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    Middle East
     Apr 27, 2006
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 "threat".

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 nuclear-weapons drive.

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 medium terms.

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 most part.

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 Iran.

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.

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