United Services Institute in July 2022.[10] The report’s analysis – some of which is presented in this article – was based on a qualitative research methodology centred on extensive engagement with officials and experts from the six GCC states. Here, the authors summarise some of the report’s findings and adapt their policy recommendations – initially aimed at a UK audience – to the broader European and North American contexts.

The Iranian Nuclear Programme in the Broader Regional Security Context

Over the last two decades, the Iranian nuclear programme has been a central driver of the West’s dealings with Iran, and – to a significant extent – US and European engagement with wider regional security dynamics. To be sure, concerns over Iran’s human rights record (including the detention of dual nationals and domestic repression), Tehran’s missile programme, and Iranian support for non-state actors across the region have also informed North American and European governments’ policies towards Tehran. This has been clearly demonstrated in the outpouring of public and official support around the world for the protests in Iran following the detention and death in Tehran of Mahsa Amini, and statements by senior members of the Biden administration suggesting that the current situation inside Iran has shifted focus away from the nuclear negotiations.[11] Iranian provision of unmanned aerial vehicles to Russia for use in Moscow’s war on Ukraine has also refocused US and European attention toward non-nuclear security threats posed by Iran.[12] However, it would be difficult to argue that – on the whole – the same resources and diplomatic effort have historically been committed by Western capitals to these issues as to the prevention of a nuclear-armed Iran. Yet, despite the fact that the ongoing protests inside Iran and Russo-Iranian weapons transfers have made conducting nuclear diplomacy with Iran undoubtedly challenging, it is difficult to believe that the US and Europe would turn down a serious Iranian commitment to resolving outstanding issues in the nuclear negotiations and returning to the JCPOA – a prospect that, admittedly, appears increasingly unlikely.

In the threat perceptions and policies of the six GCC states vis-à-vis Iran, however, the nuclear issue is much less central. While they each have their own unique relationship with Iran, driven by distinct historical, economic, political, and social contexts, the GCC states nevertheless share the understanding that Iran’s nuclear activities are not driven by – nor targeted at – them.[13] Further, the Gulf Arab states assess that Iran’s missile capabilities and Tehran’s extensive network of regional armed non-state allies provide the Islamic Republic with sufficient means to deter and respond to any threats it perceives from its immediate region. It is these aspects of Iran’s regional policies and activities they consider to be of greatest concern.[14]

To varying degrees, the Gulf kingdoms fear Iranian ambitions to undermine the established regional order of independent states and their own respective territorial integrity, regime stability and – in the case of Saudi Arabia – claims to regional leadership.[15] They assess Iranian deterrence strategy, not through any developments on its nuclear programme, but through the leveraging of non-state Shia and separatist groups across the region, as well as advances in its missile and drone capabilities.[16] The degree to which each of the six Gulf kingdoms perceives Iran as a direct threat – and which Iranian activity is of greatest concern – varies. In general, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain see Iran as the greatest threat to their security; Oman and Qatar are least concerned about direct Iranian encroachment on their interests; with Kuwait and the UAE perceptions falling somewhere in between.[17] However, the common thread across the Gulf is the perception of Iran as a destabilizing actor in the region, independently of any developments in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.

Instead, the common perception across the Gulf, and much of the regional and international expert community, is that Iran’s nuclear programme, and – by extension – Tehran’s engagement in nuclear diplomacy, are driven first and foremost by the Islamic Republic’s relationship with the US and – to a lesser degree – Israel.[18] GCC experts tend to believe that Iranian policy on its nuclear programme serves largely to generate leverage in Iran’s relationship with the US on other issues.[19] They also note that the nuclear programme – particularly, an advanced nuclear capability – may be generated by Iran as a deterrent against US or Israeli military attacks on Iranian territory or assets in the region. Thus, while the programme is not seen by the GCC states as a direct threat, the potential deterrent value does raise concerns among regional capitals when it comes to implications for their respective national and regional security.[20]

The extent to which any of these factors practically shape Iranian policy on its nuclear programme and related diplomacy is difficult to ascertain due to the opacity of Iran’s policymaking, particularly on nuclear matters. The existing literature on the subject suggests that the programme is likely driven by a combination of economic, political, security and normative factors.[21] However, experts studying Iranian foreign and security policy tend to agree that the Islamic Republic’s decision-making on its nuclear programme is likely not primarily driven by regional security dynamics and is instead determined first and foremost by Tehran’s relationship with Washington and the West in general.[22] The latter certainly has implications for the threats that Iran perceives from the region – including in relation to its neighbours in the Gulf; yet, in this sense, regional dynamics most likely influence Iranian nuclear policy only in so much as they are driven by – or impact on – the US and, to a lesser degree, Israeli posture in the region.

As a result – and considering the importance that the US and Europe have placed on the resolution of the nuclear issue – regional states have understandably been concerned over the extent to which more immediate regional security matters, in other words, their core interests, may be treated as trading chips in the course of nuclear diplomacy.[23] They also continue to fear that the renewal of the JCPOA – or the conclusion of an alternative nuclear agreement – might further embolden Iran. Gulf Arab capitals are concerned that the economic benefits that they expect Iran to gain from a renewed agreement, combined with the political cover that would come from de facto acceptance by the international community of destabilizing Iranian and Iranian-backed activity in the region, could make Iran less – not more – likely to constructively engage in regional diplomacy.[24] Feeling limited in their own ability to build up leverage to bring Iran to the table, and unsettled by what they perceive to be a wavering US commitment to upholding the regional order in the Middle East, the Gulf monarchies fear that they might be left to deal with a politically- and economically-emboldened Tehran on their own.

At the same time, the two scenarios the GCC states fear more than a diplomatically- and economically-emboldened Iran under a nuclear agreement, are a regional arms race set off by a nuclear-armed Iran,[25] and – most of all – a regional war triggered by the US or Israeli attempts to militarily prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.[26] Whereas they may not be the target of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, the Gulf Arab states are conscious of the grave consequences that a conventional military conflict or arms race in the region would impose on their physical security and internationalized economies, even if they themselves are not a direct party to the conflict. To be clear, both a nuclear-armed Iran and the outbreak of full-scale war over the Iranian nuclear programme remain unlikely and largely hypothetical scenarios. As such, preventing the outbreak of conventional war in the region should not be interpreted as ambivalence on the part of the GCC states towards efforts to limit Iranian nuclear activity.[27] Instead, GCC concerns over a military escalation – and a much less hypothetical scenario of a conventional arms race in the region – should serve as a reminder of the importance that regional actors place on an international – especially Western – approach to the Iran nuclear issue that takes into account the full range of regional security dynamics.

Policy Recommendations and Conclusion

Efforts by the US, Europe and allies to address concerns over the Iranian nuclear programme – whatever format these efforts may take moving forward – will need to consider how their policies on the Iran nuclear file fit within their broader objectives vis-à-vis Iran and the region. If the ultimate goal is a safer and more stable Gulf and broader Middle East region, concerns over the nuclear agreement and negotiations voiced by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and other regional actors should factor into Western calculations. Ensuring that nuclear diplomacy with Iran – and whatever outcome it yields – has the support of regional actors – which was largely not the case in 2015 – will also help make any future agreement more sustainable and more likely to contribute to broader trust-building dynamics in the region.

At the same time, negotiating parties and their allies need to remain realistic about the level of regional engagement that can be expected at the current stage of negotiations. It may not be practical to directly bring in regional actors or issues of regional concern to the nuclear negotiation table, considering the advanced, albeit faltering and increasingly uncertain, state of the negotiations between Iran and the remaining parties to the JCPOA. Furthermore, while Iran’s nuclear programme may not be the primary concern for regional actors, it poses a significant threat to global security and non-proliferation. The key, therefore, is not to disregard the benefits of a nuclear agreement despite its inability to address other regional security concerns, but to reassure regional allies that the support of the US, Europe and other partners for resolving broader regional security issues will persist regardless of the outcome of negotiations. Such reassurances may include further defence and maritime security contributions, the articulation of policy white papers on regional objectives and ministerial-level statements of support for regional partners.

States not directly involved in the nuclear negotiations but eager to support regional security in the Middle East – such as Canada and some European states – can play a dual role in this process. On the one hand, they can remind their partners in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin of the importance of holding Iran accountable for its destabilizing regional policies and domestic human rights record. This can assure regional countries that their concerns are taken seriously and not forgotten and delegate responsibilities across Western partners in ensuring both the nuclear issue and other regional concerns are addressed. On the other hand, they can also help facilitate the painstaking multi-level confidence-building process amongst regional states, convening and nurturing dialogue initiatives, and promoting multilateral (i.e. including Iran, GCC states and others) cooperation on areas of mutual concern – from climate change to food security and economic integration. Countries like Canada might have less leverage over regional powers than the US or others in the P5+1, but this can also mean that their involvement in such activities is less politically sensitive and less likely to directly impact nuclear negotiations.

Ultimately, extra-regional actors cannot force the GCC states and Iran to resolve their differences, nor can they dictate the contours of a future regional order; however, they can help provide a framework for regional diplomacy. This includes providing reassurances to Gulf partners, thus allowing them to focus on confidence-building and eventual conflict resolution with each other and with Iran, rather than on hedging against the various possible outcomes of the JCPOA negotiation process or whatever nuclear diplomacy efforts may replace it. In doing so, Western states will need to remain cognisant of both the similarities and divergences in the threat perceptions and interests of individual GCC states and other regional actors vis-à-vis Iran and – just as importantly – each other. Preferences for how to structure regional security discussions, the role that Iran should play in the region and the ways in which extra-regional actors can best address their security concerns vary – sometimes significantly – among  the GCC states.[28] Here, too, embracing complexity and nuance will yield opportunities for effective engagement and support and will help to avoid misunderstandings.

About the Authors

Darya Dolzikova​ (@ddolzikova) is a Research Fellow with RUSI’s Proliferation and Nuclear Policy programme. Tobias Borck (@tobiasborck) is Research Fellow for Middle East Security Studies at the International Security Studies department at RUSI.


Endnotes

[1] The GCC is comprised of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain.

[2] Tobias Borck and Darya Dolzikova with Jack Senogles, Chain Reactions: The Iranian Nuclear Programme and Gulf Security Dynamics (London: Royal United Services Institute, 2022). Accessible at: <https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/occasional-papers/chain-reactions-iranian-nuclear-programme-and-gulf-security-dynamics>.

[3] For some of the expert and official voices that lent their support to the agreement, see: Obama White House, ‘The Historic Deal That Will Prevent Iran from Acquiring a Nuclear

Weapon’, last updated 16 January 2016, <https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/issues/foreignpolicy/iran-deal>, accessed 18 October 2022.

[4] For more information, see, for example, Kali Robinson, ‘What Is the Iran Nuclear Deal?’, Council on Foreign Relations, last updated 20 July 2022, <https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-iran-nuclear-deal>, accessed

18 October 2022.

[5] The GCC is comprised of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain

[6] See, for example, Sanam Vakil and Neil Quilliam, Steps to Enable a Middle East Regional Security Process: Reviving the JCPOA, De-Escalating Conflicts and Building Trust (London: Chatham House, 2021). Accessible at: <https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/04/steps-enable-middle-east-regional-security-process>.

[7] While drafts of a ‘roadmap’ for a return to the JCPOA were exchanged between Iran and the US and European parties to the agreement, the US and Iran have been unable to agree on a draft. and negotiations have since stalled with a number of matters remaining unresolved. Massive public protests in Iran, US and European accusations of Iranian violations of the JCPOA over the Iranian supply of drones to Russia and approaching US midterm elections have all posed challenges to continuing nuclear diplomacy with Iran. (See: Henry Foy, Felicia Schwartz and Najmeh Bozorgmehr, ‘Iran nuclear deal in ‘danger’, says EU chief negotiator’, Financial Times, 5 September 2022, <https://www.ft.com/content/004f0d5a-0eca-4ea0-a423-0184481d033c>, accessed 19 October 2022; Simon Lewis, Arshad Mohammed, ed. David Gregorio, ‘U.S. says Iran nuclear deal is ‘not our focus right now’’, Reuters, 12 October 2022, <https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/us-says-iran-nuclear-deal-is-not-our-focus-right-now-2022-10-12/>, accessed 19 October 2022.)

[8] Tobias Borck and Darya Dolzikova with Jack Senogles, Chain Reactions: The Iranian Nuclear Programme and Gulf Security Dynamics (London: Royal United Services Institute, 2022). Accessible at: <https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/occasional-papers/chain-reactions-iranian-nuclear-programme-and-gulf-security-dynamics>.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] ‘US Reiterates Support for Protests in Iran, Says JCPOA Not ‘On Agenda’’, Iran International, 18 October 2022, <https://www.iranintl.com/en/202210189905>, accessed 19 October 2022.

[12] Patrick Wintour and Jennifer Rankin, ‘Iran breaching nuclear deal by providing Russia with armed drones, says UK’, The Guardian, 17 October 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/17/iran-breaching-nuclear-deal-by-providing-russia-with-armed-drones-says-uk, accessed 10 November 2022.

[13] Borck and Dolzikova, Chain Reactions, 2022, pp. 13-14.

[14] Borck and Dolzikova, Chain Reactions, 2022, pp. 8-9.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Borck and Dolzikova, Chain Reactions, 2022, pp. 13-14.

[17] Borck and Dolzikova, Chain Reactions, 2022, pp. 9-10.

[18] Borck and Dolzikova, Chain Reactions, 2022, p. 14.

[19] Borck and Dolzikova, Chain Reactions, 2022, p. 15.

[20] Ibid.

[21] One expert interviewed as part of the authors’ research suggested that the nuclear programme may factor into Iran’s economic and domestic energy considerations. Experts have also often pointed to the perceived prestige that may come with the domestic development of an advanced nuclear programme as a potential driver for Iranian nuclear activity. See Borck and Dolzikova, Chain Reactions, 2022, pp. 14-15.

[22] For more on the history of the Iranian nuclear programme and possible drivers of Iranian thinking on its nuclear activity, see, for example, Darya Dolzikova and Ariane M Tabatabai, ‘Case Study: The Iran Nuclear Deal’, in James E Doyle (ed.), Nuclear Safeguards, Security, and Nonproliferation: Achieving Security with Technology and Policy, 2nd edition (Cambridge, MA: Elsevier Inc., 2019); Bowen, Moran and Esfandiary, Living on the Edge; Wyn Bowen and Matthew Moran, ‘Living with Nuclear Hedging: The Implications of Iran’s Nuclear Strategy’, International Affairs (Vol. 91, No. 4, 2015), pp. 687–707; Ariane M Tabatabai, No Conquest, No Defeat: Iran’s National Security Strategy (London: Hurst & Company, 2020), pp. 126–27.

[23] Borck and Dolzikova, Chain Reactions, 2022, p. 15.

[24] Borck and Dolzikova, Chain Reactions, 2022, pp. 15-16.

[25] Borck and Dolzikova, Chain Reactions, 2022, p. 17. For differing views on the threat of regional nuclear proliferation, see Gawdat Bahgat, ‘A Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East: Myth or Reality?’, Mediterranean Quarterly (Vol. 22, No. 1, 2011), pp. 27–40; Richard L Russell, ‘Off and Running: The Middle East Nuclear Arms Race’, JFQ: Joint Force Quarterly (Vol. 58, 2010), pp. 94–99.

[26] Borck and Dolzikova, Chain Reactions, 2022, p. 17.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Borck and Dolzikova, Chain Reactions, 2022, p. 32.

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.  

Panelists:

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.

Panelists:

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.

 

Panelists:

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. 

Panelists:

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. 

 

Panelists:

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.

Panelists:

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.

Panelists:

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.

 

Panelists:

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