Security and cooperation in the Middle East: searching for a solution

The lack of both security and cooperation is an enduring malady in the Middle East. Can global civil society apply itself to a solution?
Ali Fathollah-Nejad
1 December 2011

With the war drums in Iran sounding again and the Arab Revolts taking a more ominous  turn, the question of a sustainable security perspective for this conflict-ridden region is yet to be comprehensively tackled. 

Common security and regional cooperation

Some years ago, a civil-society initiative for a Conference for Security and Cooperation in the Middle East (CSCME) was spearheaded in Germany by peace and conflict researcher Prof. Mohssen Massarrat in collaboration with the German branches of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA). After decades of violent conflict in the region, the instigators chose not to wait any longer, but decided to assemble civil-society actors from all countries concerned in order to promote a perspective for peace, security, and cooperation – something their state actor counterparts had neglected. One of the project's key aims was the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

The first workshop held in Germany in January 2011, was followed by another held in London in late October at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in cooperation with its Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy (CISD). The meeting was linked to an annual CISD conference on a related subject: the 6th SOAS/British Pugwash London Conference on a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone.

Civil-society forces from almost all countries in the region have united in their desire to break out of the vicious cycle of regional militarization and to offer a vision for common security and regional cooperation. Besides security policy, the CSCME process comprises a number of fields for cooperation, including socio-economic development, cross-border resource management, inter-religious and cultural dialogue, and health. It is hoped that the next expert workshop will take place in the region itself -  all of this with the view of holding a founding conference for the civil-society CSCME process in the near future. The first United Nations Middle East WMD-Free Zone Conference, planned for 2012, is to be held in Finland. Ideally, concrete steps towards the realization of that aim would be defined there and civil-society groups would be directly involved.    

An important topic of the last workshop in London was the 'Arab Spring', which proved conclusively that the pejorative 'Arab Street' is no passive object of authoritarian rule, but that these societies can actively fight for their own needs and interests to eventually effect change. This development has emboldened the initiative for a CSCME, as it has shown that civil-society pressure can yield tangible results.

If we comprehend the revolutionary process in the Arab world to be motivated by a triad of popular demands, namely the pursuit of socio-economic justice, political freedoms, and independence, what is intimately connected to the latter is the question of security, especially for those countries that are over-dependent on non-regional powers.  

A WMD-free zone as the only sustainable solution

Beyond the implicit demand inherent in the Arab uprisings for security and coexistence, there is another front on which we are forced to seek out new solutions. The seemingly never-ending spectacle of escalating tension and brinkmanship around the threat of so-called 'Iranian nuclear conflict', tilts ever more frequently towards war than a peaceful resolution.  Once again we find ourselves locked in heated debates over this. With the bulk of the policy debates endlessly vascillating between a rock (war) and a hard place (sanctions), it is already clear that neither option will alleviate concerns for both nuclear proliferation and the well-being of Iranian civil society. The only meaningful way forward is to abandon such a counterproductive policy alternative that can only push the conflict to the brink of war, and instead strive for regional disarmament and, eventually, a WMD-free zone. The creation of such a zone is the only meaningful exit strategy to avoid a collision resulting from contentions over nuclear monopoly and deterrence. Hence, the desire to bring both Iran and Israel around the same table at the aforementioned UN conference.

While there can be little doubt that civil societies across the region are in need of a prospect for common security and intra-regional cooperation, there can be no less doubt that the currently preferred policies affecting the region have proven unsuccessful. Only in an overall Conference for Security and Cooperation in the Middle East can the welter of multifaceted conflicts in the region be addressed in a sustainable manner. Here, the growing insistence from diverse civil society actors will be indispensable in encouraging policymakers to pave the way for finally bringing sustainable peace and security to the region.

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