The Need to Stand Up an Emergency Response Task Force in the Gulf


Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib, August 31 2020

No matter who wins the United States presidential election in November, Iran will remain a focal point for United States foreign policy. Whether the Trump Administration continues its maximum pressure policy or a new Biden Administration plans on a return to the JCPOA, a back channel for communications with the Iranian regime is necessary.   Communication is important for a variety of purposes, including negotiations, communicating intent, or to request formal dialogue.  Different United States administrations knew the value of keeping dialogue open with adversaries, as exemplified by continuous bilateral dialogue between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Cold War era Dartmouth Peace Conference could be a model for conversations between the United States and Iran.  The Dartmouth series of conversations started by covering topics overtly separated from political tensions between the United States and Soviet Union.  A conversation of a similar structure between the United States and Iran could start by focusing on less politically charged issues, such as technical change and cooperation.  Building cooperation on technical topics, such regional environmental protection or disaster relief, could create opportunities for greater political progress and a possible détente.  Though normalization with Iran is dependent on concessions from the Islamic Republic, an agreement can be reached on secondary issues. Despite the animosity between the two countries, there should be a space for discussing non-controversial issues. Any momentum created on technical topics could be the beginning of a track II platform that can thaw the ice in the future.

The logical starting point where cooperation can be created is emergency response in the Arab/Persian Gulf. Unlike Dartmouth, which was a bilateral endeavor, this one should encompass the different countries around the Gulf: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, KSA and Oman. This model will have a double use. It will not only open a channel with Iran but will also help the United States create a channel between three regional partners that have disputes, namely the UAE and Saudi Arabia on one side and Qatar on the other.

The Arab/Persian Gulf is a semi closed area with an opening at the Strait of Hormuz. It has a slow water circulation, a drop of water that enter the Gulf needs 2-5 years to get out of it. Hence, you don’t have the current movement that can help in self-cleansing contamination. It is also shallow waters: with average depth of 36 meters. In addition to being a basin for tankers that transport 21 million barrels of crude and refined oil, passing through the strait of Hurmuz, the Gulf is an important source of water and food. The Arab Gulf has the highest per capita of seafood consumption in the world. Those countries are highly dependent on desalinated water: the UAE and Qatar have 90 percent dependence on desalinated water,  Saudi Arabia gets 70 % of its supply from desalination, and Kuwait 95% of its supply.  Despite the fact countries like the UAE are creating underground reservoirs, an emergency scenario that impedes desalination would give these countries only a few days of fresh water supply.  Desalination results in brine, a high salinity by-product that is dumped back in the water.  Brine is toxic to the marine environment, so the stability of fresh water supply in the Gulf is also tied to the future stability of the Gulf marine environment.

The Gulf faces the common problem of over-salinity of the Gulf itself and the overhanging threat of an environmental disaster.  The brine dumped back in the Gulf because of desalination already impacts the maritime environment and that impact will only be compounded over time.  The impact of either an oil spill or a nuclear reactor leak would be immense.  The sheer amount of oil that is shipped through the Gulf creates the probability of a spill and the presence of nuclear energy facilities in both Iran and the UAE introduce the prospects of that type of disaster.

The Gulf is connected by geography but remains politically separated.  Emergency response is not controversial, or at least should not be.  Coordination on this topic should be possible.  The lack of coordination can slow the response which can aggravate the consequence. The Fukushima 2011 nuclear spill aftermath report showed that a lack of coordination among the different parties worsened the effect of the disaster. In the Gulf, a single oil spill or a single nuclear disaster could impede every country in the region.

Therefore, a regular task force needs to be created whereby scientists from the different countries are gathered to discuss protocols for interoperability among the different emergency response systems. They can relay the recommendations to their respective policy makers.

The region already knows what such environmental disasters could look like. When retreating from Kuwait, the Iraqi military destroyed desalination plants and dumped oil in Gulf waters creating a 35-mile oil slick that encroached on the Saudi Arabian coastline. The United States ended up bombing oil stations to stop the flow of oil from continuing to contaminate the marine environment.

The suggested task force can provide coordination that will decrease the chances of any country being unaware of the scale of danger. Such a meeting would need all parties buy in the at the start.  The technical experts would be able to reveal to all parties the scale of potential disaster and if any party refuses to continue to take part, then the region will understand that such an actor is not committed to addressing such regional dangers.  It is a possible way to deal with tensions in the Gulf.  It is also a way for the region to get Iran, an actor that refuses conversation, to be tied to an institutionalized dialogue.  Such a platform also creates a means for all actors to show goodwill. The task force can create a committee to monitor the safety and health of the ecosystem of the Gulf and provide recommendations as to areas for greater policy focus. The committee can have a rotating presidency to ensure equity between the different members.  Perhaps like the Dartmouth conference, it could lead to offshoots on more topics.

These cross-cutting strategic issues coupled with specific tactical actions can help in de-escalation. Hopefully, this will start by emergency response coordination and will end up by opening the door for a diplomatic initiative.  It is the right time to pursue this action, as the mass explosion at the port of Beirut revealed how low probability/high consequence disasters can redefine the region.  The proposed task force for emergency response in the Arab/Persian Gulf should already exist, so all actors should see to stand it up immediately.

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is NESA Alumnus and  a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is the co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building; a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II.  She is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.