Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Gulf States in the Shadow of Iran. Part I

 

Iranian Ambitions

by Patrick Knapp

1st part of 2

The Obama administration is caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, it has welcomed the Gulf Security Dialogue (GSD) as a chance to further "mutual interests" with Persian Gulf states, but, on the other, it has sought pragmatic engagement with the Islamic Republic—the greatest threat to gulf security. Michael Knights, a Persian Gulf expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted in September that the "rapid advances" of the military forces of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were the result of the dialogue. He predicts that they "may eclipse Iranian capabilities in the gulf within ten years."[1] Yet the GSD's initiatives are inadequate and need a foreign policy that stresses relationships and ideals. If policy within the gulf is to be dominated by short-term pragmatic demands, it may turn out to have unwanted consequences for other alliances in the region. That in turn could well have a negative impact on the United States.

 Twenty percent of the oil traded in the world flows through the Strait of Hormuz every day.[2] Although U.S. politicians may dislike allowing oil to shape foreign policy, control of the strait is no matter of indifference. Closing the strait would cut the gulf's oil traffic in half. Some argue that even discussing such a possibility gives Iran leverage. But that is hypothetical. The real leverage that the Islamic Republic would have if it controlled the strait would be disastrous for the region and the West. The United States needs to wrest back control of the region.

 

The Gulf Security Dialogue

As the Islamic Republic spreads its influence, its immediate hinterland across the gulf is becoming increasingly vulnerable. The gulf is vital to Western oil supplies. When a regime that is utterly dedicated to the destruction of all Western influence and the elimination of the state of Israel has nuclear warheads in its reach, the Western powers need to do something quickly. Doing something means developing policies between the United States on the one hand and the six countries that form the Gulf Cooperation Council on the other.

The principal mechanism through which all seven parties can engage in discussions about security, arms sales, and other relevant issues is the Gulf Security Dialogue, launched in 2006. The GSD was designed to provide a framework within which the United States and its allies can engage in six areas: (1) GCC defense capabilities and interoperability; (2) regional security issues; (3) counter-proliferation; (4) counterterrorism and internal security; (5) critical infrastructure protection; and (6) commitments to Iraq. The question is: Does the Gulf Security Dialogue provide sufficient strength and protection to those most immediately faced with the Iranian threat?

 

Iran Moves into the Gulf

Iranian assertiveness in the Persian Gulf continues to vex the United States and its regional allies. In 1988, as the U.S. Navy escorted commercial traffic through the gulf, an Iranian-laid minefield struck the USS Samuel B. Roberts and wounded ten sailors. The United States retaliated with Operation Praying Mantis, which overwhelmed Iran's naval and coastal facilities.[3] In 2004, Iran's deputy oil minister accused Qatar of producing more than "her right share" from a natural gas field shared with Iran.[4] Three years later, Hossein Shariatmadari, head of the government's flagship publication Kayhan Daily and an appointee of Iranian supreme leader 'Ali Khamenei, wrote that Bahrain was more a province of Iran than an independent country.[5] The theme has persisted in Iranian discourse. Just this past February, for example, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the influential former speaker of the Iranian parliament, repeated Iran's claim to sovereignty over Bahrain.[6]

In 2007, Iran signaled its extraterritorial ambitions by capturing fifteen British sailors in Iraqi waters and holding them for nearly two weeks. Bringing back memories of the capture of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the mass hostage taking that followed, this was also intended to show Iran's heedlessness of international law and its penchant for the humiliation of its enemies.

In January and April of 2008, incidents between U.S. ships and Iranian speedboats highlighted Iran's asymmetric threat to maritime security.[7] In July of 2008, Iran opened a maritime office on the Abu Musa islands, which the United Arab Emirates (UAE) contested. In September of the same year, Iran assigned the 20,000-man Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navy rather than the less confrontational regular navy to Persian Gulf defense and opened a new naval base on the strategic Strait of Hormuz the following month. It has since upgraded its Assalouyeh naval base, establishing "an impenetrable line of defense at the entrance to the Sea of Oman," according to an Iranian admiral.[8]

The IRGC navy alone has more than forty light patrol boats and ten guided missile patrol boats. The regular navy has five mine vessels, six submarines, and twenty-six support ships.[9] Last September it added to its mostly outdated fleet of five major surface combatants by launching the homemade Sina class warship. The mix of past aggression and current military buildup gives weight to an Iranian foreign ministry official's explanation of how Iran would respond to a U.S. attack: "Ballistic missiles would be fired in masses against targets in Arab gulf states and Israel."[10] In June 2009, Mohamed El-Baradei, former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief, summarized the unspoken message Iran would like to send the region: "Don't mess with us; we can have nuclear weapons if we want it."[11]

 

Defending the Persian Gulf

Concern about Persian Gulf security spans administrations. The U.S. Navy enhanced its presence in the gulf in 1970 during Britain's withdrawal from the region. Throughout the 1970s, Washington relied on the "twin pillars" of Iran and Saudi Arabia to police the Persian Gulf and check the pan-Arabism of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. But it was only in 1987, when the U.S. Navy launched Operation Earnest Will to reflag Kuwaiti tankers traversing the Strait of Hormuz, that the United States used direct military force to protect the gulf.[12] Three years later, the United States responded to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait with a massive buildup of forces.

In the wake of the 1991 Operation Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait, Washington ditched its old "balance of power game"[13] for dual containment, an attempt to isolate and weaken economically the aggressive regimes in Iran and Iraq. The U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf rose through the 1990s as Iraqi president Saddam Hussein defied U.N. Security Council resolutions, and the Islamic Republic used proxy groups to threaten regional security. In 1995, the U.S. Navy assigned its Fifth Fleet to the naval support activity base in Bahrain—a base which it had used in one capacity or another for a half century. By 2003, the United States share of the Persian Gulf's arms supplier market reached an unprecedented high.[14] The 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq raised the U.S. partnership with the GCC states to a new level. Qatar continues to host a regional headquarters for U.S. Central Command,[15] and Kuwait enables the Pentagon both to base and transit troops through the country.[16]

This may give the impression of secure alliances and strong collaboration, but the truth is that the GCC states are vulnerable. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, none have strategic depth. Their armies are small: Iran's army has a total manpower of more than 540,000 compared to a combined GCC total of 176,500.[17] While Iraq today is no longer a military threat, Kuwait's 1990 capitulation in the face of an Iraqi invasion in less than a day underscores the difficulty any GCC state would have against a determined onslaught. Nuclear armament could enable Tehran to "dictate oil policy" and "embolden extremist groups," according to Tariq Khaitous, a Middle East security expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.[18]

President Bill Clinton's 1999 Cooperative Defense Initiative (CDI) was an effort to minimize these weaknesses by increasing defense integration and information sharing between GCC states, Egypt, and Jordan. It proposed enhancing active and passive defenses by promoting bilateral and multilateral initiatives. The CDI identified Iraq and Iran as major threats to the region and emphasized vulnerabilities to ground invasions, missile strikes, and chemical or biological attacks.[19] With the CDI's prodding, all six GCC states signed a joint defense pact in December 2000.[20] Yet cost concerns and differences in threat perception limited the follow-through. Even after Saddam's removal, pledges to triple the joint-force's troop strength and develop shared early warning systems have remained unfulfilled.

On May 12, 2006, the State Department announced that Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs John Hillen was to visit the Persian Gulf "to discuss regional security and defense cooperation with friends in the region."[21] This marked the beginning of the U.S.-GCC Gulf Security Dialogue, which Hillen characterized as "defensive, defensive, defensive."[22] Talks between U.S. and GCC security officials continued the following October when the United States led naval exercises in the Persian Gulf with Bahrain's unprecedented participation.[23] That November, Hillen said the dialogue was "not part of any big picture reexamination of the Middle East strategy." Rather, it was a revamped commitment to "missile defense" and "boosting the capabilities of U.S. allies."[24]

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has defined the six pillars of the Gulf Security Dialogue as defense cooperation, rehabilitation of Iraq, regional stability, energy infrastructure security, counter-proliferation, and counterterrorism.[25] These pillars renew the Clinton Cooperative Defense Initiative's goals, such as improving missile defense and systems integration. But more importantly, they put the talks into a post-9/11, post-Saddam context in which Iran—with its nuclear program and support for terrorists—is seen as the main threat to gulf security. Even if Iranian missiles and terrorist attacks are not aimed directly at the gulf states, their destabilizing threat to the Middle East as a whole is unsettling enough. As Iran's regional aggression grows, so does the need to strengthen the GSD's pillars.

 

The Dialogue Becomes Reality

Signs of the Gulf Security Dialogue's implementation came in early 2007 when the Bush administration announced it would send a second U.S. aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf, extend the deployment of Patriot antimissile batteries in Kuwait and Qatar, and increase intelligence sharing with the Persian Gulf states.[26] Annual multilateral exercises in the spring of 2007 offered an opportunity to put the GSD's goals of interoperability and information-sharing into action. These included the world's largest mine countermeasure exercise (Arabian Gauntlet in Bahrain) and a missile defense operation with full GCC participation (Eagle Resolve in Qatar). These exercises fit Secretary Gates's vision of the GSD as "a strategic framework designed to enhance and strengthen regional security."[27]

As part of the GSD, President George W. Bush's administration announced US$20 billion in arms deals for the Persian Gulf states in July 2007,[28] a huge upgrade given that the total value of U.S.-delivered arms and services to GCC states had been $72 billion between 1981 and 2006.[29] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the proposal, saying that "the United States is determined to assure our allies that we are going to be reliable in helping them to meet their security needs."[30] In the following months, Saudi Arabia ordered more than $1 billion in vehicles and radar equipment, and Kuwait bought over $1.3 billion worth of Patriot advanced capability (PAC-3) air defense missiles.[31] In 2008, the United Arab Emirates ordered a $7 billion missile defense system never before sold to another country.[32] Together, such sales give the GCC an edge against Iran.[33]

However, delivery of much of this equipment is still pending. The Arms Export Control Act requires the president to notify Congress thirty days before finalizing arms deals and allows Congress to block deals up until the point of delivery. In addition to its PAC-3 order, Kuwait is awaiting three L-110-30 aircraft (commercial versions of the C-130 Hercules), thousands of radio frequency missiles, and related training and services. Meanwhile, the delivery of the UAE's missile defense system may not be complete until 2015.[34] Seeking to block the proposed sale of 900 satellite-guided joint direct attack munitions kits to Saudi Arabia, Senator Charles Schumer said in May 2008, "To most Americans, a well-armed Saudi Arabia is far less important than a reasonable price for gasoline, heating oil, and all other products upon which oil is based."[35]

The collective nature of the dialogue is also important because these arms sales are wasteful if Washington does not use its political capital to demand interoperable systems and joint-training programs. Three years into the Gulf Security Dialogue, there are signs that joint defense cooperation is taking root. In June, Gates praised "the unprecedented cooperation between the nations of the gulf."[36] Indeed, GCC states are pursuing shared early warning and active defense systems, increasing membership in U.S.-backed nonproliferation efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, signing energy memoranda of understanding, and building on joint exercises like January's joint combined security exercise in Kuwait.[37]

Another key component of the dialogue is psychological. The Bush administration used the Gulf Security Dialogue "to convey the U.S. commitment to the peace and security of our GCC allies as well as encourage regional partners to take the steps necessary to address regional challenges."[38] Reinforcing U.S. commitment to defense of the GCC would cement alliances and give the regional Arab leaders the security to side with the United States. As President Bush explained in his 2008 state of the union address, "We will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf."[39] These vital interests are collective. Just as Bush declared a free Iraq to be "a friend of America, a partner in fighting terror, and a source of stability in a dangerous part of the world,"[40] so too is a GCC united against Iranian schemes on the Persian Gulf.

Such moral clarity helps dispel the competitive monarchies' natural aversion to defense cooperation. Al-Ubeid air base in Qatar and its logistics hub in Kuwait, for example, are crucial for operations in Iraq but would not exist if their host states did not sense a U.S. commitment to solidarity against mutual threats. Bilateral arms deals, too, are precursors to multilateral cooperation: "We sell stuff to build relationships," said Vice Admiral Jeffrey Wieringa, head of the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency.[41] As Iran increasingly meddles in the region, trust-building between the United States and its GCC allies grows even more important.

 

Patrick Knapp
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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