An address by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Munich Security Conference this month was a remarkable exception to the pervasive sense of helplessness and lack of strategy that hung over the annual event during discussions about the world’s “boundless crises:” Syria, the refugee crisis, the threat from the so-called Islamic State, and the Ukraine crisis. His address is of particular interest, given today’s parliamentary elections in Iran.
Zarif, who shared the stage with Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, called on countries in the region to reconsider their “paradigms” and to start “working on challenges collectively.” He underlined that “problems should not be defined from a zero-sum perspective”; adding that countries in the region “can either win together or lose together.”
“If we can agree on that,” he said, “then we can start with something that Europeans used to do, and that is the Helsinki Process.”
Mr. Zarif was referring to a unique conference held in Helsinki (and Geneva) between 1973 and 1975 that helped reduce tensions between the Soviet Union and the West. Known formally as the Helsinki Process of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the conference culminated in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act which codified shared principles, provided security guarantees, and recognized the inviolability of post-World War II frontiers in Europe. After 1975, the conference continued and thus offered the only forum for dialogue during the Cold War in Europe.
In fact, the suggestion to use the Helsinki Process as a model for promoting security and cooperation in the Arab World has been made on several occasions over the past four decades. The idea was put forward as early as 1976 by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and again by Crown Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan in 1991. Several western politicians and intellectuals have also put forward the idea, such as former British Foreign Secretary Malcom Rifkind in 1996, and Stanford University Professor Michael McFaul in 2008. (See here a meeting note by the International Peace Institute from 2011, which also addressed that topic).
Yet, this is the first time the suggestion has come from one of the key players inside the region. This begs the question: Could Zarif’s speech in Munich be a signal that the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which placed limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, opens new opportunities for multilateral cooperation in the region?
After all, the lifting of sanctions opens up two possible scenarios.
One is that the freed-up money that comes from lifting sanctions could enable Iran to beef up its support of Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and other Shia groups, and thus exacerbate the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. In addition, the deal could reinforce Israel’s hawkish foreign policy agenda, with Israeli Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu a vocal opponent of the deal. Such a scenario would not be beneficial to a new multilateral process in the region.
Alternatively, the deal could be the first step that leads to moderate forces gaining the upper hand in the country. Today’s parliamentary elections in Iran will be an important indicator whether this is a possible scenario. It could have a stabilizing effect on the sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni groups that are backed by Tehran and Riyadh, respectively. Iran and Saudi Arabia are both primarily striving for regional hegemony. If moderate forces in Tehran recognize that striving for stability is equally important, then there are chances for a multilateral process. Zarif’s Munich speech seems to indicate that this is could be the case, as he stated that “there is nothing in our region that would exclude Iran and Saudi Arabia from working together for a better future for all of us.”
In addition, the Vienna talks on Syria have proven that it is possible for all main players to sit at the same table. Furthermore, the rise of the so-called Islamic State in the region has created an enemy around which all of the states can unite.
So, what could a Helsinki Process for the Arab World look like?
First, it would have to include as many actors as possibly—that is, all of the Arab League States, including Iran, Turkey, and Israel. (Observers from outside the region could also be included, such as the United States, the European Union, and Russia). All states should participate on an equal footing in a permanent conference framework.
Second, common principles should be agreed upon, such as the non-use of force, the inviolability of frontiers, the territorial integrity of states, and non-intervention in internal affairs. This could help to increase trust. Foreign Minister Zarif referred to all of the above principles in Munich and stressed that all participants should “accept those principles as a basis for entering the dialogue.”
Third, confidence-building measures should be discussed. Foreign Minister Zarif suggested including issues such as “the free flow of oil, freedom of navigation and nuclear safety.” Finally, cooperation in the areas of politics, economy, and culture should be initiated. (In his speech, Zarif called these three areas “baskets,” which mirrors the language used in the Helsinki Process.)
Of course, the current political climate in the Arab world differs greatly from the Cold War period in Europe. While Europe in the 1970s was divided into two ideological camps, the Arab World today is dominated by sectarian conflict, the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict, and the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Also, many of the Arab states are still in turmoil after the Arab Spring. This begs the question whether the situation at the moment augurs well for creating a new forum for dialogue in the region. The very factors that make such a forum so necessary could also make it difficult to create.
Nevertheless, the conditions for building a united Europe in the 1970s were not favorable either when the Helsinki Process began. It was a leap of faith which was made half-heartedly by many at the time. And as Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif stated in Munich: “All we need to do—as we did in the nuclear negotiations—is to change the way we look at reality. I can assure you. Iran is ready.”
Stephanie Liechtenstein is Website Editor and Member of the Editorial Board of the quarterly journal Security and Human Rights (formerly Helsinki Monitor). Prior to that, she held several positions in the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).