An Israeli attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, alongside recent strikes in Syria and on the open seas, serves as a critical reminder that regional tensions in the Middle East remain aggravated by Iran’s expanded regional role and by ongoing multipolar conflicts in Yemen and Syria. Intense competition among regional states, exacerbated by deep mistrust and governance challenges, coupled with uncertainty about the future role of the United States in the region, has embedded crises and exacerbated instability at the expense of local populations. Without greater investment in regional conflict management and de-escalation, Middle East states will be made vulnerable to more cycles of protest and unrest. If past is prologue, such unrest will not stop at the borders of the Middle East but will spill over, impacting security in neighboring territories and beyond, such as the arrival of new refugees to Europe.
Addressing these challenges alongside Iran’s role in multiple Middle East conflicts was the subject of our just-released Chatham House paper “Steps to enable a regional security process.” Drawing on over 200 confidential interviews with current and former policymakers and analysts in 15 countries (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, Iran, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates ), we rely on both quantitative and qualitative data to lay out a set of pathways that can build the foundations of a regional security process through de-escalation and conflict management.
Interviewees overwhelmingly saw a need for an inclusive regional security framework for the entire Middle East. Because of the profound level of regional tensions laid out above, interviewees did not see a top-down regional security process as currently viable. Rather, respondents argued in favor of a bottom-up process that, through discussion, de-escalation and conflict resolution, would build incremental trust and confidence among all parties and create the conditions over time where regional security could be addressed.
The Biden administration’s return to the 2015 JCPOA, or Iran nuclear agreement, from which Washington withdrew in May 2018, alongside Tehran’s reversal of nuclear breaches that began in May 2019, was identified as a fundamental and essential first step by 45 percent of the interviewees. This mutual compliance process that is currently being negotiated in Vienna was seen by respondents as necessary to stabilize the fragile JCPOA, stem further advances in Iran’s nuclear program, and rebuild lost trust between the United States and its European partners after Washington’s withdrawal — and thus an essential precondition for follow-on agreements with respect to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs and other critical regional issues.
Indeed, interviewees repeatedly stressed that should regional issues not be addressed in a follow-on agreement, then the JCPOA would continue to be vulnerable, as has been the case over the last few years, to pressure and independent activity by Israel and the Gulf Arab states. Many regional states rightly view Iran’s interference in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon as deeply destabilizing. Participants believed that the JCPOA will be sustainable in the long term only if outstanding regional conflicts can be successfully managed and contained.
To address regional issues, however, respondents did not see the JCPOA format as a productive one in which to address Tehran’s support for militia groups and its missile program. First, interviewees were doubtful that Iran would agree to discuss these issues in that forum. Beyond this, the fact that Tehran is not the sole destabilizer in the region was repeatedly pointed out. Indeed, many other regional states have supported and engaged in disruptive activities; thus, their participation in such discussions would be urgently needed. Iranian concessions on militia support and missile development and proliferation could only be met alongside concessions by other regional states as well. As such, parallel conflict resolution tracks, where conflicts would be separated and addressed through multilateral negotiations, were cited as the preferred mechanism to address these issues.
Interviewees identified four tracks that required urgent attention. Deescalating the wars in Yemen and Syria was seen to be most critical. Because Iran is less invested in Yemen and sees it as less strategically important than other arenas — notably, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq — this conflict is considered more ripe for resolution.
A Syria process, while seen as urgently needed, was considered by 81 percent of respondents as too difficult to resolve for the time being. The arrival of a multilaterally engaged Biden administration, however, could bring greater attention and momentum to this track.
Divisions among the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council were also regarded by 41 percent of interviewees as a major security challenge that inhibited the bloc’s ability to harmonize on Iran policy and revealed parallel proxy conflicts and competition supported by GCC states themselves. While the Al Ula Agreement signed in January 2021 formally ended the GCC rift, follow-up GCC discussions will continue to be important.
Finally, building a new Israeli-Palestinian track would be key to stabilize tensions there, according to many interviewees. The normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain signed in September 2020 were seen by respondents as an opportunity and potential paradigm shift in how that conflict could be approached.
Beyond these tracks, a series of confidence-building measures were identified by interviewees as key initiatives that could help stabilize the region and build incremental trust. We lay out a pyramid approach that begins discussion on softer issues, such as religious tourism or health diplomacy and, over time, allows for the parties to address more complex and divisive issues, such as arms control. Respondents saw building regional trade ties, de-escalation in Yemen, and investment in regional climate change policies as important initiatives that should be promoted in the short term.
In the climate of COVID-19 and urgent domestic economic challenges, these steps are undoubtedly ambitious, if not daunting to consider. Yet, respondents saw the advent of the Biden administration as presenting a unique opportunity for multilateral cooperation and conflict management. Interviewees overwhelmingly saw Washington’s role and involvement as necessary to shepherd these processes forward. Support from Europe, the United Kingdom, Russia and China — all of which have their own Middle East interests — was repeatedly cited as also needed to make headway in resolving the region’s multipolar conflicts. At the same time, however, respondents insisted that regional actors themselves need to bear responsibility for their neighborhood’s conflicts and their escalation. Without such a commitment, the sense of Middle East fatigue repeatedly referenced by our interviewees would not only mount but would leave regional states with no choice but to muddle through on their own.