Iran, US in tug of war over Middle East By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Recently, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated that the US missions in
Iraq and Afghanistan were necessary to contain the threat "emanating from
Iran". Whatever else, this pretty much seals the fate of the so-called "exit
strategy" and the occasional public relations statements by the White House
that US forces will leave the region in the near future.
In turn, this raises an important question: Is the US strategy of containing
Iran a convenient facade for superpower hegemony bent on dominating the
oil-rich region? In probing for an answer, history is rather instructive,
reminding one of the Kuwait crisis
and then-president George H W Bush's promise that "our purpose is purely
temporary" and that US forces would depart.
Well, that was in 1990, and 16 years later there is absolutely no sign that the
United States has any intention of vacating its formidable military presence,
which includes "over the horizon" forces on the island of Diego Garcia in the
Indian Ocean. Instead, in addition to building several large military
bases in Iraq, the US military has beefed up its presence in various
southern Persian Gulf states that are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council
(GCC). In her recent trip to the GCC countries, US Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice once again warned the oil sheikhdoms about Iran's
The GCC is a regional organization involving the six Persian Gulf Arab states.
Created on May 25, 1981, the council comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar,
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These countries are in turn all
members of the 22-member Arab League, of which Iran is not a member.
Responding to the US moves, the Iranian leadership has been busy, dispatching
such high-level officials as former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and the
speaker of the majlis (parliament) to the GCC region, assuring them of Iran's
good-neighborly intentions. Thus, during his trip to Kuwait, Rafsanjani sold
the idea of a nuclear Iran as a common good for all Muslim states.
This author recalls that at a 1991 conference on Persian Gulf security held
at the Institute for Political and International Studies, a Tehran think
tank, then-president Rafsanjani unveiled for the first time Iran's idea of
"collective security" in the Persian Gulf.
Since then, pursuant to this rather lofty objective, which flies in the face of
the United States' military bilateralism in the Gulf region, Iran has signed
low-security agreements with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, and is about to
sign a similar one with Bahrain.
These agreements call for cooperation against smuggling, and implicitly
envisage some future cooperation on broader security issues. Recently, Iran's
military leaders announced Iran's readiness to cooperate with the GCC states on
the issue of regional security. So far, pressured by the United States, the GCC
states have not taken up Iran's offer, and the prospect for full-scale Iran-GCC
security cooperation looks dim as long as GCC politics are dominated by the US.
In a sense, the GCC states are caught between the rock of US hegemony and the
hard place of Iranian power, and that means a constant juggling act that
simultaneously has to satisfy the antagonistic powers of the US and Iran, in
light of the fact that with the vacuum of Iraqi power, the pendulum in terms of
regional balance of power has shifted in Iran's favor.
According to some GCC policy analysts, the United States is exploiting the
nuclear crisis over Iran to scare the GCC states away from Tehran's influence
and more and more into the protective power of the US. This is why there has
been no great alarm on the part of the GCC states about Iran's alleged
Of course, these states and their conservative leaderships remain jittery about
the nuclear standoff and the potential for another war in the war-weary region,
but we have yet to see them, or the Saudi leadership, echoing the United
States' alarmist attitude with regard to Iran's so-called "nuclear ambitions".
Interestingly, in light of Iran's recent announcement of having mastered the
nuclear-fuel cycle and thus joined the "nuclear club", the US has revised its
estimate of how long before Iran could have its own bombs, now stating
that it is a decade or longer away.
One clear implication of the United States' new estimate is the effect it may
have on the power perception of Iran in the Persian Gulf region, which has
become the theater of ongoing US-Iran games of strategy: the GCC states are
less inclined to get near Iran if they are convinced that Iran is either
bluffing or more years away from having nuclear-weapons potential than they had
been led to believe by Tehran.
In the ebb and flow of this dialectical game of strategy, where both sides
jockey for influence and allies, Iran has a set of advantages, including an
increasingly muscular naval force, as well as disadvantages, such as the
inferiority of its air force compared with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which
has a fleet of F-16s, much to the envy of Tehran (see
Jets and politics in the Persian Gulf,
Asia Times Online, August 27, 2004).
Inserted in the regional military balance, then, is the Iranian nuclear-weapon
potential, which simultaneously operates for and against Iran, in terms of the
willingness of the GCC states to cooperate with Iran. In a word, the nuclear
question has a contradictory effect, causing a distancing of GCC states from
Iran, which is why the Iranian government has been so keen on sending warm
signals to the GCC.
Crisis and Iran-GCC relations
In view of possible US-inspired financial sanctions on Iran as punishment for
its nuclear program, prompting Iran's diversion of its capital from Europe to
certain GCC states, the latter's position with regard to the escalating nuclear
crisis is becoming key to how this crisis will be played out in the short and
Last month, the United Nations Security Council passed a statement asking
International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei to report
simultaneously to the council and the IAEA board by April 28 on whether Iran
had halted enriching uranium, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear
warheads. To date, Tehran has refused to do so. The next step would be
consideration of imposing sanctions.
But without the Security Council's backing - which is quite unlikely given
Russia's and China's reluctance - a sanctions regime by the US and its
"coalition of willing" will be a tough sell in the GCC states, as this would
jeopardize their relations with Iran and thus harm them financially,
economically and security-wise.
Hence we should not expect anything more than token gestures by the GCC states
that would not fundamentally alter their burgeoning economic relations with
Iran. In other words, the current attempts by the US to enroll the GCC states
as future members of a "coalition of willing" against Iran are doomed, for the
The GCC states are keenly aware of the protean value of Iran's new political
militancy geared against Israel, which appeals to the "Arab street", and they
would be risking their political legitimacy if they bandwagoned with the US
against their Islamic brethren in Iran.
For the moment, Iran has refrained from any overt criticism of the GCC states,
confining itself to the carrot policy of cooperation and enhanced ties, such as
by reaching a new understanding with Qatar on shared gas deposits in the
Persian Gulf, yet at any moment Iran may switch to the stick of threats should
it feel a more overt pro-US drift on the part of certain GCC leaders.
At the same time, given the prospect of greater international pressure on Iran
in the coming months over the nuclear issue, Iran's dependency on the GCC
"outlet" will increase, thereby allowing a greater maneuverability on the GCC's
part to make demands on Iran, such as with respect to the contested issue of
Iran's possession of the three islands of Amu Mussa, Little Tunb and Big Tunb.
A quid pro quo, whereby Iran would consent to a more flexible "sharing" of Abu
Mussa in return for the GCC's reluctance to join the United States' global
strategy against Iran, is possible.
But that is future thinking, and right now no one in the region is taking the
US threat of military strikes against Iran too seriously, since they know well
that the risks to the global oil market are simply too high to allow it to
happen. Already, with Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries prices
above US$70 a barrel, caused in part by concerns over the Iran nuclear crisis,
there has been a sufficient wake-up call to the Western public, particularly in
the US, that this may well reach $100 a barrel the moment bombs are dropped on
This, in turn, has allowed Iran to continue its "nuclear poker", considered
brinkmanship by certain analysts and media pundits, even though on the face of
it Iran's exercise of its right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to acquire
full nuclear technology under the IAEA's inspection regime can hardly be called
"aggression" or "defiance".
It remains to be seen how far the present crisis will degenerate, and whether
or not political economy standards will outweigh the purely security
considerations on the part of the US and Europe. We may not need to wait for
posterity for answers, as the next few months will be highly revealing of the
stark alternatives posed by this dangerous crisis.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume
XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He is also author of
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.