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Hirad Abtahi Headshot

Not a "New Middle East", but a Unified Western Asia

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Geopolitics in the 21st century is shaped against the background of an increasingly globalized and still ever-competitive world, where states, perhaps as never before, can no longer thrive in isolated vacuum. Apart from the European Union (EU), there are countless other examples of a global trend towards regional alignment.

Those of us who are genuinely committed to seeing Western Asia -- a term conterminous to its Eurocentric counterpart, the 'Middle East' -- united in peace must ask ourselves why this region stands as the only territory without a meaningful, region-wide organizing framework? In fact, if united, Western Asia could form one of the most influential and prosperous regional blocks in modern history. Alas, oblivious to its own potential as a unified force, Western Asia continues instead to be bogged down in sectarian ruptures and historical grudges.

Conversely a grand all inclusive union has real prospects for changing the grim picture that is the region's current reality. A union will act as a constructive game changer prompting resolutions to the region's many troubles from the Arab-Israeli conflict and the plight of the Palestinians to regional rivalries, the recurring cycle of conflict as well as economic and social deficits in the region.

And we must admit that while the existing regional cooperation mechanisms in place like the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council and Economic Cooperation Organization constitute positive developments in the push towards regional alignment, they are limited in mandate and membership, and therefore, unable to bring comprehensive stability to the region.

The existing hurdles standing in the way of a comprehensive union are rooted in large part in the lack of a collective vision, where tribalism and mistrust reign and suspicions of the 'other' make reconciliation remarkably difficult. These divisions, together with more classical strategic intra-state competition have kept the region beleaguered by conflict, alienated and weak.

This is the very state of mind and status quo geopolitics in the region that need to be changed for the benefit of all the region's states and peoples. The champions of this new century in Western Asia are those who are able to see past the confines of their (often pessimistic) existence, and capable of rejecting temptations to conform to their restrictive surroundings, and instead labor to effect positive change. A shift in thinking from all sides of the fence is called for to commence the path to peace and progress.

The time has come for the region's states to jointly call for an all-encompassing, indigenous supranational Western Asian Union, one that extends from the Fertile Crescent to the Silk Road.

Why a Union now when regional tensions seem to have reached the apex? Because too many innocent lives, hopes and opportunities have been lost. Because history has shown that the espoused policy of "an eye for an eye" has not and will not bring peace and security to the region. And that the prevailing zero-sum regional competition can at best generate temporary gains, while chaining the region down as a whole preventing its development.

Let us be bold and declare the proposed Union is far from being unrealistic. The EU and African Union (AU) demonstrate that human agency and ingenuity can indeed make supranationalism in a historically divided region possible. In the case of the former, unification was realized despite the European continent having gone through trans-generational horrors (humanity's only two world wars and the Holocaust). To those who would argue that the EU was built when the war was over, we would reply the AU for its part was achieved in a continent replete with boundary disputes, water shortages, ethnic and sectarian clashes, famine and poverty to name but a few of the ills suffered. The AU is now collectively on the path to rectify these ills.

A Union in the Middle East/Western Asia can and must be achieved on the strength of three essential pillars: (i) a collective security mechanism; (ii) an integrated economic block, and in time complemented by a (ii) regional court of human rights and increased cultural and social integration. In a recent article published by Global Brief we have detailed our Case for this Union, highlighting the importance of each of these pillars for creating security, fostering a culture of human rights and achieving peace and collective prosperity in the region.

Far from creating a new economic or military hegemony for any single member, what is being advanced is collective cohesion where every member-state benefits with no single sovereign holding a paramount position. The proposed union will do away with self-defeating regional competition and coalesce inter-state relations. Such an all-encompassing union, apart from facilitating a two-state solution with mutual gain for the Israeli and Palestinian protagonists, will also fortify the relatively newly created Arab states born after the fall of the Ottoman empire, which to this day struggle with the notion of a nation-state.

What is being proposed in this commentary is of course different than the vision for a New Middle East offered in the early 1990s by Shimon Peres and Arye Noar. First, what we are proposing is that the tent of such a union should be much wider in both scope and membership. The inclusion of other regional players in the mix will enrich the negotiations on the creation of such a union, increase the stakes for all regional parties, and necessitate a macro-level geopolitical view. This wider net will also make the union itself -- if and when realized -- stronger in its foundation as a collective entity.

Another crucial difference is the stimulus or 'driver' of this union. Inspired by the EU model, Peres and Noar focused on economic interdependence as the best means of realizing peace and moving towards a union.

We believe that while economic cooperation is important, given contemporary realities on the ground, peace will also require a political component aimed at ensuring the security anxieties of the states in the region are met. Hence, the driver in a Middle East environment of mistrust must, by necessity, encompass an effective regional security arm. This combination appears to us to be the key first package in moving the region towards regional cohesion. Indeed, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), which is comprised of Iran, Israel, Egypt, Afghanistan, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey amongst other regional players is tangible proof that such a grouping of nations to engage in dialogue on regional security is possible.

In a region plagued by conflict, a comprehensive security pact is critical to trust building and prompting a new era of cooperation.

Once the road to peace and normalization of relations has begun by the establishment of the regional security organization and economic interdependence, slowly mind-sets will be changed and in time the human rights and socio-cultural mechanisms can also be realized and fostered.

Peace and security are the sine qua non for achieving material and intellectual progress. The sooner we collectively recognize this truism, the sooner we have exported the Western Asian Union from the seemingly far reaches of our idealist aspirations to tangible existence. "The lesson of history is that what is can be changed."

The views expressed in this article have been provided in the authors' personal capacity, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ICC, ECHR or the UN.