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Biden Has a Model for Dealing With Regional Fears of Iranian Missiles and Proxies

The Arms Control and Regional Security working group convened after the 1991 Madrid peace conference failed, but it offers important lessons for today.

U.S. President George H.W. Bush (L) addresses delegations of the Middle East Peace Conference as Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev listens,on October 30, 1991, during the opening ceremony at the Royal Palace in Madrid, Spain.
U.S. President George H.W. Bush (L) addresses delegations of the Middle East Peace Conference as Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev listens,on October 30, 1991, during the opening ceremony at the Royal Palace in Madrid, Spain. PATRICK BAZ/AFP via Getty Images

As the Biden administration formulates its Iran policy, there is an intense debate—in Washington and global capitals—over whether a straightforward return to the Iran nuclear deal will be sufficient to mitigate the perceived threats emanating from the Islamic Republic. Many commentators insist that President Joe Biden must also address Iran’s regional policies and missiles in addition to the original deal.

The Biden team need not start from scratch to launch such a parallel effort. Thirty years ago, the United States led the first comprehensive attempt to address regional security by creating the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) working group in the wake of the 1991 Madrid peace conference. The talks foundered amid the breakdown of the Israeli-Arab peace process, but they offer important lessons.

To be sure, the region is messier today than it was 30 years ago, with heightened Iranian influence in the region, increasingly complex intra-Arab divides, a complicated role for Turkey, and a bigger Russian presence. Nevertheless, ongoing normalization between Israel and Arab states could enhance the chances for a comprehensive regional security process. Three lessons stand out for the Biden administration as it reflects on what worked—and what didn’t—through ACRS.

As the Biden administration formulates its Iran policy, there is an intense debate—in Washington and global capitals—over whether a straightforward return to the Iran nuclear deal will be sufficient to mitigate the perceived threats emanating from the Islamic Republic. Many commentators insist that President Joe Biden must also address Iran’s regional policies and missiles in addition to the original deal.

The Biden team need not start from scratch to launch such a parallel effort. Thirty years ago, the United States led the first comprehensive attempt to address regional security by creating the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) working group in the wake of the 1991 Madrid peace conference. The talks foundered amid the breakdown of the Israeli-Arab peace process, but they offer important lessons.

To be sure, the region is messier today than it was 30 years ago, with heightened Iranian influence in the region, increasingly complex intra-Arab divides, a complicated role for Turkey, and a bigger Russian presence. Nevertheless, ongoing normalization between Israel and Arab states could enhance the chances for a comprehensive regional security process. Three lessons stand out for the Biden administration as it reflects on what worked—and what didn’t—through ACRS.

First, key parties must buy into the end objective of a regional security process. Israel’s nuclear weapons program—long an open secret—was a major bone of contention during the ACRS process for Arab delegations, chiefly Egypt. While Israel argued that it would only discuss nuclear disarmament after securing peace with its neighbors and saw ACRS as a path toward that destination, the Arab countries believed that Israel would never seriously agree to disarm, causing a loss of faith in the process and reluctance to reward Israel with normalization steps.

That experience suggests that an approach based on confidence-building measures is no substitute for the formulation of a shared vision, which in turn requires everyone having their say. The 1991 effort fell short here, too, since Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria remained outside the process.

Hoping that key regional parties can be brought in over time is risky, since it exposes the process to potential attacks at every step by skeptics and spoilers, amid a lack of assurance that outsiders will ever join. And while the United States in its unipolar moment could get everyone into the room, it will today need the assistance of at least Russia and Europe to convene all parties around the table.

Second, while regional parties need to share a final destination in the process, the U.S. government must also have a clear view of each country’s priorities in the near to medium term. During the ACRS process, the post-Madrid bilateral tracks (Israel negotiating with the Palestinians and other Arab states) were the priority for Washington, while the multilateral track (including ACRS) was intended to legitimize the Palestinians’ ability to negotiate with Israel. For Egypt, the core objective was Israel’s disarmament. For Jordan, it was enhanced regional security and a solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees. For Israel, it was recognition and normalization with Arab states. Such divergent and sometimes conflicting goals and expectations stymied progress in the ACRS working group.

When it comes to regional parties’ immediate priorities today, the principal tension is between the nuclear dossier and other security concerns. The fate of the nuclear deal suggests that putting Iran’s nuclear program front and center might have been necessary to arrive at a binding agreement but left significant regional players dissatisfied with other aspects of Iran’s role in the region.

Although Arab states are of course worried about an Iranian nuclear bomb, their fear of Iranian missile capabilities and encroachment through proxies is a more immediate concern (though many of them have themselves imported long-range missiles or are developing a domestic manufacturing capability). The Biden administration’s diplomatic choreography must account for just how acutely regional parties worry about issues that are extraneous to the nuclear dispute.

Finally, the stars align when the time to pursue bold moves toward peace is ripe. The ACRS process became possible once the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War ushered in George H.W. Bush’s vision for a “new world order,” generating a feeling that anything was possible—even peace in the Middle East. Today, recent normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab states have spurred cautious optimism that a serious regional security process may actually be possible. While such structural shifts matter, so do individuals.

Secretary of State James Baker was instrumental in getting ACRS off the ground, including eliciting buy-in from a skeptical Israeli security establishment, threatening to withhold financing for the resettlement of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union unless the Israelis showed up in Madrid. Today, given protracted conflict and deep-seated mutual mistrust in the region, political investment by courageous leaders is again required to move beyond cosmetic confidence-building steps and toward formulating a joint vision for the region.

Figuring out a regional diplomatic road map beyond reengagement on the Iran nuclear deal—which will itself be complex—is a tall order. And some necessary ingredients, such as bold regional leadership, will be outside Washington’s control. But the Biden team will have a wealth of accumulated experience and lessons learned to inform that process, which it should leverage to the maximum. Heeding the lessons of ACRS, the Biden team should pursue a process that involves all key parties from the outset, addresses their respective security concerns, and is underpinned by a long-term vision.

Hanna Notte is a senior nonresident scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Twitter: @HannaNotte

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