Qasem Soleimani’s death opens a door to alternative security arrangements in the Gulf

Singapore Jan 07, 2020, 02.39 PM(IST) Written By: James M Dorsey

Kataib Hezbollah Iraqi militia gather ahead of the funeral of the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in Baghdad, Iraq Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

The killing of Soleimani, rather than strategically pleasing Gulf leaders, may have reinforced concerns that they no longer can fully rely on the United States as their sole security guarantor.

The killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani has further opened the door to a potential restructuring of the Gulf’s security architecture.

In line with an Iranian plan launched at last year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) by President Hassan Rouhani that calls for a security architecture that would exclude external forces, cooler heads in Tehran argue that expulsion of all US troops from the Middle East would constitute revenge for Soleimani’s assassination.

While it likely would be a drawn-out process, Iraq’s parliament took a first step by unanimously asking the government in the absence of Kurdish and Sunni Muslim deputies to expel US forces from the country.

Ultimately, Iran may at best get only part of its wants.

Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has dialled back his initial support of Parliament’s demand, saying that any withdrawal would involve only US combat forces and not training and logistical support for the Iraqi military.

Similarly, Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar are unlikely to expel US forces and bases.

That does not mean that the foundation for the Gulf’s security architecture, grounded in a US defence umbrella primarily to shield the region’s energy-rich monarchies from potential Iranian aggression, is not shifting.

In fact, it was already shifting prior to the killing of Soleimani.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE that long supported US President Donald J Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, involving the US withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program and the imposition of harsh economic sanctions, began hedging their bets in the second half of last year.

The Gulf may have on an emotive level privately celebrated the death of Soleimani, an architect of Iran’s use of proxies across the Middle East, but in a more rational analysis fear that his killing may have opened a Pandora’s box that could lead the region to all-out war.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE called for a de-escalation in the wake of the killing as Khalid bin Salman, the kingdom’s deputy defence minister and brother of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, travelled to Washington and London to urge restraint.

Ironically, the killing of Soleimani rather than strategically pleasing Gulf leaders may have reinforced concerns that they no longer can fully rely on the United States as their sole security guarantor.

If the United States’ refusal last year to respond forcefully to a string of Iranian provocations sparked Gulf doubts, Solemani’s killing raises the spectre of US overreach when it does.

Trump’s threat to attack Iranian cultural sites, despite animosity towards Iran and anti-Shiite sentiment in some Gulf quarters, is likely to have reinforced that concern.

The Gulf states’ hedging of their bets will not make Rouhani’s proposal any more attractive but it has already led to direct and indirect diplomacy by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to reduce tension with Iran.

Solemani was killed on the morning that he reportedly was to deliver to Abdul Mahdi, the Iraqi Prime Minister, an Iranian response to a Saudi initiative to defuse tension.

While Rouhani’s proposal is a non-starter, it contains one element that could prove to have legs: some form of non-aggression agreement or understanding between the Gulf states and Iran.

The notion of an understanding on non-aggression would stroke with a Russian proposal for an alternative multilateral arrangement that calls for a regional security conference along the lines of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE.

Unlike Rouhani’s proposition, the Russian proposal would involve multiple external powers, including Russia, China and India, but, in the knowledge that no country can as of now replace the United States militarily, be centred on US military muscle.

The proposal, endorsed by China, potentially could cater to Trump’s demand for burden-sharing and financial compensation for a continued US role in security across the globe.

Russian officials and surrogates for the Kremlin stress that the proposal seeks to capitalize on the United States’ mushrooming predicament in the Middle East but does not mean that Russia was willing to make the kind of commitment that would position it as an alternative to the US.

Similarly, the nature of China’s participation in last month’s first-ever joint Chinese-Russian-Iranian naval exercise signalled that closer Chinese military ties with a host of Middle Eastern nations did not translate into Chinese aspirations for a greater role in regional security any time soon.

China contributed elements of its anti-piracy fleet that were already in Somali waters to protect commercial vessels as well as peacekeeping and humanitarian relief personnel rather than combat troops.

As they hedge their bets, Gulf states may want to take their time in thinking about a more multilateral security arrangement that includes but goes beyond the United States.

The Gulf states’ problem is fast-moving and to some degree, unpredictable developments in the Middle East could change their calculus.

That is also true for Russia and particularly China that has long maintained that its security interests in the region, based on the ability to freeride on the US defence umbrella, were best served by mutually beneficial economic and trade relations.

Increasingly that approach could prove unsustainable.

Said Jiang Xudong, a Middle East scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences: “Economic investment will not solve all other problems when there are religious and ethnic conflicts.”

Xudong could just as well have included power struggles and regional rivalries in his analysis.

(Views expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

James M Dorsey

James M Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and commentator on foreign affairs who has covered ethnic and religious conflict and terrorism across the globe for more than three decades.