Amid increasing tensions between Tehran and Washington over Iran’s nuclear programme, the George W. Bush administration is courting the Persian/Arab Gulf monarchies with the same proposal it offered them 15 years ago after the first Gulf War — purchase U.S. armoury in the 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 an increasingly unpopular 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 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States was in a unique position to construct an inclusive security architecture for the region. This would have been in line with Security Council Resolution 598, which put an end to the Iraq-Iran war and explicitly called for the U.N. Security Council to address — together with regional states — the question of security in the Gulf.
But the U.S.’s continued presence in the Gulf depended on its military protection of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states against external threats, i.e. Iran and Iraq. 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, the administration of George Bush Sr. feared.
Recognising that Iraq’s defeat provided an opportunity for it to mend fences with Washington and reintegrate itself in to 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 U.S. 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 U.S. By offering the GCC states bilateral security deals, Washington pre-empted 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, in order 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 2.6 million, was from 1994-99 on average more than three times greater than 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 and the Taliban, the GCC states are emerging as the losers of this arrangement.
Under the U.S. security umbrella, the region resembles Europe between the two world wars — it is fundamentally disordered and riddled with uncertainty, negative competition, and massive instability. Rather than providing security, 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 who they still find increasingly unreliable.
Washington’s invasion of Iraq has further fuelled anti-U.S. sentiment in the region and put the Arab regimes’ security alliance with the U.S. under intensified domestic criticism. Furthermore, the Arabs’ nightmare scenario — a U.S.-Iran conflict that would spill over to the Arab states — still 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 convince the Gulf Arabs to purchase U.S. arms to balance the rise of Iran. Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, visited Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman last month to sell the idea of spreading across the region a sophisticated missile defence systems aimed at Iran.
As geo-political 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 number two at Oman’s foreign ministry, told AFP 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 Gulf Cooperation Council 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-II and Track-1.5 informal diplomatic meetings in the region, Arab officials and non-officials have been pressing their Chinese counterparts to take on a greater role in Gulf security matters. China is needed, they argue, to create a balance between the U.S. 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 percent of the world’s oil by 2025, compared to 26 percent 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 reluctant to challenge the U.S., it is difficult to foresee the Asian giants continuing to depend on Washington or elementary regional security mechanisms as a guarantee for regional stability.
Consequently, with or without Washington’s consent, geopolitical forces are making Gulf security matters unlikely to remain solely a U.S. prerogative. The question is how Washington will react to these developments.
The current approach — that of increasing the U.S. 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, critics argue.
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 U.S. has not been on talking terms with since 1980.
But with Wednesday’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.
*Dr. Trita Parsi is the author of “Treacherous Triangle — The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States” (Yale University Press, 2007.) Dr. Trita Parsi