Comprehensive Review of the Situation in the Gulf Region
Expected Council Action
In October, the Security Council is expected to hold a debate focusing on a comprehensive review of the situation in the Persian Gulf region under the agenda item “maintenance of international peace and security”. This is a signature event of the Russian presidency, building on a concept for the region that Russia proposed in 2019.
In addressing the complex security situation in the region, Russia shared a proposal on the “Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region” with members of the Security Council and the wider UN membership via a letter to the Secretary-General in July 2019. That same month in Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry presented the proposal to representatives of Arab states, Iran, Turkey, the five permanent members of the Security Council, the EU, the Arab League, and the BRICS countries (comprising, in addition to Russia, Brazil, India, China and South Africa) accredited in Moscow. A month later, Russia unveiled more details about the initiative in a press conference at the UN. Russia identified as one of the main priorities the need to address the issue of terrorism and extremism in the region by creating a consolidated counter-terrorism coalition and mobilising public opinion in the Islamic world to this end. The concept emphasised the importance of common adherence to international law, the UN Charter and Security Council resolutions. Russia stressed that the security system in the region should be universal and comprehensive, recognising the interests of all regional and other parties. It has also emphasised the importance of confidence-building measures for the process.
As one of the long-term objectives, Russia envisions the creation of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Persian Gulf, which would be composed of the countries in the region as well as Russia, China, the US, the EU, India, and other interested parties as observers or associate members. Russia has said that the process of establishing such a security system should be initiated through bilateral and multilateral consultations among stakeholders in the region and beyond, including regional organisations. This would eventually lead to an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf during which stakeholders would be called upon to agree on the main parameters of the future security system.
Various conflicts in the Gulf region continue to be a source of significant instability for the immediate region and to affect international relations more widely, given the number of external stakeholders that are involved. Regional dynamics in the Gulf are dominated by the Sunni-Shi’a divide—manifested primarily between predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and predominantly Shi’a Iran—and divisions within the Arab League, including the crisis with Qatar.
The conflict in Yemen, which has implicated several regional actors, has entered its sixth year and shows no signs of abating. The fighting has exacerbated Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and caused massive displacement of the civilian population.
Hostilities between the US and Iran have contributed to the already tense security situation in the region. In May 2018, the US announced its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and it has since continued to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran as a part of its broader strategy of maximum pressure. Under the agreement, which had been endorsed by resolution 2231, the Council lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran while establishing a stringent system to monitor Iran’s nuclear programme. Formally, Iran has remained in the agreement although it has reduced its nuclear-related commitments and has gradually resumed uranium enrichment activities beyond JCPOA–mandated limits. Iran has continued to emphasise that its actions are reversible and that its return to full compliance with the JCPOA is conditioned on sanctions relief from the agreement’s remaining parties.
Resolution 2231 put in place specific restrictions on, among other things, arms-related transfers to and from Iran, which are set to expire in October. The US has argued that Iran poses a threat to peace and security in the region and that it continues to supply weapons to terrorist groups and proxies in violation of resolution 2231. Therefore, it has stressed the importance of extending the arms embargo beyond October.
In August, the US circulated to Council members a draft resolution that would extend the existing arms-related restrictions indefinitely or “until the Security Council decides otherwise”. On 14 August, the draft resolution was not adopted, failing to obtain nine votes. The Dominican Republic and the US voted in favour, China and Russia against, and the remaining Council members abstained. On 20 August, the US submitted a letter to the Council president notifying the Council that it finds Iran to be “in significant non-performance of its commitments under the JCPOA” and that it is initiating the snapback mechanism leading to the re-imposition of sanctions in place before the adoption of resolution 2231.
Resolution 2231 stipulates that any concerned party to the JCPOA can notify the Council about an issue that it considers a significant violation of the agreement. The sanctions in place before the adoption of resolution 2231 would then resume 30 days after the notification unless the Council adopts a resolution that continues the lifting of the sanctions. All Council members except the Dominican Republic have challenged the legality of the US assertion that it still has a right to trigger the snapback mechanism, given that it withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018. The US has argued that it still retains this right because resolution 2231 lists it as a party to the JCPOA. The 30-day deadline for a snapback procedure passed on 20 September, and the US has said that it expects “that all UN member states will fulfil their legal obligation and re-impose sanctions on Iran”.
In the second part of 2019 and early this year, several security incidents in the Gulf region contributed to rising tensions among some of the key players in the region and internationally. On 3 January, Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, was killed by a US strike near the Baghdad airport, as was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). On 8 January, Iran retaliated by striking a US base in Iraq, injuring approximately 100 US troops, according to media reports.
In September 2019, the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities in Saudi Arabia––which process more than half of Saudi Arabia’s daily crude oil production, or 5 percent of the global market—were attacked by drones and cruise missiles, causing heavy damage to the sites. The Houthi rebel group claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the US and Saudi Arabia claimed that the attack did not emanate from the territory of Yemen and that the weapons used were of Iranian origin. The Houthi rebel group is at war with the government of Yemen, which is supported by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition. Houthi rebels also claimed responsibility for the June 2019 cruise missile attack on Abha international airport in Saudi Arabia. In another incident in June 2019, two oil tankers were attacked in the Strait of Hormuz. The US and Saudi Arabia blamed the attack on Iran, which denied the accusation.
During recent Council meetings on country-specific situations in the Gulf region, Russia has drawn attention to resolution 598 from 1987 which, among other things, called for the Secretary-General to examine measures to enhance security and stability in the region. This is consistent with its proposal for collective security in the Gulf.
Council members have organised a number of discussions on the regional dynamics of conflicts in the Middle East in recent years. In March 2019, France and Germany organised an informal interactive dialogue on “Fostering dialogue and cooperation as a response to conflicts and common challenges in the Middle-East and North Africa”. The meeting was intended to explore ways “for the Council to overcome divisions and tackle collectively regional challenges, through promoting regional dialogue and cooperation, and, in each country of the region, strong state institutions that are respectful of human rights and the rule of law”. During its presidency in June 2018, Russia organised a debate on a comprehensive review of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa. The debate focused on broader issues affecting the region as well as the root causes of conflict.
UN DOCUMENTS ON THE PERSIAN GULF
|Security Council Resolutions|
|20 July 2015S/RES/2231||This was a resolution that endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran.|
|20 July 1987S/RES/598||This resolution adopted provisional measures under article 40 in the context of the Iran-Iraq war.|
|Security Council Letters|
|20 August 2020S/2020/815||This was a letter from to both Secretary-General and the Council president from the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, notifying the Council that Iran is non-compliant with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).|
|26 July 2019S/2019/604||This letter contained the proposal of the Russian Federation on collective security in the Persian Gulf region and associated background information.|
|4 June 2018S/2018/524||This was the transmission of Russia’s concept note for its debate on the Middle East and North Africa held 25 June 2018.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|25 June 2019S/PV.8293||This was the thematic debate on “Maintaining international peace and security: comprehensive review of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa”.|
|17 August 2020S/2020/797||This was a US draft resolution that would extend the existing arms-related restrictions set to expire in October under resolution 2231 “until the Security Council decides otherwise”. The draft failed to obtain the required number of votes to be adopted.|