A Helsinki process for the Middle East? Key questions for mobilizing cooperative security in a changing region

A Helsinki process for the Middle East? Key questions for mobilizing cooperative security in a changing region

The Middle East is one of the only regions of the world without a broad-based multilateral regional forum to discuss pressing transnational challenges threatening the region’s stability and its people’s well-being. Multiple conflicts and humanitarian crises have made regional risks such as climate impacts, food security, maritime security, migration, missile proliferation and public health more acute in recent years. The spectre of nuclear proliferation threatens both regional and global stability. It is thus not surprising that there is renewed interest in the idea of establishing a Helsinki-like process in the Middle East to develop norms for regional conduct and practical confidence-building measures to prevent unintended conflict and address areas of common concern.1

The idea for a cooperative regional process is not new. The US launched an official multilateral process after the 1991 Madrid peace conference in the context of Arab–Israeli diplomacy, though the working group’s activities in arms control, water, the environment, economic development and refugees largely dissolved with the demise of the Oslo peace process.2 Many unofficial track two forums3 involving regional and global experts, as well as academic studies, have addressed such concepts for decades.4 New regional dialogues are also emerging through the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, as well as the Arab–Israeli normalization process, though such forums exclude key regional actors. The question is whether there is space for a more inclusive dialogue to foster a less conflict-prone regional security architecture.

Why now?

Moments of global flux offer a good opportunity to revisit ideas that might have previously seemed impossible. We are in such a moment now. Amid uncertainty about the future US role in the Middle East5 and rising pressures at home, regional states now appear interested in calming tensions. Bilateral talks between regional rivals such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and the UAE, for instance, may help to de-escalate conflicts, even if the durability of such efforts remains uncertain.

Other trends towards rapprochement are emerging in the region, many involving Israel. These include Israel and Turkey repairing damaged ties and the normalization of Israel’s relations with several Arab states through the Abraham Accords. Meanwhile, follow-on summits through the Negev Forum Steering Committee are further expanding Arab–Israeli regional cooperation with US support. Regional cooperation is also expanding without Israel, most notably through the Baghdad Conference – a summit held in the Iraqi capital in 2021 that brought Arab states and Iran into a dialogue process, with support from France.

The potential revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal, may spur further interest in dialogue involving Iran and its Arab neighbours. If current efforts to revive the nuclear deal fail, regional states may seek alternative forums for cooperation to contain Iran. For example, we are already seeing efforts to establish air-defence cooperation between Israel and several Arab states through US–led initiatives.

However, such alliance-type frameworks built to counter Iran risk igniting more military escalation – helping explain why many GCC states, including Saudi Arabia, are wary of publicly supporting such efforts.6 The dangers of, and likely resistance to, the formation of a ‘Middle East NATO’ underscore the importance of building cooperative security arrangements focused on conflict prevention and improved regional communication as a counterbalance to competitive alignments.

At the same time, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have a negative impact on Middle East regional cooperation. The war on Ukraine has increased great power tensions and may make coordination between Russia, China, the US and Europe on Middle East issues more difficult. The war may also further fuel the region’s tendency toward competitive balancing as Russia and the US attempt to forge regional blocs to further their divergent global agendas. However, the dire consequences of the war for the Middle East’s food security may reinforce the need to address issues of regional concern through cooperative frameworks. Regional states also do not appear inclined to take sides in global power struggles, as even the closest US partners have continued close relationships with both China and Russia.

What type of process?

Discussions of multilateral regional cooperation often confuse collective and cooperative security, but these two concepts are distinct. Collective security concerns cooperation in a competitive security environment to counter a specific threat, such as the creation of NATO to counter the USSR (and now Russia) in Europe. Cooperative security involves initiating dialogues to build confidence and find common ground to prevent or, at least mitigate, conflict. The goal of cooperative security is not to counter a specific adversary or protect members of an alliance. It seeks to bring together adversarial states to reduce tensions, agree on norms of conduct and engage in confidence-building measures. This can often be a long-term and open- ended process.

Cooperative security processes, it should be emphasized, do not replace collective security arrangements. They can exist simultaneously, just as the Helsinki process evolved in parallel with NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The same dynamic is visible in the East and Southeast Asian security environment, where a ‘patchwork’ of layered security institutions exists together. These include bilateral and regional alliances with external Western powers, inclusive regional-driven forums and China-centred initiatives.7

Similar arrangements may be achievable in the Middle East. While competitive alignments are inevitable and some states may be attempting to strengthen these types of military alignments with an eye toward Iran – particularly Israel and Gulf Arab countries – this does not preclude the development of an inclusive regional cooperative process with different aims.

Working toward a cooperative process does not necessarily mean building a formal regional institution. For example, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which began in the 1970s as a loose ‘conference’ on security and cooperation, took many years and the end of the Cold War for formal institutions to develop. It may not be possible to replicate the OSCE or other such external models in the Middle East, given multipolar competition and other differing conditions. Asian regional models, particularly ideas centred on a less formal and layered security architecture, may be more applicable in the Middle East context. The region will no doubt chart its own course, but existing regional forums elsewhere in the world can at least inspire cooperation in today’s Middle East and provide lessons for a realistic path forward.8

Mobilizing a cooperative regional process: who, what and how?

The current dilemma is that, while demand for regional dialogue may be growing, there is little consensus about what a new process might look like.

The possibility of a UN role in a Middle East process appears to be one point of commonality among China, Iran, Russia and some European and Gulf Arab countries.9 However, it is not clear how enthusiastic Israel or the US might be about UN involvement. Growing friction within the UN Security Council following the war in Ukraine is likely to make UN sponsorship of a Middle East dialogue even more difficult.

Other regional experiences suggest that a state perceived to be a neutral actor, as Finland was in the example of the OSCE, could help facilitate a regional process. The question is whether there is such a state in the Middle East or among other international actors capable of, or interested in, playing such a role.

Assuming a trusted facilitator emerges, who should be at the table? As with the Helsinki example, an inclusive regional dialogue for the Middle East and North Africa could aspire to a principle of equality, whereby all parties in the region are invited to participate. Inclusivity does not require like-mindedness. On the contrary, the point of such a dialogue is for states with different positions and adversarial relationships to have a forum in which to discuss their differences and, ideally, to reduce tensions.

External powers and organizations with a stake in the region might participate as conveners or observers, though the process is more likely to succeed if it is perceived as being led by regional actors. Not all regional players need to be involved at the outset – an open-ended process can expand regional participation over time. In the example of the OSCE, certain parties did not join the institution until over a decade after its establishment, and more have joined since.

In addition to the core question of who should be included, it will be critical to address other key issues, such as the mechanics for starting a new process and the topics for discussion. With respect to the mechanics, can or should regional states play a convening role in conjunction with outside powers? Can such outside powers overcome great power competition to jointly support, or at least not obstruct, a regional process? Are there practical ideas for leveraging existing diplomatic initiatives to move this concept forward? As for scope, what issues should be on the agenda, how should those issues be identified, and in what sequence should topics be addressed?

Experience from other regions suggests that the agenda might need to work toward an agreement on principles guiding regional conduct (e.g., respect for sovereignty), while at the same time engaging in confidence-building activities to show the practical benefits of cooperation. The agenda could mirror the issues that organized the work of the Helsinki process covering the security, economic and human arenas. Most critically, regional actors must see value in joining any new cooperative forum – i.e. that there are benefits from coming together and that doing so is in their interest.

Some states may prefer to focus on different issues and for different reasons, as in the US–Soviet experience. But an inclusive process does not require common motives to succeed. Rather, the idea would be to create what a former OSCE official calls ‘islands of cooperation’ and ‘selective engagement’ among participating countries, to demonstrate that cooperation can be beneficial even if states continue to compete in other areas.10

Cooperation initiatives could start with either so-called ‘hard’ security areas like arms control and conflict prevention, or ‘soft’ issues like food security, climate change and energy. But such distinctions are often artificial as all issues can be politicized and spark zero-sum thinking. The challenge will be to find practical ideas for confidence-building that are widely perceived as win–win, allowing for better outcomes than would be possible without region-wide engagement.

Past experiences also underscore the utility of an organizing conference at the official level to start a cooperative effort. Such a convening process will only be possible after months of diplomacy and consultations to ensure regional support, and accepted parameters that can attract at least a core group of initial participants. It will require dedicated stakeholders and neutral facilitators, as well as political will from key regional powers. A new initiative would benefit from respected regional advocates who champion the idea and advocate for it in public forums.

Regional tensions are currently high and it is difficult to envision any forum where all regional parties would sit at the same table, particularly adversarial states like Israel and Iran. Without a revived JCPOA, some observers do not see a solid basis to launch a new regional process addressing issues outside the nuclear realm, whether on conventional arms control or conflict prevention.11 As it stands, Israel is actively countering Iran and seeks to bring like-minded Arab states into a US-led anti-Iran front. Meanwhile, Iran wants the US out of the Middle East and opposes any form of regional cooperation that includes either the US or Israel.

Despite these serious obstacles, it is important to present a vision and pathway for an inclusive cooperative process when a political opening emerges, or when a crisis erupts of such severe magnitude that even bitter adversaries may consider options that were previously unthinkable – just as the Cuban missile crisis of the early 1960s provided an impetus for future US–Soviet arms control agreements. Multilateral settings involving Arab states that have normalized relations with Israel while expanding engagement with Iran might allow for regional interaction (even if indirect) that would not be possible in bilateral formats.

The path ahead

The first steps towards an inclusive regional cooperation process for the Middle East are to understand current regional preferences, and then to establish the interest and capacity of external actors in supporting it. Track two discussions among experts outside of government, as well as informal dialogues involving officials in an unofficial capacity, can help identify regional and global positions and points of opportunity for jumpstarting more inclusive regional cooperation than currently exists. The goal is to move closer to the reality of a working multilateral regional process that can positively contribute to a more peaceful regional security architecture, one that reaps benefits for the region’s people in tangible ways.

There never will be a perfect time to build an inclusive regional process in the Middle East given the general scepticism toward multilateral cooperation, the prevalence of zero-sum thinking and a preference for competitive security alignments. But those conditions illustrate exactly why a cooperative process remains so critical to the future of the region.

Global and regional shifts may now make it possible to mobilize a new regional security architecture that moves beyond the standard Middle East playbook of competitive balancing and military escalation. Other regions have managed to overcome deep-rooted hostility to form cooperative confidence-building processes among long-standing adversaries. There is no reason for the Middle East to remain the global exception.

This article is part of a series for the ‘Building a Cooperative Regional Security Architecture in the Middle East’ project, a partnership between Chatham House’s MENA Programme and the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles.


1 For example, the UN Security Council convened a special session on regional dialogue in October 2020: see UN (2020), ‘Remarks at the Security Council Meeting on the “Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Comprehensive Review of the Situation in the Persian Gulf Region”: Speech, António Guterres, Secretary-General, Security Council, New York’, 20 October 2020, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2020-10-20/comprehensive-review-of-situation-persian-gulf-region-remarks- security-council. UN Security Council Resolution 598, which ended the Iran–Iraq war, included a clause requesting the Secretary- General to consult with regional states on measures to enhance the security and stability of the region. According to author discussions with UN officials, this could form the basis for a future regional dialogue. For the full text of the resolution, see UN Security Council (1987), ‘Resolution 598: Iraq-Islamic Republic of Iran’, http://unscr.com/en/resolutions/doc/598. Robert Malley, the current Iran envoy of US president Joe Biden, proposed an inclusive Gulf-led framework inspired by the Helsinki process at a UN meeting in 2020: see International Crisis Group (2020), ‘Gulf Tensions Could Trigger a Conflict Nobody Wants, Speech: Robert Malley, President & CEO, UN Security Council, New York’, 20 October 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north- africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/gulf-tensions-could-trigger-conflict-nobody-wants; and International Crisis Group (2020), The Middle East between Collective Security and Collective Breakdown, Middle East Report No. 212, Brussels: International Crisis Group, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/212-middle-east-between-collective- security-and-collective-breakdown. Other senior Biden administration officials expressed interest in the concept before entering government, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. See Benaim, D. and Sullivan, J. (2020), ‘America’s Opportunity in the Middle East: Diplomacy Could Succeed Where Military Force Has Failed’, Foreign Affairs, 22 May 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2020-05-22/americas-opportunity-middle-east.

2 For an overview of the Madrid conference and the subsequent multilateral peace process, see Kaye, D. D. (2021), Beyond the Handshake: Multilateral Cooperation in the Arab–Israeli Peace Process, 1991–1996, New York: Columbia University Press.

3 For an in-depth discussion of track two diplomacy, see Kaye, D. D. (2007), Talking to the Enemy: Track Two Diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation; and D. D. (2001), ‘Track Two Diplomacy and Regional Security in the Middle East’, International Negotiation, 6(1) pp. 49–77, https://doi.org/10.1163/15718060120848955.

4 For examples of more recent analysis of previous efforts and current options for confidence-building and cooperation in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, see Jones, P. (2022) ‘A Middle East Cooperation and Security Process: Has the Time Come?,’ Middle East Policy, 29(1), pp. 74–89, https://doi.org/10.1111/mepo.12620; Kaye, D. D. (2018), Can It Happen Here? Prospects for Regional Security Cooperation in the Middle East, Report, New York: The Century Foundation, https://tcf.org/content/report/can-it-happen-here; Quilliam, N. and Vakil, S. (2020), A Pyramid of Multilateral Confidence-Building Measures in the Middle East, Paper, Rome: Istituto Affari Internazionali, https://www.iai.it/en/pubblicazioni/pyramid- multilateral-confidence-building-measures-middle-east; Wehrey, F. and Sokolsky, R. (2015), Imagining a New Security Order in the Persian Gulf, Paper, Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, https://carnegieendowment.org/2015/10/14/imagining-new-security-order-in-persian-gulf-pub-61618; and Danin, R. and Rouhi, M. (2021), ‘A Middle East Forum Can Help Biden Succeed’, National Interest, 27 January 2021,https://nationalinterest.org/feature/middle-east-forum-can-help-biden-succeed-177153.

5 See Kaye, D. D. (2022), ‘America’s Role in a Post-American Middle East’, The Washington Quarterly, 45(1), pp. 7–24, https://doi.org/10.1080/0163660X.2022.2058185.

6 Reuters (2022), ‘Saudi foreign minister: Not aware of any discussions on Gulf-Israel defence alliance’, 16 July 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/saudi-foreign-minister-not-aware-any-discussions-gulf-israel-defence-alliance-2022- 07-16.

7 Remarks made at workshop held under the Chatham House Rule, June 2022.

8 For a consideration of the Helsinki model’s applicability in the Persian Gulf, see Wigell, M., Aaltola, M. and Hagglund, M. (2020), he Helsinki Process and its applicability: Towards regional security-building in the Persian Gulf, Briefing Paper 288, Helsinki: Finnish Institute of International Affairs, https://www.fiia.fi/en/publication/the-helsinki-process-and-its-applicability.

9 Russia has proposed its own collective security concept that would over time create an OSCE for the Persian Gulf but excluding the US: see Baklanov, A. (2019), ‘Security in the Gulf Area: Russia’s New Initiative’, Valdai Discussion Club, 6 August 2019, https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/security-in-the-gulf-area-russia-s-new-initiative. The Iranians presented their proposal, the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE), to the UN in late 2019. Like the Russian proposal, HOPE called for UN involvement while excluding the US from the region: see UN News (2019), ‘At UN, Iran proposes ‘coalition for hope’ to pull Gulf region from ‘edge of collapse’’, 25 September 2019, https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/09/1047472.

10 Author discussion with former OSCE official, Doha, Qatar, 26 March 2022.

11 Author discussion with UN official, via Zoom, 10 March 2022.