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Report on Workshop- 'Elements of a Regional Peace Settlement for the Middle East'- Amman, Jordan 22-23 January 2017

last modified Mar 14, 2017 10:46 AM
Report on Workshop- 'Elements of a Regional Peace Settlement for the Middle East'- Amman, Jordan 22-23 January 2017

Sunrise over King Abdullah I Mosque, image credit Andrew Moore

The Forum on Geopolitics of the University of Cambridge and the Körber Foundation are pleased to present this report of the January 2017 workshop 'Elements of a Regional Peace Settlement for the Middle East' held in Amman, Jordan as part of the Westphalia for the Middle East project


Opening Remarks by Prince Faisal Ibn Al Hussein 

The Workshop opened with a statement of welcome from Prince Faisal Ibn Al Hussein, who praised the aims of the Westphalia project, and noted the award of the Westphalia Peace Prize to King Abdullah in October 2016. The Prince emphasised the need for religion to inspire the best motives of humanity, compassion and constructiveness, rather than the worst, of divisiveness and hatred.  He also expressed concern about the uncertainties around the new presidency in the US; especially the possibility of the US embassy moving to Jerusalem.

Opening Presentations

This was followed by a presentation from Michael Axworthy and Patrick Milton which recapped the history of the 30 Years War and the Westphalia Treaty, pointed up some of the key parallels with the present situation in the Middle East, and suggested four main areas for development in the workshop:

  1. The geographical scope of a possible treaty;
  2. The need for parties to the treaty to set out their core security interests openly and transparently;
  3. Measures to harmonise clashing interests (rights of ruled vis a vis rulers, mechanisms for resolution of disputes, regional assembly, provision for guarantor powers); and
  4. The question of which powers could act as guarantors. 

On 23 January His Excellency Dr Fayez Tarawneh (Chief of the Royal Hashemite Court) made a presentation, passing to the participants the best wishes of King Abdullah. In his statement he emphasised the plight of refugees; 1 in 5 of those now living in Jordan were Syrian refugees (along with a larger number of Palestinians who had been there longer). It was necessary to include justice for the Palestinians in any future settlement in the Middle East, on the basis of a 2-state solution; it was a mistake to see the Daesh problem as somehow separate. It was also highly desirable for Egypt to take a greater role. But peaceful resolution was possible just as Westphalia had been possible. In answer to a suggestion from two participants, Dr Tarawneh was cautious about the idea of Jordan hosting a possible new peace initiative; possibly after the forthcoming Arab summit, to be held in Amman in March 2017. Later it was suggested that if Jordan were to do such a thing, the initiative would have to be shared with others.

Session One

Much of the first session focused on the real and perceived security interests of regional states. Saudi Arabia was on the defensive (the comparison was again drawn, as in previous workshops, with Habsburg Austria), following the perceived contraction of US interest in the region. Iran’s stance was based on defensive attitudes derived from the period of the Iran-Iraq war 1980-88, plus the long-standing effects of sanctions and the fear of encirclement by US power projected into the region; but was perceived as aggressive by many of her neighbours. Russian intervention had created an opportunity for Iran, and the two countries had prevailed in Syria; Russia was now a major regional actor. It was sometimes more difficult to change perceptions than to change facts; but it could be possible to make progress if each country could make plain what were and what were not their prime security concerns, tied in to what each considered to be legitimate zones of influence (and non-influence).

It was suggested that for Iran, prime interests were the removal of the US military threat, the establishment of a regional security structure in the Gulf region (including Iraq), and then Afghanistan/Pakistan. As for zones of influence, Iran was primarily concerned with her immediate neighbours; not Yemen or Libya, but Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, possibly with Lebanon in a somewhat different category. Iran had observed the acceptance – or encouragement - by Arab states of US intervention over the years. Now that IS/Daesh were the most pressing threat, Iran had little confidence that the Arab states could deal with it.  There was also a concern in Iran – both in government and among the people – that Israel was now manipulating Arab states to its own ends.

In parallel, Saudi Arabia’s core interests were suggested as the achievement of regional stability, and removal of the Iranian threat. Yemen, the GCC states, Syria and Jordan were necessary parts of the kingdom’s zone of influence.  But the self-defined interest of Iran should not simply be allowed to override the wishes of the Syrian people. In Iraq, the Saudis had concerns about the direction of Turkish policy but felt central Iraq was more a matter for Turkey. 

For Turkey (whatever ‘romantic’ aspirations had appeared in the past), the prime concern was that no Kurdish state should emerge, whether as such or in de facto form through arrangements for regional autonomy. Later it was suggested that Russia was looking for an exit strategy in Syria (though no Russian participant was present this time): Russia wanted the port at Tartus, and to have a continuing oversight, but for the fighting to be over and a stable settlement in place.

In further discussions, a number of participants noted that the area of conflict between the stated interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia did not seem all that great. Both confirmed that their other interests were more pressing to them than Lebanon or the Palestinian issue, for example (for Iran it was more a question of influence than interest as such). It was noted that the leadership of Hamas had changed direction and (by implication) Iranian involvement had lessened. There was some discussion of Hezbollah in Lebanon; it was suggested that for some in the GCC, there was no difference between Hezbollah and IS/Daesh as non-state actors. Others argued that there was a difference; IS/Daesh were likely to disappear but Hezbollah would stay. One view suggested that events had forced a contraction of Saudi demands; previously they had wanted confederation in Iraq and partition is Syria, but the latter at least was no longer practicable. There was perhaps a parallel with Habsburg acceptance of the abandonment of earlier maximalist demands at Westphalia.

Session Two

In session two, it was argued from the point of view of the GCC states that whatever might be said about interests or perceptions by others, the fears the GCC had about Iran were not just perceptions – they were based on facts. People there believed that Iran was building a new Empire; building its own security at the expense of the security of others, and creating non-state actors to do its bidding.  People in the GCC states would be looking to the new administration in the US to put Iran ‘back in its box’.   From the Iranian point of view, it was necessary to find security solutions within the region, rather than looking to solutions from outside; if external guarantors were needed, the right and legitimate guarantor was the UN. One participant said that it would be necessary for regional states to take responsibility for past mistakes and for the future; over the years it had become tiring to hear regional voices portraying themselves as victims. Others recalled the widespread view in the region that a degree of external involvement was necessary if a peace settlement were to prosper. 

Session Three

In session three, participants were reminded that two essential mechanisms that had brought success at Westphalia were the idea of a universal peace congress (it was vital that such a congress be as inclusive as possible), and the arrangement whereby all contracting parties were guarantors for all articles of the treaties. In addition, prompted by the scepticism from some about the chances of peace in the Middle East now, and the obstacles in the way of it, another suggested that it was perhaps useful to remember that Westphalia had succeeded despite the fact that not all the warring parties were exhausted by the conflict (France and Spain fought on until 1659), despite the fact that the parties certainly did not trust each other (trust was not really established for a generation or more) and the treaty did not even benefit from a ceasefire (fighting continued even while the negotiations were going on).

Discussion turned to the question of norms or principles that could make a starting-point for a possible treaty negotiation. Consensus over common norms in the Middle East was weak; to make peace it would be necessary to create institutions and monitor compliance also – there had to be scepticism as to whether all this was possible (it was to be expected that some parties might sign up to principles and then flout them later, when other pressing interests appeared to override them), but it was necessary to try.  It could be that some of the discussions in the earlier Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) forum, in which several of the present participants had also taken part (though no Iranian had taken part), could be of help – before those talks finally broke up, they had produced a list of norms similar to what was being talked about here. One suggestion was to draw up a list of common principles to use as a starting-point, and then to begin work on relatively uncontroversial sub-regional issues; maritime security for example. 

These ideas were addressed mainly toward the rivalry between Iran and the GCC states.  Among the norms listed from the GCC side were – state monopoly on the use of force; non-intervention in other states; counter-terrorism; counter-piracy; combating drug trafficking.  This was complemented later from the Iranian side with the following suggestions for a draft document of principles: mutual respect, including for security interests; the preservation of territorial integrity; peaceful settlement of disputes; arms control and disarmament, and a WMD-free zone; open trade and investment, business; free navigation, free flow of oil. 

Session Four

In the fourth and final session the participants were again reminded of the difficulty of the Westphalia process; the ‘rough wind’ of Westphalia. Some participants there would not sit in the same room as others, and there were some killings in the cities where the talks were held. Crucial was the final push for peace by the ‘third party’ of German princes and cities after the original French initiative lost momentum; the third party were effective not because they were tolerant or secular-minded, but because they prioritised peace above everything else.  The key to success was the mutual guarantee of the treaty provisions by all parties, across state and religious boundaries.

There was some scepticism that Iran for example would be trusted or accepted by other regional states and peoples as a guarantor; but it was pointed out later that the peace process had to create trust, not the other way round; the Westphalia peace had succeeded not because its guarantors had been generally trusted (they were not) but because their concerns were woven into the treaty provisions in such a way as to make it their interest to uphold the peace. Others suggested that Iran’s stronger position in the region had come about not by any Iranian aggression, but through the action of the US and other Western powers, and to some extent, the Arab countries’ own actions or inaction.

From the Iranian point of view, the best way to proceed could be to go for sub-regional settlements; the Palestinian/Israel question on one side, possibly with the US and/or others as guarantors; and on the other side, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the GCC, and Iraq, with the UN Security Council as a guarantor (though others suggested that the UNSC could not operate effectively as a guarantor – hence the attractiveness of an interlocking system of guarantors from the region that were also parties to a treaty, as at Westphalia). Another suggestion was to look at what was happening in Astana. There, Iran, Turkey and Russia had positioned themselves as guarantors for a possible future settlement on Syria – but there were risks if others – the GCC and the US for example - were not involved (others suggested that a durable peace would need to answer the concerns of all in Syria, including the opposition groups). Building on the results of the workshop in Amman, the next workshop to be held in Berlin in April will mainly focus on the role of external actors in a peace settlement for the Middle East.