By Raghida Dergham
The prestigious German think-tank Korber-Stiflung has recently raised a question regarding whether the Westphalia 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 after resolving these conflicts. 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 by 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 forcing the parties to think outside the box in which they confine themselves once they understand that circumstances and their own interests necessitate it. The Westphalian model, which established peace in central Europe after the Thirty Year 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, while 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 and the Habsburg Empire and its Christian religious leadership, proposing containment and reassurance to address the sectarian Shia-Sunni rivalry between the two countries.
However, the 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, and these ideas deserve to be discussed no doubt.
In this regard, the remarks made by Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in an interview with Daoud al-Sheryan regarding the conditions for dialogue with Iran took bilateral relations to a new even more complex phase. The gap seems now wider, and the differences deeper and more antagonistic. And the remarks were made at a time when the hardliners in Iran are hunkering down, on the eve of presidential elections that can oust the reformists from power.
Bin Salman’s remarks have been construed as a response to accusations against the kingdom of spreading Wahhabism and extremist versions of Salafism. Prince Mohammed bin Salman lambasted Tehran’s regime, which he said was based on an extreme ideology enshrined in its constitution and in its founder Khomeini’s will, calling on Iran to control the Islamic world and spread the Twelver Shia doctrine until the Imam al-Mahdi in occultation reappears – as he said. Such remarks are new and are rarely heard from Saudi officials of such a high rank against Iran.
The political message he sent out was equally clear and firm. Bin Salman, responding to a question about whether Riyadh was ready for a direct dialogue with Tehran, said: “Dialogue is impossible with a power that is planning for the return of Imam al-Mahdi, who the Shia believe is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad and had disappeared a thousand years ago, and would return to spread Islamic rule in the world at the end of times.” He further remarked that there were no “points of convergence” with the regime in Iran on the basis of which accord could emerge between Saudi Arabia and Iran, discounting the possibility for dialogue with Iran.
Any regional or international party that had envisaged a breakthrough or resolution to regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon on the basis of Saudi-Iranian accords are no doubt astounded this week, perhaps splashing their faces with cold water to awaken from what appears to be a dream.
Some thus recall the futility and absolute hostility of the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, and argue for the need for external players that can impose on the rival parties a reconsideration of their positions on the basis of reasonable interests, mutual reassurance, and stepping back from claim to absolute religious truth. The Saudi side has insisted that the Saudi state is a civil state with no religious constitution like Iran’s, while the Iranian side insists that Saudi Arabia is the wellspring of Wahhabism and Salafi extremism. Nonetheless, the advocates of the Westphalian model say there is no need to despair of the seemingly unbridgeable gap between them, because the gap in the Thirty Years War looked even more impossible at the time in comparison.
Some conflicts raging in the Arab region require without a shred of doubt Saudi and Iranian decisions, especially in Yemen. However, there are other conflicts resolving which cannot be made contingent upon dialogue or accord, or rivalry and conflict, between these two major religious and historical powers. This applies in particular to Libya, Syria, Iraq, where the bloodletting and suffering continues every day, and perhaps even Lebanon.
Imposing religion on the state was a concept re-introduced in the Middle East through the Shia 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 adopted 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 are in need for 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 the Saudi and Iranian vises. 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 Saudi-Iranian relations, and use their influence to insist on maintaining Lebanon’s neutrality.
The Iraqi issue is now less intractable than 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 guarantors trio who emerged in the Astana process, aiming to pave the ground for political talks in Geneva, are guarantors of de-escalation rather than permanent stability or long-term political solutions. To be sure, it is difficult to consider 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. The same applies to Saudi Arabia. For this reason, Saudi Arabia and Iran are seen as part of the problem in Syria rather than part of the solution. Therefore, a new approach that does not rely on the fate of this relationship is needed, where the guarantor’s role is assigned to the US and Russia, after they reach an accord over their shared interests and the local Syrian players that will receive the guarantees from the two powers – as well as the European guarantor who will be central in reconstruction efforts.
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. “Reaching the Muslims’ Qibla [i.e. Mecca in Saudi Arabia] is a main objective of the Iranian regime,” the deputy crown prince said in the interview, stressing that Saudi Arabia is able to uproot the Houthis and Saleh’s forces in a few days but that the casualties would be very high, yet vowed to crush the Iranian project in Yemen.
The other Gulf Cooperation Council agree 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 the Amir of Kuwait to engage Iran in dialogue, which he subsequently did. However, there must be good reason behind the remarks made by Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his new position on conditions of 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, Contributor Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, Al Hayat