The Changing Gulf Balance and the Iranian Threat

While much of the world’s attention is focused on ISIS and on terrorism, massive changes are taking place in the military balance of the Gulf, the Iranian threat, and the nature of U.S. and Arab Gulf forces.

The Changing Balance in the Gulf

The classic military balance in the Gulf region is driven by an accelerating arms race between Iran and its Arab Gulf Neighbors. The Arab countries are decisively winning this arms race. This aspect of the balance is also shaped by outside forces, particularly by the level of U.S. commitment and power projection capability to assisting its Arab security partners, although Russia and China are potential wild cards.

The balance, however, is also increasingly shaped by internal conflicts and divisions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and the impact of “failed state wars” on the relative strategic influence of Iran versus other Arab states and the United States.

It is also shaped by Iran’s steadily improving capabilities for asymmetric warfare in supporting pro-Iran elements in Arab states, in developing the capability to threaten maritime traffic in and near the Gulf, and to pose a ballistic and cruise missile threat to its Arab neighbors that compensates for its limited conventional capabilities.

The threat of violent religious extremism, and the growing impact of non-state actors pose yet another major set of threats, and make counterterrorism and counterinsurgency increasingly important aspects of the military balance.

At the same time, the P5+1 (JCPOA) nuclear agreement with Iran delays, but does not end the nuclear and WMD competition between Iran and its Arab neighbors and the United States.

The end result seems to be a high level of mutual deterrence between regional states, mixed with extremist challenges by non-state actors that do not show any such restraint. This does not, however, prevent threats to use force by state actors in “wars of intimidation,” low level incidents, or proxy wars in competing to support other forces.

It is also a complex mix of different and asymmetric forces, and possible approaches to warfighting, that creates a significant risk for a Arab-Iranian conflict to start or to escalate through miscalculation in unpredictable ways. The resulting risk of conflict is also driven by the actions of non-state actors and violent extremists and the uncertain internal stability of many regional states.

These internal stability risks are compounded by sectarian, ethnic, and tribal tensions, particularly ethnic tensions between Arabs, Persians, and Kurds, and Sunnis and Shi’ites. There has been a massive regional increase in internal security activity, forces, and costs. The data on these aspects of the balance are so suspect, however, that it is not possible to assess the trend and scale in quantitative terms.

Moreover, the “civil balance” in security shaped by factors like politics, quality of governance, corruption, economic development and sharing of wealth, social changes from factors like hyperurbanization, massive population growth and youth employment problems, has generally deteriorated since the uprisings of 2011, and is now affected by massive cuts in petroleum export and tourism income and limited investment.

A New Analysis of the Changing Gulf Balance and the Iranian Threat

The Burke Chair at CSIS has developed a detailed summary and quantitative analysis of these trends in the balance, the potential threats Iran poses and is developing, and the ongoing changes in Arab Gulf, U.S., and allied forces. This study is now available on the CSIS web site at

Other Studies Shaping the Gulf Balance and Iranian Threat

Several other Burke Chair studies provide additional material on the threat posed by terrorism and non-state actors and the civil causes of instability and conflict in the region:

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