Theme: The expulsion of the Taliban from Afghanistan and the neo-con fiasco in Iraq have strengthened the role of the Shias and of Iran in the Middle East. Will a new regional war be avoided?
Summary: In recent decades, the Persian Gulf has been one of the regions to have suffered most from armed conflict, the struggle for the control of energy resources, political rivalries and the interference of foreign powers. One of the main challenges facing the US in its position as the global superpower is Iran’s emergence as a key player with ambitions for regional hegemony. With the aim of putting a brake on Teheran’s aspirations, the US could attempt to combine –not without difficulties– two doctrines previously employed with Iran and Iraq: that of a ‘balance of powers’ and that of ‘dual containment’, but this time on a regional scale. A fourth Gulf War could have far more serious consequences for the international system than the three previous wars put together.
Analysis: In recent decades, the Persian Gulf has been one of the regions that has suffered most from armed conflict, the struggle for the control of energy resources, political rivalries and the interference of foreign powers. The triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 provided the Western support that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq needed to start a war against the regime of the ayatollahs. The first Gulf War (1980-88) ended without victors or vanquished, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of lives were sacrificed. In 1990, believing that he would again benefit from Western support, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and attempted to annex it. However, the result was the biggest international coalition in the modern era, leading to his expulsion by force in 1991 during the second Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm). In addition to the victims of this war, the international embargo affecting the Iraqi people from 1990 to 2003 increased the suffering of a population which had been subjected to great hardship at the hands of the country’s own tyrannical regime, causing the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (especially children). In 2003, Saddam Hussein was again the excuse for the US to assemble a less representative coalition than its predecessor, this time more Western than international, with the aim of bringing about a change of regime in Baghdad. Four years on from Saddam’s political elimination and several months after his polemical execution, far from decreasing, instability in the Gulf region has actually become greater.
One of the main challenges facing the US as the global superpower is Iran’s emergence as a key player with ambitions for regional hegemony. The regime of the ayatollahs has always dreamed of extending its influence abroad, but this was not possible while the dictator was alive in Baghdad. Ironically, the Iranian leaders can be grateful to the current leaders of their arch-enemy, the US, for the rise in Shia power in the Middle East. The expulsion of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001 and the scant success of regime change in Iraq have reinforced the role of the Shias throughout the region. The arrival to the Iranian presidency of the populist and defiant Mahmud Ahmadinejad in August 2005 magnified the consequences of altering the balance of power brought about by the Iraqi adventure of George W. Bush’s Administration. Iran’s nuclear ambitions and a number of inflammatory statements by its President, fuelling nationalist sentiment inside the country and seeking to provoke abroad, are maintaining the suspense worldwide in regard to a possible American or Israeli attack on Iranian targets. The question is whether, as occurred in September 1980, August 1990 and March 2003, the errors of judgement and deceitfulness on the part of inept and megalomaniac leaders might take the Gulf to its fourth war, the serious consequences of which would certainly be felt beyond the region itself.
Balance of Power and Dual Containment
For decades now, the strategic objectives of the US in the Persian Gulf have been determined by two factors: oil and the State of Israel. Washington’s main interest in the Gulf region has been, and remains, that of ensuring protection for friendly regimes which, for their part, safeguard the supply of crude oil, its free flow through the Straits of Hormuz, and its trading at a reasonable price on the international market. The long-term objective is the survival of these friendly regimes, which control enormous hydrocarbon reserves. Considerations such as democratic values or respect for human rights have always taken a back seat in relation to energy interests. The second driver underlying American policy in the Middle East is to guarantee the supremacy of the State of Israel as its leading ally and guardian of its interests in the region.
The first Gulf War gave birth to a US-Sunni monarchies-Iraq axis, in which Iraq acted as a brake on Ayatollah Khomeini’s declared intention of spreading the Islamic Revolution. Saddam Hussein thought that external support would guarantee the achievement of his hegemonic projects. However, Washington viewed its strategic partnership with the Iraqi regime from a standpoint embracing ‘preventive war’ against a revolutionary, expansionist Iran which was threatening security in the Gulf and its energy sources. In the context of the Cold War, Iraq was the ‘least-worst option’, and actively supporting it was a means of containing the expansion of Soviet influence. Given the strategic asymmetry and Iraq’s military vulnerability, the US and certain European countries provided it with vital support at certain junctures, both for planning its military operations, and via the provision of arms, including the agents and components required for manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. Saddam’s allies were never happy about his overweening desire to be a key player in the region. With the aim of averting both his victory and his defeat, the US adhered to a policy of ‘balance of power’ with Iraq and Iran. On the one hand, it refrained from condemning the use of chemical weapons by Saddam’s army against Iranian troops and civilians on dozens of occasions (and also against Iraq’s own population). On the other hand, when the theocratic Teheran regime was seriously weakened and facing defeat, certain individuals in Washington did not hesitate to sell arms to it, as revealed when the ‘Iran-Contra’ scandal was uncovered in 1986.
During the 1980s, despite the Iran-Iraq war and occasional attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, oil continued to flow without difficulties, at significantly low prices. With a militarily and economically exhausted Iran, a strongly-armed Saddam expected to be rewarded as the ‘saviour’ of Western and Arab interests. His unskillfulness as a strategist led him to invade another country (Kuwait), and the obstinacy typical of all dogmatic leaders prevented him from acknowledging his mistakes and correcting them in time. The result was the second Gulf War, supported by a broad international consensus and by almost all of Iraq’s neighbours. Although Iraq had attacked four of its neighbours (Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Israel) and despite the fact that Saddam remained a threat to peace and security in the Middle East, the Administration of George H. W. Bush decided to maintain his regime in power, intact although weakened, with the aim of dissuading Iran from reviving its old dreams of becoming a regional power. For its part, the Clinton Administration chose to follow a ‘dual containment’ strategy, the aim of which was to contain Iraqi military capacities whilst simultaneously isolating Iran and limiting its influence in the region. Advantage was not taken of the window of opportunity to seek common ground between Iranian and Western positions following the election of the reformist Mohammed Khatami in 1997, despite the fact that the new President initially enjoyed widespread support from a youthful population seeking change and the country’s opening up to the outside world.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the American interpretation of international policy in black-and-white terms from then on transformed the old strategies of ‘deterrence’ and ‘containment’, typical of the Cold War and a multi-polar world, into new and more aggressive preventive and domineering strategies. Against the backdrop of the ‘global war on terrorism’ declared by President Bush, the neo-cons managed to impose their ‘preventive war’ doctrine, the main aim of which was to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime, seen as a long-term strategic threat to the interests of the US and its allies in the Gulf. The alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq and the regime’s supposed links to international terrorist movements were the excuses employed by those in favour of the war to invade the Arab country in March 2003. It has not taken many years to show that the third Gulf War was based on false motives and that those arguing for the invasion did not tell the truth to the general public. It is significant that Iraq’s neighbouring states, which should have been those most concerned about the threats posed by the country according to the neo-cons, were opposed to the White House’s plans since they believed they placed the region’s stability at risk, a factor considered to be more serious than the continuity or otherwise of Saddam. Of Iraq’s immediate neighbours, only Kuwait joined the US-led coalition, while Turkey, a NATO member, refused to allow its territory to be used for the invasion.
The US aligned itself with Iraq in the 1980s in order to safeguard against expansion of the Islamic radicalism and international terrorism linked to the Iranian regime, a process that would have generated instability in the Gulf and threatened the oil-dependent international economy. It is ironic that two decades later the US attacked Iraq, citing these very same reasons, thereby contributing to increased regional instability as a result of deficient analysis of the situation and even worse execution of its plans. In the Middle East, weapons of mass destruction are like a genie in a bottle: in the first Gulf War, the US helped let the genie out. In the second, it started to put it back in again, while in the third the idea was to screw on the bottle-top and shut the genie in. We now know (although there were already many signs of this at the time) that the there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. The problem is that, given the new balance of power, Iran is now doing everything it can to obtain cutting-edge nuclear technology, officially for peaceful purposes. The alarming thing is that the very same technology could be used for military purposes in the future, meaning that Iran would finally be a regional power, and would have to be consulted on everything. The genie would now appear to be out of the bottle, although this time a very high price will need to be paid to shut it back in again. At the present juncture, the cost of doing so might already be unbearable for the international community and world economy.
A Double Neo-Con Failure
Judging by the neo-cons’ declared objectives, the invasion of Iraq has been a complete failure. Their aim was to replace the Baathist regime with one allied to the US, to convert Iraq into a model of democracy for the entire region and to provide an example for future changes of regime in conflictive countries such as Iran and Syria; all of this with the overarching aim of remodelling the so-called Greater Middle East. Instead of this, Iraq is today an almost failing state, the region’s leading example of internal instability, a contagious focus of ethno-religious radicalism and fertile ground for the advance of violent and Jihadist groups. The altering of the balances of power, both internal and regional, is failing to clear the way for a more stable and peaceful new order in the Middle East. Therefore, the failure of those who defended and waged the war is twofold: within Iraq there is a situation of chaos and generalised violence in spite of the various security plans devised from Washington. For most Iraqis, there is now no greater security, democracy or cohesion in the country than when it was ruled with an iron fist by Saddam Hussein.
The second failure is in regional terms, given the undiminished tension in the last four years and the significant concern regarding the challenge represented by Iranian plans for regional hegemony. A further factor is that the war’s human and economic cost continues to rise, as well as the opposition within the US to the indefinite deployment of its troops in Iraq. If this were not enough, American initiatives to promote democracy have been seriously discredited in the Arab world, just a few years after their launch. There are few positive elements to be found in a country that is today the main international training ground for suicide bombers, the world’s largest producer of car bombs and the regional laboratory for a phenomenon of disintegration that would reap catastrophic results were it to spread.
Altering Balances and the Search for a New Doctrine
The violent shake-up caused by the invasion of Iraq, the continuous process of disintegration the country is suffering and the image of powerlessness projected by the US have led the strategic positions of all the regional players to be in the throes of transformation. They are all currently engaged in attempting to protect their interests, form alliances, avoid potential threats, deter their enemies and increase their ability to influence the new power configuration that is emerging. Given the lack of even minimal cohesion in Iraq, it was inevitable that Iran would try to become a regional power. In fact, both the American strategy of offsetting the forces of Iran and Iraq during the first Gulf War and the doctrine of ‘dual containment’ developed in the wake of the second war were based on this premise. One of the neo-cons’ basic errors when planning the Iraqi invasion was to consider only the scenarios favourable to their positions. There are many now paying the price for this recklessness, starting with the Iraqis themselves, but also including the US, whose interests, credibility and image in the Middle East have been seriously undermined.
The rise in Shia power has stirred up concern in the Sunni Arab countries regarding Iran’s plans and its growing influence inside Iraq and in other parts of the region. On the complex Middle East stage, all conflicts are inter-connected in one way or another, and Iran is increasingly present in the troubled situation in Lebanon and Palestine via its links with Hezbollah and Hamas. Its influence is also rising in Arab countries in the Gulf such as Saudi Arabia (the population of the oil-rich Eastern Province is 75% Shia), Bahrain and Kuwait. Both the US and its regional and international allies have always tried to ensure that there was never too much power concentrated in the hands of a single Gulf country. However, this situation would change if Iran were to become a de facto regional power, especially one with nuclear weapons, with the attached risk of it forming a Shia ‘petrolistan’ in the Gulf to include Iran, southern Iraq, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Certain Sunni countries could choose to support –if they are not doing so already– their fellow Sunni insurgents in Iraq against the Shia-dominated state militias and institutions, turning Iraq into a battlefield between Iran and its Arab neighbours. The fact that this possible conflict could take place on ethno-religious lines should be of concern to countries with significant Shia minorities or those with religiously diverse societies, such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Likewise, the ethnic ambitions linked to increased Kurdish power in northern Iraq are fanning the activism of the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran, a factor that might bring them into conflict with their central authorities, or even lead these countries into conflict with the fractured Iraqi state.
In its attempts to save face in Iraq and deal with growing problems at home, the current US Administration seems to lack a clearly defined set of ideas with which to tackle the difficulties it faces in the Gulf region, or, in more general terms, in the Middle East. According to the National Security Strategy, presented by the White House in March 2006, Iran is the country presenting the greatest challenge to the US. With the aim of blocking Teheran’s ambitions, the US could attempt the far from simple process of combining the two doctrines employed in the past with Iran and Iraq: that of ‘balance of power’ and that of ‘dual containment’, only this time on a regional scale. The repeated recent references of the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to ‘GCC+2’ (the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus Egypt and Jordan) are viewed by a number of observers as evidence that the US wants to create an Arab/Sunni front to offset Persian/Shia influence in the region. Likewise, the idea would be to replace the Arab-Israeli conflict with an Arab-Persian or Sunni-Shia one, as a means of establishing a new regional order in which the emergence of new competitors to Israel would be impossible. This option, although tempting for some, entails a high risk for the stability of the region and of the international system as a whole, as a number of US allies seem to have understood.
There has lately been evidence of distancing between certain pro-Western Arab countries (the so-called ‘moderates’), including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, and the US. The Bush Administration’s forgoing of diplomacy as a means of solving the Israeli-Arab conflicts, its unconditional support for Israeli military operations in Lebanon and Gaza and the very negative perception that Arab populations have of the current Administration, are increasing the level of internal opposition faced by countries that are still allies of Washington. One alarming factor to take into account in this context, absent in its present form during the first Gulf wars, is the transnational Jihadist movement; a global threat which grows stronger in situations of crisis and disorder. Should sectarian violence spread through the Middle East due to the fighting in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, the movement would grow stronger, while the more moderate sectors within these societies, who support dialogue, would be once again silenced.
In the light of the worrying regional outlook, Saudi Arabia has taken up the leadership of the 22 Arab countries and its diplomacy is trying to deactivate the crises afflicting the region. Saudi mediation allowed the Palestinians to reach the Mecca agreement in February, by means of which the Islamic Hamas movement and the nationalist Fatah committed themselves to a government of national unity to bring an end to their violent struggle. By means of this mediation, Saudi Arabia hopes to distance Hamas from Iranian influence, while also winning the approval of Islamic societies as a mediator in disputes affecting them. The Saudis are also trying to pacify the internal Lebanese front through dialogue between the opposing sides and Syria, a country that continues to exert an influence, which is not always positive, on its Western neighbour. But the most ambitious Saudi initiative to date has been to host the 19th summit of the League of Arab States in Riyadh at the end of March of this year. In a gesture of unusual sincerity and self-criticism, the Saudi king declared that the Arab countries are suffering the consequences of the disasters caused by their leaders, but he also criticised his American ally in speaking of the ‘illegitimate foreign occupation of Iraq’, to Washington’s surprise and distaste. The growing importance of Riyadh’s regional role reveals, among other things, Egypt’s declining presence on the regional stage.
One of the main decisions of the Riyadh summit was to re-launch the Arab peace initiative, designed by Saudi Arabia and presented at the Beirut Arab summit in 2002, by means of which all the Arab countries offer full normalisation of their relations with Israel in exchange for the latter’s withdrawal from the territories it occupied during the Six-Day War in 1967. As opposed to the current US Administration’s tendency to ‘resolve’ conflicts by means of the threat of force, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are maintaining communication channels with Iran and its allies in order to avoid open confrontation. This is a process that requires recognising Iran as an influential player, while simultaneously persuading it to join the regional system as a provider of security. The visit of Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar last February reflected the Arab interest in diversifying the sources of support in the face of the ongoing crises in the Middle East, as well as Russia’s desire to play a greater role in security issues and energy policy in this strategic region.
A Tragedy in Three Acts; with Epilogue?
A fourth Gulf War could have far more serious consequences for the international system than the three previous wars put together. Iran’s possible response if the country is attacked is not limited to purely military aspects, but also includes its ability to generate greater regional instability, to interrupt the transport of oil in the Persian Gulf and to launch terrorist attacks abroad. Iran is seeking to increase its status and achieve recognition as an essential player in the search for a comprehensive solution to the region’s conflicts; an aim which, to date, Washington has not appeared to be willing to accept. It is worth noting that both Bush and Ahmadinejad are strongly ideological leaders facing problems at home (the Republican defeat in the US congressional elections in November 2006 and the failure of Ahmadinejad’s protégés in the municipal elections and those for the Assembly of Experts that took place in Iran a month later). This could hinder any plans for an attack to commence the fourth Gulf war, unless one of the principal players should decide to follow a ‘flight forward’ strategy to silence his critics.
The absence of political negotiations, added to a deep distrust and lack of communication, especially between the US and Israel on the one hand and Iran and Syria on the other, mean that these countries are preparing themselves for the worst possible scenario. Mediation on the part of countries which will lose more than they will gain if armed conflict breaks out is therefore vital. Iran and Syria, both together and individually, are part of the problem faced by the US and its allies in the Middle East. It is precisely because of this that they should become part of the solution. This is the opinion of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who visited Damascus at the start of April, and who has hinted that she will visit Teheran to meet with the country’s President. In this context, the EU should ask itself if it is doing everything possible to defend its vital interests in the region.
Conclusion: The present US Administration is probably among those that have least understood the political and social dynamics governing the Middle East. Its foreign policy on Iran has two features that are difficult to reconcile: demanding that the Iranian regime halts its nuclear research programme, specifically in regard to enriching uranium, while simultaneously employing a regime-change rhetoric with regard to Teheran. In other words, it displays a desire to change the very regime that it is requesting to cooperate in good faith. It would be more useful to focus efforts on the first proposition and to work calmly so that the second is achieved from within. Above all, it is necessary to establish a regional security framework in the Gulf, non-existent at present, in which the essential interests of all countries are safeguarded, in such a way that they are not moved to try to defend them unilaterally. If Iran really wants nuclear power for peaceful ends, it should announce quickly that, having achieved its aim of enriching uranium for power generation, it will open up all its facilities to international inspectors. For its part, the international community should support the signing of a treaty to suspend uranium enriching and the reprocessing of plutonium throughout the Middle East, including Israel, which would also provide for the possibility of establishing bilateral monitoring and verification agreements, as well as possible joint management of nuclear technology for civil uses. The Middle East would thus perform an about-turn in its rush towards the abyss, and current political leaders would receive recognition for having saved their peoples from further tragedy and suffering.
Senior Analyst for the Mediterranean and the Arab World, Elcano Royal Institute
 This analysis originally appeared in Spanish in the section ‘Estudios del Real Instituto Elcano’, Política Exterior, nr 117, May-June 2007, pp. 77-85.