The Gulf and Middle East Strategic Partnerships: The Other Side of the Iran Negotiations
October 22, 2013
No one can deny the importance of trying to end Iran’s search for nuclear weapons. Even the most effective U.S. preventive strikes will leave a heritage of tension and confrontation in the Gulf that is likely to mean a continuing arms race and constant risk of some clash that will affect the flow of Gulf oil and the global economy. If Iran persists and actually arms its missiles and aircraft, it will trigger a nuclear arms race with Israel, push Saudi Arabia towards seeking nuclear weapons, and confront the United States with making good on its offers of extended deterrence.
But, it is important to realize that Iran’s nuclear programs are only part of the story and one that many of our allies and security partners in the region see as less important than the other Iranian threats they face.
The Arab Gulf states, Jordan, and other regional powers are at least as concerned with the build-up of Iranian asymmetric warfare capabilities, Iran’s long-range rocket and missile capabilities, and the prospect of some form of major clash or war in the Gulf. They are concerned about U.S. resolve and willingness to maintain its forces in the Gulf to help them deter and defend against the other military threats Iran poses. They are worried that the United States might reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons that will sacrifice their security and leave them open to Iranian threats and intimidation.
They – and nations like Israel and Turkey – are equally concerned that the United States has failed to take any meaningful stand against the role Iran is playing in Syria, its ties to the Hezbollah, and its role in supporting Shi’ite dissidents in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. They are particularly concerned over the near collapse of meaningful U.S. influence in Iraq and the threat Iraq will become an Iranian sphere of influence or a near-permanent source of extremism and Sunni-Shi’ite tension.
Some of their fears and concerns are exaggerated, but the new strategy the United States announced in January 2012 has recognized the reality that they are critical security partners at a time the already limited capability of British and French power projection forces, and gave Middle East security the same priority as the rebalancing of U.S. forces from Europe to Asia.
There are also good reasons to take these Iranian threats seriously and continue to build our security partnerships. These are summarized in a new brief on Iran and the Gulf called Iran’s Present Day Military Capabilities and Military Aspirations in the Middle East,which is available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/publication/irans-military-and-security-challenges-successful-negotiation.
The full range of Iranian threats and the nature of our growing security partnerships with the Gulf States are described in four more detailed reports:
- US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions - This report looks at Iran’s Military forces in detail, and the balance of forces in the Gulf Region: http://csis.org/files/publication/120221_Iran_Gulf_MilBal_ConvAsym.pdf
- US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions– This report looks at Iran’s Missile and Nuclear forces:http://csis.org/files/publication/120222_Iran_Gulf_Mil_Bal_II_WMD.pdf
- US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula- This report examines the competition between the US, and Iran and how it affects Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman and Qatar: http://csis.org/files/publication/120228_Iran_Ch_VI_Gulf_State.pdf
- Violence in Iraq: The Growing Risk of Serious Civil Conflict- This report examines in detail the role Iran has played in Iraq since 2003, and how the US has tried to counter it:https://csis.org/files/publication/120718_Iraq_US_Withdrawal_Search_SecStab.pdf
These are not reasons to halt negotiations with Iran. They are reasons to focus on every aspect of the tensions and arms race in the Gulf and not just the nuclear. They are reasons to remember that for all the talk of U.S. energy independence, the Department of Energy does not project independence from the imports of liquid fuels our transportation sector needs to operate, that we will pay world oil prices in crisis, and we are becoming steadily more dependent on economic ties to an Asia that is becoming steadily more dependent on Gulf oil.
At a minimum, we need to treat our security partners in the Gulf and the rest of the Middle East as real partners. To fully explain our negotiations with Iran, to make it clear there will be no deal at their expense, and that we will not focus on the nuclear issue alone. In practice, we also need to make it clear that U.S. forces and security guarantees will continue regardless of any new U.S. agreement with Iran, and that we fully recognize their fears and concerns.
We need to show them we have some viable strategy for dealing with Syria, with Iraq, and Iran’s efforts to influence Shi’ites in the Gulf and Lebanon. We need to show them that we will aid Jordan and that we will seek to move Egypt towards stability and not simply punish it. More than that, we need to listen, to get their advice as well as inform them, and more towards solutions that can actual work on a regional level.
Strategic partnerships have their price as well as their benefits: you have to treat the countries involved as real partners and consider their interests as well as your own.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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