The prestigious German think-tank Korber-Stiftung recently raised a question regarding whether the Westphalian model can be implemented in the context of peacemaking efforts in Middle Eastern conflicts, while surveying the identities of the local, regional and international players and their roles, either in stopping the bloodletting or becoming guarantors of sustainable peace.
The question is a major one. Explaining the model in-depth is a complicated task and requires reading the foundation’s publications on the issue — concisely outlined in a Foreign Affairs article from October titled “A Westphalian Peace for the Middle East — Why an Old Framework Could Work.”
The key idea is that coexistence between religious communities requires all sides to stop attempting to define “absolute religious truth,” while collective security requires a constructive and transparent dialogue on security interests with a view to reassure other parties. The peace that could ensue can be kept by guarantors, which include regional and international players that have the right to intervene in the event agreements are breached. All this requires the parties concerned to voluntarily work together to fulfill these goals, or force them to think outside the box when their own interests necessitate it.
The Westphalian model, which established peace in central Europe after the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), can be used not as a blueprint for a new treaty for the Middle East, “but rather as a guide and a toolbox of ideas and techniques for negotiating a future peace.”
One of the things this system achieved in Europe, for example, is ushering in sovereign nation states; in the Middle East, there is a kind of retreat from the principle of absolute centralized sovereignty in favor of federal systems that require new ideas about sovereignty. The Westphalian model for the Middle East tackles the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, comparing the Saudi monarchy and its Islamic religious leadership with the Habsburg Empire and its Christian religious leadership, proposing containment and reassurance to address the sectarian Shiite-Sunni rivalry between the two countries.
However, thinkers who are exploring the prospects of implementing the model in the Middle East and the Gulf region have also queried the worthwhileness of the traditional approach regarding the need to address the Saudi-Iranian rivalry as a precondition for resolving regional conflicts, and are asking whether the time has come for a different approach.
There must be good reason behind the remarks made by Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his position on conditions concerning dialogue with Iran.
In this regard, the remarks made by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a recent interview with Saudi host and journalist Dawood Al-Shirian regarding the conditions for dialogue with Iran took bilateral relations to a new, even more complex phase. The gap now seems wider, and the differences deeper and more antagonistic. The remarks were made at a time when the hard-liners in Iran are hunkering down, on the eve of presidential elections that could oust the reformists from power.
Prince Mohammed lambasted Tehran’s regime, which he said was based on an extreme ideology — as enshrined in Iran’s constitution, and in its founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s will — that calls on Iran to control the Islamic world and spread the Twelver Shiite doctrine until Imam Mahdi reappears.
On the question of whether Riyadh was ready for a direct dialogue with Tehran, Prince Mohammed said: “Iran believes that before Imam Mahdi reappears, it must prepare a fertile ground for him and that it must control the Muslim world… How can you have a dialogue with them against this background?” He further remarked that there were no points of convergence on the basis of which an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran could emerge, discounting the possibility for dialogue with Iran.
Some conflicts raging in the Arab region without a shred of doubt require Saudi and Iranian decisions, especially in Yemen. However, there are other conflicts in which a resolution cannot be made contingent upon dialogue and accord, or rivalry and conflict, between these two major religious and historical powers. This applies in particular to Libya, Syria and Iraq, where the bloodletting and suffering continues every day, and perhaps even Lebanon.
Imposing religion on the state was a concept reintroduced in the Middle East through the Shiite theocracy of the Islamic Republic of Iran following the Iranian revolution of 1979. Tehran then sought to export its model to Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain, while Arab Muslim Brotherhood groups attempted a Sunni version of Islamic Republicanism in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya, but were not successful. In Egypt, they were thwarted by the military establishment, in Tunisia and Syria by the civil and secular establishment, and in Libya they were thwarted for different reasons.
If the Middle East gets to the point of rejecting religious republics, this would be a positive development for the future of the region. This development also requires Israel to present clear guarantees that its insistence on being a Jewish state is not a project to impose Judaism on the state, or that it means that Israel is a Jewish-only state where only Jews are first-class citizens. In other words, talk about resolving Middle East conflicts on the basis of the Westphalian model must not deliberately ignore the Arab-Israeli conflict or pretend that the question of religion and state does not include this conflict.
On the political side, Libya is perhaps the best candidate — more so than Syria — for the implementation of the Westphalian model, through a system of regional and international guarantors. Indeed, Libya’s Arab and European neighbors need the cycle of violence and conflict in Libya to be contained, before it spreads across the borders and the sea. If they show a will to do so, the US and Russia are well qualified to act as international guarantors. Libya is also a place where there is no need for Saudi and Iranian dialogue or accord. But solutions in Libya must also take into account the need for civil constitutions that would be reconciled with its history and perhaps accommodate a federalist notion of sovereignty.
Lebanon is caught between Saudi and Iranian interests. But practically, it is also dependent upon international guarantors to keep away the fires — guarantors such as the US, Russia and European powers. In light of the reduced odds for a successful Saudi-Iranian dialogue today, the international guarantors must think seriously about the means to spare Lebanon from falling into a cycle of rivalry and hostility that would once again turn it into an arena of unrestrained conflict, or slide into economic and social collapse that would turn its soil into fertile ground for extremism and vendettas. The guarantors must understand the danger of leaving a country like Lebanon prey to the flames of sectarianism, and use their influence to insist on maintaining Lebanon’s neutrality.
The Iraqi issue is now less intractable than the situation in Syria. Here too there is a candidate for the Westphalian model, unlike Syria, where the regional and international guarantors happen to be direct parties to the war, namely Russia, Turkey and Iran. This trio — which emerged in the Astana process, and aims to pave the ground for political talks in Geneva — is made up of guarantors of de-escalation rather than permanent stability or long-term political solutions. To be sure, it is difficult to consider that Iran would be a permanent guarantor in Syria because, according to what the Americans are saying, no political solution is possible if it is based on consolidating Tehran’s foothold in Syria.
Perhaps only Yemen’s conflict cannot bypass the Saudi-Iranian relationship. There, Saudi national security is an issue, and to Riyadh, Tehran is trying to undermine it through Yemen with its support for Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia is convinced that Iran wants to create an armed militia in Yemen that would be a replica of Hezbollah in Lebanon, to destabilize the Kingdom. “Iran’s goal is to gain control of the Two Holy Mosques,” the deputy crown prince said in the interview, stressing that Saudi Arabia is able to uproot the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces in a few days but that the casualties would be very high. He, however, vowed to crush the Iranian project in Yemen.
The rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council agrees with Saudi Arabia over the priority of protecting its national security from Iran’s schemes in Yemen. The GCC summit in Bahrain in December adopted a resolution tasking officials in Kuwait to engage Iran in dialogue, which they subsequently did. However, there must be good reason behind the remarks made by Prince Mohammed and his position on conditions concerning dialogue with Iran. However, there are no indications that there is a Saudi determination to turn this position into a GCC policy, given the divisiveness of the issue.
Nevertheless, the remarks of the deputy crown prince are a stark new message, and we will no doubt know soon whether the reasons behind them are bilateral factors or international ones as well.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the UN. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.
— Originally published in Al-Hayat.