Securing the Persian Gulf: Washington Must Manage Both External Aggression and Internal Instability

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

September 1, 2003

Over the past three decades, Washington has tried a variety of approaches to ensuring the stability and security of the strategically vital Persian Gulf region. That none has been effective is evident from the fact that the United States has had to intervene directly three times in the past 16 years against regional threats—Iran in 1987-1988 and Iraq in 1991 and this past spring. With the U.S. and British Military Success in Operation Iraqi Freedom, a broad rethiking of U.S. strategy toward th region is in order—though establishing a durable framework for Persian Gulf security is likely to be more challenging than ever. Past threats posed by Iran and Iraq were straightfoward military problems amenable to solution by the vast preponderance of U.S. power. Future threats are unlikely to be as simple or discrete.

It’s the Oil, Stupid

America’s primary interest in the Persian Gulf is ensuring the free and stable flow of the region’s oil to the world at large. The issue is not whether Americans pay $2 or $3 a gallon for gas at the pump or whether Exxon gets contracts instead of Lukoil or even how much oil the United States imports from the Persian Gulf. The global economy built over the past 50 years rests on a foundation of inexpensive, plentiful oil. If that foundation were removed, the global economy would collapse.

Roughly 25 percent of the world’s oil production comes from the Persian Gulf, with Saudi Arabia alone responsible for about 15 percent. The Persian Gulf has as much as two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves, and its oil is absurdly economical to produce. Saudi Arabia has a majority of the world’s excess production capacity, and it increases or decreases production to stabilize and control prices. The sudden loss of the Saudi oil network would send the price of oil through the ceiling, probably causing a global downturn at least as devastating as the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Washington’s aim is not simply to keep oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf, but also to prevent any potentially hostile state from gaining control over the region’s resources. The United States also wants to maintain military access to this geostrategically critical region to preserve its influence on events in the Middle East, Central Asia, eastern Africa, and South Asia. Finally, the United States has an interest in stamping out the terrorist groups that flourish in the region.

Triple Threat

The three main problems likely to bedevil Persian Gulf security over the next several years will be Iraq’s security dilemma, Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and potential internal unrest in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These problems offer no easy answers separately, let alone together. Difficult trade-offs will have to be made.

The paradox of Iraqi power can be put simply: any Iraq that is strong enough to balance and contain Iran will be capable of overrunning Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The recent American victory over Saddam will do little to affect this basic dynamic, which stems less from the nature of Iraq’s leadership than from simple geopolitics. Like postwar Germany and Japan, post-Saddam Iraq will almost certainly be forbidden to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But it will still have to protect itself from a real, albeit distant, threat from Iran, either through a credible external security guarantee or by maintaining substantial—and threatening—conventional military capabilities.

As for Iran, according to the latest estimates of U.S. intelligence and even of the International Atomic Energy Agency, its nuclear program has gone into overdrive and unless stopped—from inside or outside—is likely to produce one or more nuclear weapons within a decade. The preemptive intervention that was an option for the United States in Iraq is not an option here. Iran’s population and landmass are far larger than Iraq’s; its terrain would make military operations a logistical nightmare; and its people have generally rallied around the regime in the face of foreign threats. Invading Iran would be unthinkable in all but the most extraordinary circumstances.

Of course, the Iranian nuclear problem may solve itself. The Iranian people are deeply unhappy with the reactionary clerics who cling to power in Tehran, and since 1997 they have voted consistently and overwhelmingly against the hard-liners. Moreover, Iran’s population is young, and the Iranian youth most strongly oppose the current regime and favor a more democratic system of government. Thus time is on the side of Iran’s reformers, most of whom have expressed an interest in good relations with the United States.

All this matters because although Washington preaches a policy of universal nuclear nonproliferation, in practice it has consistently, and probably correctly, been much more concerned with proliferation by its enemies, such as Iraq and North Korea, than by its friends, such as Israel. U.S. fears about Iran’s nuclear program might well diminish with the emergence of a pluralist and pro-American government in Tehran—though even then Iranian nuclear advances would cause a major headache because of their inevitable effects on proliferation elsewhere in the region.

The problem is that no one can be certain that the reformers will triumph in Iran or, if so, when. The United States must therefore assume that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons while its hard-line clerics are still in power. But the very U.S. actions called for in those circumstances—continued diplomatic and economic pressure, an aggressive military posture on Iran’s borders, even threats to use force—could play into the hands of Iran’s hard-liners, who maintain power in part by stoking popular fears that the United States seeks to control the country. The Iranian paradox is that preparing to deal with the worst-case scenario of Iranian hard-liners possessing nuclear weapons might very well make that scenario more likely.

Tehran appears to want nuclear weapons principally to deter an American attack. Once it gets them, however, it might be emboldened to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy. Iran’s military is too weak to contemplate invading its neighbors, so the risk is more that Iran would try to shut down tanker traffic in the Strait of Hormuz to blackmail them or foment insurrection. But the U.S. security posture that would best deter Iranian aggression—a heavy presence of forces throughout the Persian Gulf—is the worst option in dealing with the third problem, terrorism and internal instability in the states of the GCC.

Terrorism and internal unrest in the Persian Gulf are ultimately fueled by the political, economic, and social stagnation of the local Arab states. American policies anger many Arabs, and the Palestinian issue arouses great popular concern, but it is the failure of Arab economic and political systems that creates fertile ground for domestic insurrection or the recruitment efforts of radical Islamist groups such as al Qaeda. Too many Arabs feel powerless and humiliated by despotic governments that do less and less for them while giving them no say in their own governance. And too many feel both threatened and stifled within a society that cannot come to grips with modernity.

Most Middle East experts think that a revolution or civil war in any of the GCC states within the next few years is unlikely, but few say so now as confidently as they once did. Indeed, fears of mounting internal turmoil have prompted each of the GCC regimes to announce democratic and economic reform packages over the past 10 years. If the reforms fail and violence ensues, Washington might face some difficult security challenges. Widespread unrest in Saudi Arabia, for example, would threaten Saudi oil exports just as surely as would an Iranian invasion.

The best way for the United States to address the rise of terrorism and the threat of internal instability in Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states would be to reduce dramatically its military presence in the region, even to withdraw entirely. The heavy presence of U.S. troops fuels the terrorists’ propaganda claims and is a humiliating reminder that the descendants of the great Islamic empires can no longer defend themselves and must answer to infidel powers. So pulling back would ease the internal pressure on the regimes and help them enact vital but painful reforms. But, as noted, a withdrawal would be the worst move from the perspective of deterring and containing Iran.

These paradoxes make finding a workable new security architecture for the Persian Gulf excruciatingly difficult. Iraq must be kept strong but not too strong. Iran must be kept in check while being pushed to liberalize. The GCC governments must be given breathing room for reform but still be protected from their external and internal enemies. Efforts to balance these various interests, threats, and constraints may well fail, as past U.S. regional strategies have. Still, the situation is not entirely hopeless. Perhaps no perfect policy will secure every interest and counter every threat while avoiding all the strategic, political, and cultural minefields. But three broad approaches—pulling back “over the horizon,” trying to form a local NATO-like defense pact, or trying to establish a security condominium—have enough merit to be considered seriously.

Back over the Horizon

The most conservative approach to Persian Gulf security would be to pull most of America’s forces back “over the horizon.” When Washington last tried that posture—during the 1970s and 1980s—it failed because both Iran and Iraq were quite strong. Today, however, both are much weaker and likely to remain so, at least until Iran acquires nuclear weapons. Washington, meanwhile, has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to intervene in the Gulf to protect its interests and prevent aggression. So the strategy might work better today.

In this approach, the United States would leave only the bare minimum of its current forces in place—and only where they are indisputably welcome. The headquarters of the 5th fleet would remain in Bahrain, for example, but fewer American warships would ply the waters of the Gulf. The Air force would retain its huge new base in Qatar. The army might keep some prepositioned equipment in Kuwait and Qatar, regularly rotating in battalions to train on it. And if a future iraqi government were amenable, the United States might retain an air base and some ground presence there. Otherwise, army bases in the region might be dispensed with altogether, and the United States oculd simply rely on equipment stored on container ships stationed at Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean.

On the political level, the United States would preserve its informal relationships with the GCC states and possibly add a similar association with a friendly new Iraqi government. It would make clear that any Iranian aggression would be met by an American military response. And it would continue to urge Europe, Japan, and Russia to pressure Iran to end its support for terror and its unconventional weapons programs.

The pullback would go far to alleviate the region’s internal problems and is, not surprisingly, the strategy that the Gulf Arabs favor. With Saddam gone, their overriding goal now is to minimize domestic discontent, and they believe that the United States can keep peace in the region with a minimal presence. But their enthusiasm for this strategy ought to give American planners pause. With the exception of Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion, most of these countries have shown a distressing determination over the years to ignore their problems, both external and internal, rather than confront them. Although a U.S. pullback could give them the leeway they need to push through reforms, they are equally likely to see it as a panacea for all their problems and decide that internal reforms are unnecessary. A reduced U.S. military and political presence would also weaken Washington’s ability to press its local allies to make the tough choices necessary for their own long-term well-being.

A return to an over-the-horizon posture would also risk recreating some of the problems that made the strategy untenable years ago. If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, a minimal U.S. presence in the region might tempt it to new aggression. The GCC countries have often been willing to accommodate powerful, aggressive neighbors and might again—giving Iran, say, an unhealthy control over oil flows. And a U.S. pullback might tempt other outside powers, such as China, to fish in the Gulf’s troubled waters.

A Middle Eastern NATO

A second strategy for securing the Persian Gulf would be a new regional defense alliance along the lines of NATO—though this approach too has been tried unsuccessfully. In 1954, the United States convinced Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom to sign the Baghdad Pact, pledging them to mutual defense. Four years later, Iraq withdrew, leaving Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey to form the Central Treaty Organization, which became little more than a vehicle for the United States to arm the shah of Iran. The alliances performed poorly because their members had widely divergent security problems—and because revolution in Iraq in 1958 and in Iran in 1979 knocked out the central players. Today members of a defensive alliance would have a similar view of the security problem.

The alliance would include the United States, the GCC states, and a new government of Iraq. To paraphrase Lord Ismay’s famous quip about NATO, the goal would be to keep the Americans in, the Iranians out, and the Iraqis down. A formal defense pledge would lock in an unflinching American commitment to regional security, deter outright Iranian aggression, and solve Baghdad’s security dilemma, providing a benign framework for Iraq’s conventional rearmament while obviating its need to acquire WMD to deter Iran. As a bonus, if Persian Gulf publics could be convinced that American forces were there as part of a community of equals, an alliance might also help legitimize the U.S. presence.

This approach too has drawbacks. Most seriously, leaders of the GCC states do not want a formal alliance with the United States, at least not now. They fear that it would be seen as the ultimate act of colonialism and cronyism and would delegitimize their own regimes. A pro-American Iraqi government might feel the same unease. Nor would an alliance address the threat of domestic instability. If Tehran, with its weak military, decides to become more aggressive, it would more likely try to undermine its neighbors from within than attack them directly. And a Persian Gulf alliance, despite its fearsome punching power, would still be vulnerable to an enemy that hits below the belt.

A Gulf Security Condominium

A third course—a security condominium modeled on arms control in Europe at the end of the cold war—offers the tantalizing prospect of handling both external aggression and internal instability.

Beginning in the 1970s, NATO and the Warsaw Pact engaged in a host of security engagement forums, confidence-building measures, and arms control agreements, such as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions talks, to address all the continent’s security issues as a whole. Negotiating these deals took more than two decades but, in the end, produced a much more stable and secure Europe.

In the Persian Gulf, a security condominium would bring together the United States, the GCC countries, Iraq, and Iran. The parties would first establish a regional security forum in which to debate relevant issues, exchange information, and frame agreements. They could move on to confidence-building measures, such as notification of exercises and exchanges of observers, and ultimately to arms control, including demilitarized zones, bans on destabilizing weapons systems, and balanced force reductions for all. They might aim for a ban on all WMD, with penalties for violators and multilateral (or international) inspections to enforce compliance.

Such an approach has much to recommend it. It would be the least rancorous way to handle the inevitable prohibition on Iraqi WMD. If all the regional states were working toward similar disarmament and Iraq was simply the one leading off, the pill would go down more easily in Baghdad. Likewise, if a regional security condominium could eventually defang Iran and lock in limits on Iraq, it would address GCC security problems without having to rely on a heavy, destabilizing American military presence. Moreover, a regionwide forum might make U.S.-GCC military relations more palatable to the people of the Gulf.

The forum might even be acceptable to Iran. For 20 years, Tehran has demanded that the United States, Iraq, and the GCC take seriously its security concerns. Offering a venue in which to discuss those concerns could give Tehran the sense that it was finally getting the respect it thinks it deserves. More to the point, it is the only way for Iran to affect U.S. military forces. Such a system could work only if Washington were willing, as it was in Europe, to limit its regional deployments. That by itself might be worth the price of admission for Iran.

If Tehran’s hard-liners opted not to participate, they would isolate themselves both internally and internationally. At home, they would be hard-pressed to justify any action based on a supposed threat from the United States (or Iraq or the GCC) if they were unwilling to address that threat through diplomacy and arms control. To foreign audiences, Tehran’s refusal to accept a U.S. olive branch would seal its identity as a pariah state with no interest in addressing its security concerns peacefully—thus making it easier for Washington to muster international support for tighter sanctions and other forms of pressure if necessary.

Some might fear that a security condominium would legitimize Iran’s current government. But, as experience in Russia and Eastern Europe suggests, a security condominium would not stand in the way of regime change if that was where political development was heading.

The real problem would be making a security condominium work. In Europe it took 20–25 years of excruciating negotiations. Putting all the pieces together in the Persian Gulf would be harder. All the parties would come to the table with their own agendas and would try to subvert or structure the process to address only their own issues. A host of often hidden intra-GCC insecurities would come to the fore. The Iranians might demand Israel’s inclusion, a call that would have tremendous resonance among the Gulf’s Arab populations but that could scuttle the process by saddling it with the endless disputes of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

If it could be made to work, a security condominium would offer the best prospect of stabilizing and securing the region. The United States should publicly embrace it as its ultimate goal and start moving in that direction promptly. Convening a conference on Persian Guld security toward that end could help legitimize the U.S. presence in the region and discredit those who oppose it.

But because a security condominium would be the work of years if not decades, it should not become the sole focus of U.S. efforts to create a new security architecture in the region. In an ongoing process Washington might use all three approaches. It could move quickly to diminish force levels. Meanwhile, it could begin exploring the possibility of a new alliance system or a process to construct a security condominium. The prospect of a new U.S.-GCC-Iraqi alliance might push Iran to participate in a security condominium, while the prospect of a security condominium might make an alliance more acceptable to GCC states. Ultimately, if the security condominium succeeded, peace were maintained, and forces throughout the region were considerably reduced, the way might be clear for a truly over-the-horizon American presence in the Persian Gulf—a development that would be greatly welcomed by all.