Amid increasing tensions between Tehran and Washington
over Iran's nuclear program, 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. armory 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 UN Security Council to address together
with regional states the question of security in the Gulf.
But the U.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.
Recognizing that Iraq's defeat 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 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 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, 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
sheikdom 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
Washington's invasion of Iraq has further fueled 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
defense systems aimed at Iran.
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 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 an 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
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 sheikdoms, 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.