The US and the Gulf: The New Calculus

Dean Mathew, Research Fellow, IDSA

 

"Iran is obviously a country of great strategic importance… I think that it is important for the American people and the Iranian people to know that there has been a difficult history in the past, on both sides… In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular Prime Minister Mohammed Massadegh… but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development… During the next quarter century, the United States and the West gave sustained backing to the Shah's regime… As President Clinton has said, the United States must bear its fair share of responsibility for the problems that have risen in the US-Iranian relations… We want to see the free flow of oil in the Gulf."1

— US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, March 17, 2000

"…The US is committed to ensure a peaceful Gulf and protect it from missile attacks… Such threats will exist as long as Iraq and Iran pursue efforts to either build or maintain weapons of mass destruction… We are going to talk about the combined Defence Initiative, something which is very important throughout the Gulf region and that is to make sure that all of us are prepared to deal with a chemical or biological attack upon any of the countries throughout the Gulf, including US forces… and that is the purpose of my visit."2

— US Secretary of Defence William S. Cohen, April 8, 2000

"… Iran and Iraq are no threat to the Gulf… and the UAE wants to peacefully resolve its disputes with Iran…"3

— UAE Defence Minister and Dubai Crown Prince Gen Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Nov 15, 1999

"… Saudi Arabia has no fear from Iraq or Iran…"4

— Saudi Defence and Aviation Minister Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz, April 15, 2000

"…Since we weren't able to achieve a united Arab force, then the least we should achieve is a unified military force for our Gulf region so the security of our countries and people will not depend on the moods and international interests…"5

— King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Nov 27, 1999

The above statements by some of the key players in the Persian Gulf are more than just pointers to the new dynamics unfolding in the Gulf over the turn of the century. In what could to be the harbinger of a new pan-Arab revival, the Arab fraternity in the Gulf is discussing a unified military force and a unified economic entity in the Gulf. They are keen on bringing back Iraq into the fraternity. The feeling that Saddam Hussain's continuity at the helm in Iraq is a reality is something the Gulf countries are more at ease with now than a few years ago.

There is a widespread disapproval of the continual suffering of Iraqi people in the name of UN sanctions. In a clear departure from their policy of 'dual containment' towards Iran and Iraq, the US is making definite overtures towards establishing closer relations with Iran. At the centre of all these developments are the latest US efforts to sell the idea of a new joint defence initiative—the Co-operative Defence Initiative (CDI)—in the Gulf with itself at the helm, to the Gulf countries. The projected threat by the US is from Iran and Iraq, though the prevailing mood in the Gulf is to forget and forgive.

Background

During the decades following World War II, the Persian Gulf was an unfamiliar region to many observers in Washington with a potential for instability. It, nevertheless, was of great strategic and economic importance because of oil. Despite being a net exporter of oil then, American officials viewed the uninterrupted flow of cheap Gulf oil as crucial to Washington's policy of fostering the post-war economic recovery of Western Europe. These interests, more or less, survived and prospered at a leisurely pace till the 70s. The following period saw the US being pushed to centre stage in the Gulf. The Arab-Israeli wars, withdrawal of Britain from the Gulf, the arrival of the Cold War to the Middle East, the oil crisis of the 70s, the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait were the turning points in history, which eventually led to a 5,00,000-strong US force fighting a war in a region which had been unknown to an average American four or five decades ago.

US Policy Towards the Gulf

The most singular feature which ironically shaped the US policy towards the Gulf and the Arab world in general was the difficulty it had in grappling with the concept of Arab nationalism. This handicap severely affected the formulation of a coherent US policy towards the Middle-East, especially towards the Persian Gulf. Clearly evident has been the difficulty that the US has been experiencing in underwriting Israel's security and at the same time securing its interest in maintaining its access to Gulf oil supplies.

The mainstay of the US strategy ever since it took over the mantle of security guarantor within the Gulf region from the British in the early 1970s, was to maintain regional stability through a rough balance of military power between the two most dominant Gulf countries, Iran and Iraq. Initially, it was with an Iranian monarchy against an anti-western, pro-Soviet Iraq, then with a 'lesser evil' Saddam Hussein against the 'bigger evil', the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The US saw red when the Soviets walked into Afghanistan in 1979 and that became the principal factor prompting the US to develop a capability to rapidly deploy military forces in the Gulf. There were speculations about "seizing oilfields" in a future energy crisis and the US wanted to establish facilities to enable a substantial American force to challenge a much larger Soviet force anywhere in the Gulf. It was a historic change in the US policy when President Carter, in his State of the Union speech of January 1980, described the American interests in the Gulf as 'vital' in an open warning that any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the USA and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force. This 'Carter Doctrine' is something which no subsequent US president has sought to alter.

It was the Clinton administration which tried to quarantine both Iran and Iraq through a policy of 'dual containment' by moving away from the act of balancing one against the other. The quarantine was to go on until, in the US opinion, both countries demonstrated a willingness to comply with international norms of political behaviour. However, if the recent US overtures towards Iran are to be taken at face value, then the US is going back to the strategy of 'balance of power'. The realisation that Iran and Iraq were too big and important regional actors to be quarantined even with an 'international' mandate was a crucial factor in prompting this visible change soon.

The US Overtures Towards Iran

Iran is being rediscovered all over again. The most important development is the US acknowledgement of past mistakes in its policy towards Tehran and its decision to ease sanctions against Iran.6 According to the US, they began to "adjust the lens through which they viewed Iran after the election of President Khatami in 1997".

What may be closer to reality is the strategic importance of Iran in tomorrow's world and the scheme to isolate Iraq completely. Iran's territory covers almost half the coastline of the Gulf on one side of the Straits of Hormuz, through which much of the world's petroleum commerce moves. It borders the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus, the Central and South Asia region, home to huge reserves of oil and gas. It is currently chairing the Organisation of Islamic Conference. More likely than not, Iran's future direction will play a pivotal role in the economic and security affairs of what the world pretty much considers the centre of the world.

The United States was quick to seize the chance when President Khatami mentioned bringing down "the wall of mistrust". The US move centred around lifting sanctions, which dated back to 1987, on non-oil exports such as carpets, caviar and pistachio nuts. Iran said it would respond by buying US grain and medicine.

The US is hailing President Khatami as a force of modernisation. It is awaiting the days when Khatami will be in a position to influence and change Tehran's current foreign policy. The US wants Iran to stop its support for terrorism, its undermining of the Middle East peace process and the quest for weapons of mass destruction.

However, Iran's response to US overtures has been cautious. Though the latter's move was welcomed at a very high level in Iran's domestic power structure, it identified Washington's closely intertwined ties with Israel as the main obstacle to the successful restoration of US-Iran relations. Mohsen Rezari,7 the secretary of Expediency Council, the body which has the final say in disputes between parliament and clergy-based guardian council, said that the US move could be successful only if Washington changed its policy. "The new strategy adopted by the US can lead to restoration of relations with Iran only under the condition of the country's success in removing contradictions in its foreign policy." According to him, the most serious contradiction was that "its interests are intertwined with Israel" and this was "the biggest obstacle in the way of resumption of ties".

The US Military Presence

The US Middle-East Force, a small command consisting of an admiral and his staff, a flagship and two or three destroyers, which used to visit Bahrain as the guests of the Royal Navy, has today transformed itself into the US Fifth Fleet, headquartered at Bahrain, and responsible for an area covering 10.5 million square miles covering the Indian Ocean, Gulf, Arabian Sea and Red Sea. Today, the US maintains a 5,000-strong force (4,000 airmen and 1,000 other soldiers) in Saudi Arabia. Any speculation over reducing the strength of the force was put to rest at a press conference jointly addressed by US Secretary of State William S Cohen and Saudi Prince Sultan bin Abulaziz al Saud in Jeddah on April 9, 2000.

The US maintains a full brigade's worth of equipment in a Pre-Positioning Depot in Qatar. Should trouble erupt in the Gulf region, the responding US troops could arrive and draw arms and equipment from the depot. During his recent visit, Secretary Cohen initiated negotiations with Qatar for rights to the Al Udaid air-base for a US Air Expeditionary force to cover gaps in coverage by the US aircraft carriers during future operations. A facility to base about 40 US combat aircraft was asked for.8

The Cooperative Defence Initiative (CDI)

Selling the concept of the Co-operative Defence Initiative to the countries of the Gulf region was the main agenda of US Secretary of Defence William S Cohen's trip through the Middle East and the Persian Gulf in April, 2000. He visited Jordan, Egypt, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, all considered to be prospective partners in the programme with the US.

The concept of CDI has an uncanny resemblance to the Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) programmes pursued by the US and appears to be a logical extension of a programme which the US would have considered for the protection of its own troops, engaged in an operation, anywhere around the globe, in future.

The proposed architecture is to be built around an early warning network linking all the GCC member countries and other willing Middle-East countries with the US through computer and satellite grid. It has five pillars;

l Active Defence,

l Passive Defence,

l Shared Early Warning,

l Consequent Management and,

l Medical Counter-measures.

The obvious threat, from the US view, is from Iraq and Iran. "Iraq, with no inspectors present on its soil, must be reconstituting its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Iran, too, is pursuing a weapons of mass destruction capability. Both countries have missiles capable of delivering such systems".9

The United States is ready to work bilaterally and multilaterally with regional partners in the Gulf to develop capabilities in each of the five crucial areas. As such, the US is setting up a system on a global scale that can warn a missile launch as part of their National Missile Defence (NMD) programme. This system will have concentrated attention dedicated to certain areas across the globe. The Middle-East would, probably, be one such area. Once a missile launch is detected, the NMD set-up will be able to track the missile through its flight path and predict its likely target point as well as work backwards to locate the probable launch point.

Secretary Cohen specifically ruled out the requirement of any new satellites or radars for the CDI. All necessary information will be provided by the United States. The partners have to just 'agree' to be protected and set up an inter-operable communication system. Active Defence means intercepting and destroying the attacking missile. In the current circumstances, that means the versions of Patriot missile systems. The Saudis and Kuwaitis have the system and the Egyptians have budgeted for buying the system. Passive Defence includes doctrine, intelligence, protective gear and medical supplies. It also entails making sure the troops are prepared to work in a contaminated environment. The US has already made some advances in the areas of medical counter-measures and consequence management and is willing to share with its partners in the CDI.

Once the initial framework is crystallised, the US Central Command will sponsor a variety of exercises that will bring together all those involved to learn more about the nuances associated with the programme.

Responses

According to an American official, the Kuwaitis, the Jordanians, the Saudis and the Bahrainis "are the ones who have been most energetic in understanding and embracing and taking concrete steps towards this (initiative)".10 However, the initial responses from individual countries were not found as enthusiastic as they were made out to be, though all of them sounded positive about the idea of a defence system in principle. These countries have been cautious in their response and particular not to offend sentiments of Iran and Iraq. Some of them have gone to the extent of saying that they do not fear any threat from either of the countries.

Kuwait was more circumspect by announcing that it did not want to do anything that might send a wrong signal to Baghdad.11 Though the statement was made by the Kuwaiti Defence Minister in the context of the proposed US-Kuwait combined military exercise which was to be staged just 50 km from the borders of Iraq with Kuwait, the tone and substance were more reassuring about Iraq's relationship with the Gulf states. Qatar might be the only country, among the six Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states, which has expressed an interest in the early warning network, which is a part of the CDI. During a press conference, on April 05, jointly addressed by Cohen and Qatar's foreign minister Harnad bin Jasim bin Jabir Al Thani, the latter said, "Early warning for the area is an important issue. It is no secret that the United States would like to protect the US troops in the area, and this would allow us to protect our area." In fact, such a stand by Qatar was expected as it has already permitted a pre-positioning depot of a brigade size for the US troops on its soil.

The general mood prevailing among the GCC countries is best indicated by the Saudi reaction. Firstly it has reiterated its recent view that it does not fear any threat from either Iran or Iraq. Secondly, it has suggested an exclusive meeting of the GCC states to discuss the issue in totality. Thirdly, it has clarified that any decision from its side will depend on the outcome of the meeting and the other Gulf states must agree before it did. By and large, the GCC states are expected to toe this line.

Ambience of Warmth

Lukewarm responses of the GCC states to the US proposal need to be viewed against the ambience of warmth within the Gulf community towards Iraq. Several of them have begun to re-assess and revive their relationship with Iran and particularly, Iraq. There is a noticeable element of amiability in these gestures which has conspicuously replaced the rhetoric usually lifted from contemporary US State Department judgements over that country and its ruler.

One reason for this change of stand among the Gulf countries could be the general feeling of sympathy towards the Iraqi people who have been made to suffer in the name of UN sanctions for almost a decade and the growing general mood of anger within the Arab fraternity towards the West for holding the entire Iraqi population hostage to achieving its one-point agenda—getting rid of President Saddam Hussein.

Another significant factor, which would have prompted a 'forgive and forget' stand towards the regional powers, Iran and Iraq, is the realisation of their roles in determining the fate of the Gulf region in years to come. All the Arab Gulf states have initiated the challenging task of economic diversification, preparing for the day when oil will alone be unable to provide a satisfactory level of economic prosperity. Also, they are aware of the fact that it is possible that while Gulf oil will remain a major US interest for many decades to come, the degree to which it is a vital interest to the US may diminish gradually with their drying oil reserves. In such a situation, the inter-dependency and co-operation among the Gulf states alone will assure the region stability and a reasonable level of prosperity. The Gulf states are gradually waking up to this reality and the importance of the two prominent regional powers in such a framework.

UAE has been the fourth GCC country to reopen its embassy in Baghdad, after almost a decade, following Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. There are indications about more Gulf countries following suit. Qatar, though a close ally of the US in the Persian Gulf, has sprung a surprise by proposing a UN conference to settle the Iraqi crisis and to draw up a time-table for the gradual lifting of the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq. In fact, the Emir of Qatar has extended an invitation to President Saddam Hussain to the forthcoming summit of the member states of the Organization of Islamic Conference, to be held in Qatar in November, 2000. Kuwait, though reiterating its unwillingness to mend ties with Baghdad until Iraq implements all UN resolutions, has taken a posture that it will not come in the way of restoration of diplomatic ties between other Arab countries and Iraq. Though Kuwait is bitter about the Iraqi response regarding the fate of more than 600 Kuwaitis and third country nationals who went missing during the latter's occupation of Kuwait, it maintains that it never wanted to isolate Iraq from the rest of the world and is willing to help Iraqi brethren in their suffering.

Uneasy Questions

During his tour, Secretary Cohen was discomfited with some questions regarding the concept of the CDI from the Arab media. While addressing a press conference in Manama, Bahrain, he was asked about the timing and motive behind the proposed defence initiative.12 The questioner wanted to know why the US was so keen on such an arrangement almost ten years after the Gulf War, when the Iraqi threat was no longer a reality looming large over the Gulf region. He was drawing attention to the fact that years of 'containment' and the UN sanctions have taken their combined toll on both Iraq and Iran and left both of them much weaker in terms of economy and military potential.

Cohen's response centred around the US speculation in terms of how long Iraq will take to develop certain capabilities with which it can again threaten the region.Another query was about incorporating other neighbouring South Asian regional powers like India and Pakistan into the initiative to give it a wider and more meaningful perspective and a pan-regional acceptance as a general security arrangement 13. The answer skirted the thrust of the question and dealt in detail about how India and Pakistan should work for a peaceful reconciliation among themselves.

Conclusion

Assured flow of cheap Gulf oil is the single-most important determinant of US security interests in the Gulf. And, the short as well as long-term changes in the international oil market will definitely have a profound bearing on the US security role in the Gulf in the decades to come. It is also likely that the US may well re-evaluate the energy assumptions that underpin its strategic policy in the Gulf. There are two likely scenarios. The first is one in which the US interests in the Gulf region will gradually wane with the diminishing oil reserves in the region. In the second scenario, the security, stability and a free access to the remaining oil reserves in the Gulf and the surrounding regions may become so vital in an energy-starved world in the early 21st century that an effective grip over the region would turn out to be crucial for protecting US strategic interests. And, with the changing sentiments in the Gulf towards Iran and Iraq, the theory that they pose the ultimate threat to others in the Gulf may run out of steam gradually.

The proposed Co-operative Defence Initiative appears to fit better in the second scenario. A closer look at the characteristics of the CDI would reveal that, if implemented, it would assure a 'protective shield', ready and operational, for a US-led military operation anywhere in the Gulf region, in future. The US troops would never have to face a situation as they did during 'Desert Storm'. Moreover, the proposed set-up is going to be largely dependent on the American military infrastructure. The partner countries will hardly have any say regarding the utility or exploitation of the system in a crisis situation. Rather, they will render themselves at the mercy and moods of the US for the most vital element of their defence.

Lastly, the partners in the proposed CDI will open up a huge client-base for the US defence industry beginning with the manufacturers of the Patriot missile defence systems. The US defence industry currently enjoys a well protected near-monopoly over the kind of architecture envisaged in the programme, from Active Defence to Medical Counter-measures, a situation which is unlikely to change in the near future.

 

NOTES

1. The text of the speech delivered by the US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright at the ' Conference on American-Iranian Relations' and a following Q&A session on March 17, 2000.

2. Statements made on various occasions by the US Secretary of Defence William S. Cohen during his visit to the Persian Gulf region during April, 2000.

3. "Iran, Iraq pose no threat" Gen. Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai Crown Prince and UAE Defence Minister, Gulf News, November 15, 1999.

4. "Saudi Arabia negates signing new weapons deal" Arabic news.com, Saudi Arabia, Military, April 15, 2000, quoting Prince Sultan Bin Abdel Aziz, Saudi Defence and Aviation Minister.

5. The text of the address delivered by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia while inaugurating the 20th GCC Summit in Riyadh on November 27, 1999, Gulf News, November 28,1999.

6. Ibid at 1 above.

7. "Coming year seen important for US-Iranian ties" Gulf News, March 20,2000, quoting Mohsen Rezari, Secretary of the Expediency Council and former Chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

8. Text of the Press Conference addressed by the US Secretary of Defence William S. Cohen at Abu Dhabi, UAE, on April 10, 2000.

9. Jim Garamone " Co-operative Defence Initiative seeks to save lives", American Forces Press Service, April 10, 2000.

10. Ibid.

11. "Kuwait says it doesn't want to provoke Iraq" Arabic news.com, Kuwait, Politics, April 04, 2000.

12. Text of the News Conference addressed by the US Secretary of Defence William S. Cohen at Manama,, Bahrain on April 08, 2000.

13. Text of the Press Conference addressed by the US Secretary of Defence William S. Cohen at Abu Dhabi, UAE on April 10, 2000.