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What Sustainable Status Quo in the Middle East?

For a status quo, in any region, to be sustainable and stable, it should be based mainly on its structural capacity to preserve stability and peace as on its flexibility to solve conflicts through diplomacy. This, in turn, requires a proper definition of the balance of power that underlies such a status quo, and the way it is to be built.

What is happening now on the political sphere in Tehran shows us that a regional deal between the Arabs and the Iranians is far from reach, so far. Rouhani, though he cannot be described as an ideal reformist, is under intensive attacks by the hardliners who are growing in strength by the day (See how Rouhani was insulted by the hardliners even while in a visit, for a religious occasion, to Khamenei’s house).

Saudi Arabia is busy trying to build a coalition of Islamic states to participate in confronting the threat of both terrorism and Iranian proxies (See King Salman’s recent Asian tour). These developments will certainly impact the tactical capabilities in both sides. Yet, we are still in need of a strategic concept to frame the objective of a sustainable status quo able to preserve stability and solve conflicts diplomatically.

Ultimately, to preserve peace and stability, there needs to be a consensus among all relevant players that things should be moved to a point where those players understand that what they have is the best they can get under the circumstances, and that any step to improve their gains in their competition game may cost them part of what they already got or even more.

The essence of the Middle East crisis is that there is no trespassing punishment to prevent this or that power from trying to improve their cut. We have seen the same chaos in the gradual and deadly count down to the Second World War. And we have seen how President Obama misunderstood this dynamic when he reduced the US role as guarantor of specific limits and redlines. The diminished balancer role of the US led to encouraging this or that party to rush to increase their gains without fearing any consequences.

President Obama’s other avenue was to encourage reform through supporting the wrong forces, in the wrong place at a wrong time. This avenue backfired as much as the first one did. At the end of his two terms, the regional problem was steadily getting out of control.

Then, what should be the starting point?

Much as the case of the post-war Europe, a serious, profound, clear-eyed and well-studied involvement, may lead to decades of peace and stability. Who is to be involved? And to do what?

As we mentioned above, the prerequisites are that no single country can confront a combination of the other countries, including the global participants, and that all players reach a conclusion that they are better off preserving the status quo.

During the last two decades or so, we have seen the balance of power tilting dangerously and steadily in favor of an expansionist Iranian strategy. Getting away with it encouraged Tehran, the Arabs, and the US to try new tactics. The result was the current general crisis. It was wrongly though that removing Saddam Hussein or dropping Iran’s containment policy or the political reengineering of the Middle East will reduce the role of the US as the underwriter of the Gulf and the region’s balance of power. The price of those missed steps was a further deterioration in the balance of power, the spread of terrorism and radicalism, and the collapse of several states in the region. We should know, by now, what must be avoided, but we still do not know what should be done.

Local power equilibrium is the key to any retaliatory balance of power. It is here that we see a dangerous tilt in favor of Iran. GCC military power is considerable and plays an important role as an element in this local balance of power. However, Iran may have accumulated experience in non-conventional warfare and proxies’ insurgencies. It also has an edge in ballistic missiles and naval warfare.

An input based on multilateralism must be injected into the existing balance to indeed “balance” it. Islamic countries like Pakistan, Turkey and Asian nations could participate in maintain peace in the Middle East. But mainly, it is a mission for the region’s countries before anyone else.

A road map to reach a stabilizing balance of power could be based on serious exploration of the impact of the following deliberate steps:

* Increasing US pressure in Iran in economic, military and political fields with the objective of encouraging Tehran to understand the consequences of an open-ended hostility with the world and its neighbors.

* A diplomatic effort to bring US allies to adopt a clear view of their and global interest in reaching a stable peace in the Middle East.

* Reaching out to Russia and China to discuss the proposed plan. This plan is not an “Iran Containment” strategy, it is, rather a “Middle East Stabilization” strategy. The input of Russia and China will be important in reaching a global consensus. Without that consensus, an effective stabilization plan will not be effective.

* Agreeing on a set of rules of conduct and monitoring mechanisms, similar to those enacted in Syria (But hopefully more effective), then getting regional powers to adopt those rules after making it clear to everyone that refusal will imply specific consequences. Of those rules of conduct, fighting terrorism, disbanding all proxy armies and militias, refraining from intervention in internal affairs, ending media attacks and incitement, etc. are some proposed steps.

* An arbitration mechanism should be constructed by the US with the active participation of the global underwriters of the deal.

* Global incentives for all parties if they play by the rules.

* A particularly favorable stand in the part of global financial institutions for steps taken to enhance cooperation between regional players and to encourage intra-regional investments and trade.

This enterprise is not guaranteed to give us a sustainable, stabilized status quo in the Middle East though. But it is the only available option now, or else the deterioration will continue and the threats to global security will increase.

9 March, 2017

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