Gulf widens between US and
sheikhdoms By Trita Parsi
WASHINGTON - Amid
increasing tensions between Tehran and Washington over
Iran's nuclear program, the administration of US
President George W Bush is courting the Gulf monarchies
with the same proposal it offered them 15 years
ago after the first Gulf War - purchase US weapons
worth billions, and Washington will protect you
against your Persian nemesis.
But today, the Arab monarchies are
less than enthusiastic about putting their security solely
in the hands of the United States. With
China's dependence on Gulf energy increasing and
with the inevitable rise of Iran, the Arabs are
eyeing other alternatives.
After the Gulf
War, the US was in a unique position to construct
an inclusive security architecture for the region.
This would have
in line with United Nations Security Council
Resolution 598, which put an end to the Iran-Iraq
War and explicitly called for the Security Council
to address - together with regional states - the
question of security in the Persian Gulf.
But the United States' continued presence
in the Gulf depended on its military protection of
the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states against
external threats, that is, Iran and Iraq. The administration
of president George H W Bush
feared that a common security arrangement that included
Iran could lessen the Arab states' dependence on
Washington, give the leadership in
Tehran undue influence and undermine the justification
for Washington's military presence in the Gulf.
Recognizing that Iraq's defeat in 1991
provided an opportunity for it to mend fences with
Washington and reintegrate itself into the
region's political order, Iran aggressively pushed
for a common security system that could end the
perpetual insecurity that put a dark shadow over
the energy-rich region.
But Iran was no
match for the US at its unipolar moment.
Washington defined the options facing the GCC - to
seek a Middle East order with Iran, or an Arab
order with the US. By offering the GCC states
bilateral security deals, Washington preempted an
inclusive Gulf security arrangement and managed to
keep the mullahs in Tehran isolated.
Rather than increasing security through
confidence-building measures and intensified and
sustained diplomacy, the Arabs armed themselves to
the teeth with Washington's blessing, to contain
what was referred to as the "Iranian threat" - even
though the Arabs vastly outspent Iran on arms.
For instance, the military expenditure of
the United Arab Emirates, an Arab sheikhdom with a
population of just 2.6 million, was during 1994-99
on average more than three times that of Iran,
whose population numbered closer to 65 million.
The Arab states' aggressive armament
contributed to Iran's insecurity, which in turn
increased tensions between the two sides of the
Gulf and undermined the security of the region.
Fifteen years later, with Iran's influence
rising thanks to Washington's elimination of
Tehran's two regional foes, Saddam Hussein and the
Taliban, the GCC states are emerging as the losers
of this arrangement.
Under the US security
umbrella, the region resembles Europe between the
two World Wars - it is fundamentally disordered
and riddled with uncertainty, negative competition
and massive instability. The absence of an
inclusive security arrangement has only increased
anticipation of forthcoming insecurity and
warfare, while making the Arab states beholden to
a security arrangement with an ally that they
can't do without, but which they find increasingly
Washington's invasion of Iraq
has fueled anti-US sentiment in the region and put
the Arab regimes' security alliance with the US
under intensified domestic criticism. Furthermore,
the Arabs' nightmare scenario - a US-Iran conflict
that would spill over to the Arab states - looms
large. Combined with Washington's criticism of the
lack of democracy in the Arab kingdoms, the common
interests between the guarantor of Gulf security
and the supposed benefactors of this umbrella are
no longer as clear-cut.
In spite of this,
the Bush administration is yet again seeking to
persuade the Gulf Arabs to purchase more US arms
to balance the rise of Iran. Robert Joseph, under
secretary of state for arms control and
international security, visited Saudi Arabia,
Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman last
month to sell the idea of spreading across the
region a sophisticated missile-defense system.
As geopolitical forces have worked to the
disadvantage of the Arabs, previously unattractive
solutions have begun to be seen in a new light.
Recently, Arab leaders broke with tradition and
voiced support for the idea of a collective
security architecture for the region - that
includes Iran. In particular, the Arabs are
growing increasingly frustrated with Washington's
reluctance to talk directly with Iran.
"How can I find a solution in the absence
of direct discussions?" Sayyid Badr bin Hamad bin
Hamoud al-Busaidi, the No 2 at Oman's Foreign
Ministry, told a news service this month. "Direct
dialogue between all parties is important. Between
all parties," the Omani official stressed.
At the 2004 Gulf Dialogue in Bahrain,
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal declared
that there was urgent need "for a collective
effort aimed at developing a new and more solid
framework for Gulf security".
In the Saudi
minister's view, the security arrangement would go
beyond the GCC states and include "a prosperous
Yemen, a stable Iraq, and a friendly Iran", and be
underpinned by guarantees provided by the
international community as a whole rather than by
just "the only superpower in the world".
At recent Track 2 and Track 1.5 informal
diplomatic meetings in the region, Arab officials
and non-officials have pressed their Chinese
counterparts to take on a greater role in Gulf
security matters. China is needed, they argue, to
create a balance between the US and Iran.
The Arabs believe that the geopolitical
significance of the Gulf region will increase
substantially over the next decades as the energy
demands of China and India skyrocket. The region
is expected to supply 32% of the world's oil by
2025, compared with 26% today. As the Asian
economies become increasingly dependent on Gulf
oil, China, Japan and India will develop a stake
in Gulf security and an interest in protecting
their energy supply lines, the reasoning goes.
Though they are reluctant to challenge the
US, it is difficult to foresee the Asian giants
continuing to depend on Washington or elementary
regional security mechanisms as a guarantee for
Consequently, with or
without Washington's consent, geopolitical forces
are making Gulf security matters unlikely to
remain solely a US prerogative. The question is
how Washington will react to these developments.
The current approach - that of increasing
the US security burden by setting up military
bases in Iraq and by insisting on an arrangement
that the Arabs are growing increasingly
uncomfortable with - risks widening the gulf
between Washington and the Arab sheikhdoms,
An alternative approach
could be to welcome the opportunity to lessen
Washington's security burden in the Gulf and take
the lead in creating an inclusive regional
security architecture. Thus far, the Bush
administration has shown little interest in such a
solution, since it would require the participation
of Iran, a country the US has not been on talking
terms with since 1980.
But with last
week's announcement that the Bush administration
would be willing to join multilateral talks with
the Iranians - albeit with preconditions - perhaps
an opportunity will emerge to address the future
of the Gulf as well.
is a Middle East specialist at Johns Hopkins
University School of Advanced International
Studies and author of Treacherous Triangle:
The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United
States (Yale University Press, 2007).