U.S. Competition with Iran – The Gulf States

Published: February 29, 2012

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Editor’s Note:

Earlier this week SUSRIS provided a compilation of resources that provide context and background on the unfolding challenge posed by the Iranian nuclear development program and the responses being forged by the international community. Among the references and resources shared in that item [“Understanding the Military Equation in the Gulf” – SUSRIS – Feb 26, 2012] were two comprehensive reports from Dr. Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and his colleagues. Today we provide a postscript noting the release of a new report from CSIS titled, “U.S. And Iranian Strategic Competition: The Role Of The Southern Gulf States And Yemen.” In addition to the U.S. strategic partnership with the Gulf States there is extensive discussion of Saudi-Iranian competition that helps to frame an understanding of the regional security issues faced by Saudi Arabia and the United States.

The US Strategic Partnership with the Gulf States

“The U.S. has three main priorities in working with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to compete with Iran: first, to secure the stability of energy exports and trade through the Strait of Hormuz; second, to protect its allies; and third, to deal with the broader threat of extremism and terrorism in the region. The U.S. works with major actors like Saudi Arabia – as well as with the smaller Gulf states – where it has military bases and power projection capabilities. The U.S. seeks to maintain a balance of power in the region that keeps Iran from playing a lead role in regional affairs.”

Saudi Arabia

“Saudi Arabia is the most important US ally in the Gulf. This does not mean that Saudi interests always coincide with those of the U.S. It does mean that the US and Saudi Arabia share vital common interests in limiting and containing Iran, and in ensuring the security of the Gulf and stable flow of Gulf oil exports. This relationship is reinforced by a long history of US and Saudi military cooperation. Both the US and Saudi Arabia have common interests in dealing with the challenges of terrorism and the stability of Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and the Red Sea. While both countries are divided in their approach to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, they share a common interest in ending and removing it as a cause for extremist action and a political tool that Iran can exploit in dealing with Lebanon, the Palestinians, and Arab popular anger. The end result is a complex set of relations shaped largely by Saudi competition with Iran.”

The introduction to this new assessment, which was provided by email on February 28, 2012, is provided below along with links to the main document and related reports. More reference materials and resources are identified on the SUSRIS Special Section “Challenge of Iran – 2012.” Additional materials will be added to the special section as they are released. Readers who follow SUSRIS via Twitter [@saudius] will be advised as the section is updated.

[LINK to “U.S. And Iranian Strategic Competition: The Role Of The Southern Gulf States And Yemen”]


U.S. And Iranian Strategic Competition: The Role Of The Southern Gulf States And Yemen
By Anthony H. Cordesman, Peter Alsis and Marissa Allison
February 28, 2012

The Gulf is the strategic center of the competition between the U.S. and Iran. The stability of the Gulf is critical to the global economy, as roughly 40 percent of the world’s oil and product trade is exported from the Gulf. Most of this goes through the Strait of Hormuz, which at its narrowest point is just 21 miles wide. This makes the U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states a key factor in the U.S. competition with Iran as well as a vital U.S. national security interest.

These issues are laid out in detail in a new analysis by CSIS entitled U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Role of the Southern Gulf States and Yemen. This analysis is available at [this link].  It is part of the Burke Chair project analyzing U.S. strategic competition with Iran, funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation.

This analysis examines each Southern Gulf state in turn, as well as the role of the Gulf cooperation council (GCC). It shows that the U.S. is already seeking to strengthen its military partnership with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies in an effort to decrease the threat of terrorist activity and to combat Iranian influence.

The U.S. and its Gulf allies must be ready to deal with the fact that the strategic competition with Iran will continue to intensify. This means the U.S. must work with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to deal with factors like the uncertain character of the future Iraqi government, the effect of international sanctions on Iran’s policy calculus, Saudi succession, developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict, global economic stability, and what emerges in several key states in the aftermath of regional Arab unrest.

In spite of these uncertainties, it seems likely that the competition will play out in much the same way as it has in recent years. Bilateral relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be characterized by public accommodation, with periodic moments of heightened tension, and underscored by fundamental distrust and competition in the economic, political, and military realms. Iran will continue to exploit divisions between the Gulf States in order to gain influence and undermine the U.S. policy of military and security cooperation in the Gulf.

The U.S. will continue to strengthen its military partnership with Gulf States in ways based on a mutual interest in deterring the Iranian threat. In order to achieve this, the U.S. will continue to supply the Saudis and other GCC states with counters to Iran’s growing naval asymmetric and missile capabilities. This means new arms transfers including missile defense systems and ongoing cooperation with all Gulf states. It also means that unless Iran gives up its nuclear and missile programs, the U.S. must be ready to offer a tangible and credible form of extended deterrence, or accept the fact that Arab Gulf powers like Saudi Arabia may seek their own nuclear deterrent.

It is important to stress, however, that the success of U.S. efforts depends on treating the Arab Gulf states, other key Arab states, and other regional powers like Turkey as real partners. The U.S. cannot simply count on friendly regional states to follow its lead, particularly as the level of confrontation increase as does the risk of war. The U.S. cannot count on access to Gulf bases, or the support of Gulf governments and military forces, unless it constantly engages each Southern Gulf government, and shows its leaders and senior officers that the U.S. is committed to giving them as much military effectiveness and responsibility for their own security as possible.

The U.S. should do everything possible to support the new GCC initiative to strengthen the integration and interoperability of Gulf military forces put forward by King Abdullah at the December 2012 GCC Ministerial. It means that U.S. arms transfer must be a means to the end of enhanced Gulf security and not a means of increasing U.S. sales or dependence on the U.S. These are the current goals in U.S. policy, but the U.S. needs to make unambiguously clear that it is serious in pursuing them at every level.

There are five other critical aspects to U.S. policy dealing with the Arab Gulf states and other friendly Arab states. The first is preparing for the possible use of force in the Gulf. As our analysis of Iranian conventional and asymmetric forces in this series makes all too clear, the U.S. and Arab Gulf states may be forced into military encounters in the Gulf as the new sanctions take hold. The U.S. must be ready to show every Gulf State it will act immediately to protect them, but also show that it will only escalate as far as it is forced to do so. This reflects the plans and advice of U.S. senior officials and officers, and the Obama Administration to date. Unfortunately, the political rhetoric in a U.S. election year can be more reckless and extreme. Most Gulf officials and officers understand this, but this again calls for as much engagement between the U.S. and its Gulf partners as possible.

The second is coming to grips with the issue of preventive strikes. The U.S. cannot stop Israel from acting unilaterally and the U.S. has made it clear at every level to Israel’s leaders that Israel would face an American “red light” and opposition if it did so. The U.S. must again engage its Gulf allies, however, and make the U.S. position equally clear to them. It must consult on at least a “what if level” and do what it can to defuse the problems and anger that will result even if Israel has a high degree of success.

The U.S. also, however, must begin a similar “what if” level of dialogue over the future need for U.S. preventive strikes if Iran moves from its present “threshold” posture to testing or deploying nuclear weapons. The analysis of Iranian nuclear programs in this series explores the risks and trade-offs of such an action in detail.

It is clear that any such action is a last resort compared to diplomacy and sanctions, and it is equally clear that if the U.S. does pursue this course, it will be far more effective if it has the support of at least some key Gulf states, and can maintain a persistent strike and restrike capability from forward bases in the Gulf. Any such dialog must be as secret and invisible as possible, but it needs to occur. The U.S. cannot trust in the pace of events to substitute for the kind of dialog – and high level transparency regarding intelligence on Iran’s actions and why such a strike is necessary — that makes partnership real and can build real world contingency capabilities.

Third, the U.S. needs to work closely with its Southern Gulf allies and key states like Jordan in seeking to deal with the problems caused by the ongoing political upheaval in the Arab world, and the near paralysis of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Iran is only one issue in a region in turmoil. Iraq and Syria are also areas where the U.S. needs to work as closely with Arab partners as possible. The future of Egypt and Jordan are other key areas for cooperation, and ones where the U.S. must do everything possible to preserve the Camp David accords. This does not mean sacrificing Israel’s vital interests in any way, and friendly Gulf governments understand that the U.S. will never make a choice between them and Israel, but it does mean that the U.S. cannot abandon or pause its peace efforts.

Fourth, as is described in detail in another analysis in this series, U.S. and Gulf competition for influence in Iraq — both economically and militarily — will be a critical new dimension in competing with Iran. This competition is evolving rapidly now that the U.S. military has withdrawn from Iraq, and threatens to spiral out of control into a Sunni and Shi’ite power struggle and possibly a new round of ethnic conflict. The U.S. cannot afford to focus on Iran to the exclusion of Iraq, and it is all too clear that it no longer has the lead in Iraq affairs. If it cannot find ways to work with friendly Arab states and Turkey, its position is likely to steadily erode, and Iraq too drifts towards a steady increase in Iranian influence.

Finally, the U.S. needs to be cautious in dealing with the internal problems of friendly Arab states. This does not mean abandoning its concern for human rights and increased movement towards democracy. It does mean a pragmatic focus on evolutionary change, on working at the pace that each state can move forward, and recognizing the need given states have for security and stability in a time of intense unrest. Finding the right balance will be difficult and often require the kind of constant recalibration of U.S. efforts that must rely on a strong U.S. embassy and county team.

It means being acutely sensitive to local values and needs, and the fact that no country in the region can become a mirror image of U.S. systems and values. It also means dealing with counterterrorism in ways that build up local capabilities as much as possible, keep American hardline rhetoric and ideology to a minimum, and above all show respect for Islam. The U.S. cannot succeed in competition with Iran if it confuses the acts of a small minority of terrorists and extremist who launch far more attacks on their fellow Muslims than on the U.S. and the West with some form of Islamic threat. It cannot succeed if it leaves the impression that it is at war with Islam rather than with terrorists.

The analysis is made possible through the funding of the Smith Richardson Foundation. Part I of a comprehensive analysis of Iran’s military capabilities and its impact on the risk of conflict in the Gulf and the Middle East.The second volume is entitled “Iran and the Gulf Military Balance II: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions.”

Both reports are working drafts of chapters in a comprehensive survey of U.S. and Iranian competition made possible through the funding of the Smith Richardson Foundation, and which are to be published as an electronic book in early March. Comments and suggestions would be most helpful. They should be sent to Anthony H. Cordesman at acordesman@gmail.com.

[LINK to “U.S. And Iranian Strategic Competition: The Role Of The Southern Gulf States And Yemen”]

This Chapter is part of a larger work on US competition with Iran. The rest of the book can be found below:


Related Items:

On SUSRIS.com and SUSRISblog.com


Reference Material

In the Media

*February 2012*


Articles and Interviews on SUSRIS by and with Anthony Cordesman