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Securing the Persian Gulf: Diplomacy, Not Arms

The United States is attempting to assure its client states in the Persian Gulf that arms sales, rather than diplomacy, can secure the region.

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Since the conclusion of the Interim Agreement between Iran and 6 world powers in Geneva, Washington has taken pains to reassure friends and allies in the Persian Gulf that it will not be fooled by the Islamic Republic. Further, the US will continue to bolster both its own military deployments and regional defense capabilities. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel outlined this commitment during a Dec. 7 speech in Bahrain.

Hagel emphasized that:

“The Department of Defense will continue to maintain a strong military posture in the Gulf region, one that can respond swiftly to crisis, deter aggression, and assure our allies;

“…we routinely maintain a naval presence of over 40 ships in the broader region, including a carrier strike group;

“During my last trip to the region, we finalized agreements with nearly $11 billion that will provide access to high-end capabilities; and

“The United States…is committed to supporting the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] as an anchor for regional stability.”

As a psychological exercise, coming in the wake of an earthquake — America’s new willingness to negotiate seriously with Iran and, let us hope, its reciprocation — this US military muscle-flexing is appropriate. But beyond the elusive quality of “reassurance,” to what end?

If Iran does pose a direct threat to the Persian Gulf Arab states, it is hardly likely to be with major military force. That has long been a Chimera, as the most elementary military analysis demonstrates. Iran is not the Soviet Union, with massive strike armies, frontal aviation, and nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. At best, Iran’s military capabilities are fourth- or fifth-rate; even if it obtained a nuclear weapon, all the deployed conventional military power confronting it would not be relevant to whatever demands of deterrence emerged. Deterrence or attack would be the choices, and both would depend on actions by the United States (or Israel). Neither course would depend either on regionally-deployed military power or the defense capabilities of local countries.

The challenge posed by Iran now and in the future, as well as the challenges and opportunities that could flow from the recent opening to Iran, take very different forms:

1) Iran is a vibrant, creative society, which none of the Gulf Arab statelets (or even Saudi Arabia) can begin to match, including because, in the case of most of them, they depend on large proportions of expatriates (from South and East Asia; Palestine) for what they do achieve;

2) following a lifting of sanctions, Iran’s resulting sale of consumer goods to other regional states, backed by its history of marketing success, and thereby a rising economic dependence of local states on Iran;

3) potential cultural penetration, of which appeal to Shiite minorities (or majorities, as in Bahrain) is only one element;

4) rivalry, however small to begin with, for US geopolitical attention — including that already demonstrated by the (2001-2002) complementarity of interests in Afghanistan and potential cooperation in fostering a “stable” Iraq, as well as in ratifying everyone’s common interest in the security of shipping through the Strait of Hormuz;

5) opposition to al-Qaeda and its ilk, whereas individuals in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states support these terrorists; and

6) if Western-Iranian diplomacy succeeds, a potential role in reducing pressures on both the US and Israel regarding Syria, Lebanon, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The US needs to attend to all these challenges and, in the cases of items 4-6, potential opportunities, in terms of America’s interests rather than those of the Persian Gulf Arab states.  US strategy needs to emphasize not its military presence or even loading down the locals with more weapons. Instead, the US should focus on and strengthen its regional diplomatic and economic engagement, including its role as peacemaker across the region. This will be all the more important as a means of demonstrating commitment as US direct dependence on the region’s hydrocarbons diminishes. (At the same time, devotees of the “pivot” to the Far East should take note: due to its own interests, the US can’t leave the Middle East, nor can the Europeans.)

Further, if negotiations with Iran do pay off and sanctions are significantly removed, a non-military US offensive to temper Iranian ambitions would automatically be buttressed by a massive influx of US and other Western firms’ investments into Iran. Already, firms are lining up to get back into Iran when and if the starter’s pistol is fired. This could provide incentives for Iranian “good behavior” that sanctions conspicuously do not.

A further tell-tale is found in what US military planners themselves have said: that the US can strike any target, anywhere, from just about anywhere. A US carrier task force doesn’t need to be close to Iran in order to be there in a few days’ or weeks’ time; air power can be deployed in hours. If the locals believe they need to see large masses of US military power immediately on call, that is in part because we have allowed them to believe that “US presence” and “strategic commitment” must be denominated primarily in military terms. But the world is rapidly moving beyond the value of that proposition; “US engagement” needs to be denominated increasingly in other terms. Indeed, what is “capability,” in whatever terms denominated, unless there is also “intention” to use it?

A lot of what is happening now with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, plus Israel, is due to their worry that they will lose their absolute predominance in American geostrategic attention and might have to share some of it with Iran if the nuclear negotiations bear fruit — perhaps along with other developments. This is a major reason why Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Arab states, and Israel oppose what was achieved in Geneva.

In summary, US strategy regarding partners and allies in the Persian Gulf needs to move beyond the fixation with military instruments and focus more on redeveloping US engagement and commitment in non-military terms. The US should also stop feeding the locals with the myth that arms sales and a US military presence are what it takes for them to be secure and be able to rely on the US.

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs.

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