Iran, Iraq, and the Changing Face of Defense Cooperation in the Gulf

The Southern Gulf states, the region, and the US all face a rapidly changing threat environment in the Gulf, and a sharply rising need for defense cooperation. These needs, and the changes in threat and military balance that shape them, are described in detail in a new analysis developed by the Arleigh A. Burke Chair at CSIS entitled, Iran, Iraq, and the Changing Face of Defense Cooperation in the Gulf.  This analysis is available on the CSIS web site at

This analysis shows how the rise of Iran’s asymmetric, missile, and potential nuclear warfare capabilities are changing the threat, as well as how the destruction of Iraq’s forces in 2003 have fundamentally change the balance in the region. It also shows, however, that Iran still has grave weaknesses as a military power, that the Southern Gulf states can bring far more resources to bear than Iran, and that major options exist for improving the level of cooperation within the GCC; with Iraq; and with the US, Britain, and France.

It also shows that Iran is only part of the story that shapes the need for improved cooperation in the Gulf. The Southern Gulf states also face continuing threats from extremism and terrorism. They face risks from the growing instability in Yemen, the Horn, and the Red Sea. Moreover, they must adapt to whole new missions like missile defense, the protection of critical infrastructure, and complex forms of hybrid and asymmetric warfare.

All of these pressures create a rising need for integrated training, planning, intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance (IS&R), and command and control efforts within the Southern Gulf states; and cooperation with Iraq, the US, Britain, and France. They are reducing reaction times, increasing the complexity of operations, meeting the need for rapid deployment forces, and improving the ability to change and adapt to new threats.

Key US Arms Sales to the Gulf and MENA Region

These shifts in the balance also are changing the need for the US to provide the weapons and technology the Southern Gulf’s need for defense and deterrence. They are key factors behind the proposed arms sale to Saudi Arabia, but this sale is only one part of a broad range of sales. These include the F-16 and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) sale to the UAE and the sale of advanced weapons to Egypt, Israel, Jordan and other friendly states in the region.

Many of these efforts are already underway and are illustrated in a chronology found in the briefing of possible US sales that the Department of Defense has notified to the US Congress. These sales are part of a continuing effort to build up friendly and allied capabilities for deterrence and defense that must continue until the region has far more stability and security than it has today.

The Impact of a Strategic Partnership with Iraq

Building up the forces of the Gulf Cooperation Council, however, is only part of the story. This new analysis complements an earlier study that shows how the impact of US and Iraqi decisions in shaping their strategic partnership affect the security and stability of  the Gulf and the world’s energy exports. The U.S. Transition in Iraq: Iraqi Forces and U.S. Military Aid, which is available on the CSIS web site at:

The second analysis shows just how drastically the US reshaped the strategic balance in the Gulf and between Iraq and Iran by destroying Iraq’s conventional war-fighting capabilities in 2003. It also shows that Iraq is only beginning to correct this situation, and cannot do so in less than a decade. Iraq has made major progress in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency forces. However, the analysis draws on official US reporting, showing there are a wide range of areas where the Iraqi security forces still have serious limitations, and shows that the residual level of insurgency and violence in Iraq still presents a major challenge.

Iraq’s problems are far greater in the forces under its Ministry of Interior than those under its Ministry of Defense, but all elements of Iraqi forces not only face serious challenges but have fallen significantly behind the goals and plans they had in 2009.  As a result, they all will be much less capable when US forces fully withdraw at the end of 2011 than was planned in formulating the agreements for withdrawal and strategic partnership.

The causes of these problems lie primarily in the failure to form an effective Iraqi government that can make decisions and define Iraq’s goals for a strategic partnership with the US.  A budget crisis also forced Iraq to freeze manpower and force expansion in the spring of 2009 and halt critical force investment and maintenance expenditures. The briefing shows this crisis is easing, but that the cost of maintaining current employment and manpower levels – which are critical to internal stability – is so high that even a major budget deficit in 2010 will only begin to allow Iraq to ease the situation.

This highlights the critical importance of forming a new government in Iraq and taking the hard decisions necessary to create effective Iraqi forces. It also shows just how critical defining a US-Iraqi strategic partnership is to both nations, and to the security and stability of the entire region.

Even moderate levels of near-term Iraqi progress are dependent on US aid in helping Iraq actually fund the arms sales proposed to Congress and levels of US military training and support well beyond the withdrawal of US combat forces at the end of 20ll. Such aid will be necessary to support the ongoing delivery of Iraq’s first modern main battle tanks – 144 M1A1s. It will include the purchase of F-16s, and the other elements of conventional forces that Iraq needs in order to have even a minimal conventional defense and deterrent capability.

If the US does not remain a major source of advice and aid, even the best intentioned Iraqi government will be unable to create internal security and stability at the rate needed to minimize the risk of insurgents and extremists recovering, and create forces that can deal with Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian tensions. More than that, the US failure to act will leave a lasting power vacuum in Iraq relative to Iran that will make it far more vulnerable to Iranian influence and pressure, as well as increase the potential threat Iran can pose to all of the Gulf, our allies like Jordan and Israel, and the security of world energy exports and the US economy.

Redefining the US Security Posture in the Gulf

Taken together, these studies show that the US must take action to show the Southern Gulf states that it has clear plans to remain in the Gulf and to be a reliable partner in building up their security forces.  They also show that the US has not won the Iraq War in any meaningful strategic sense, and that one of the most critical decisions the Obama Administration and US Congress will take over the next five years is whether to fund US advisory and assistance efforts in Iraq at the levels that can rebuild Iraqi’s national defense capabilities, help deter and contain Iran, and ensure improved stability and security.  Such aid is vital to helping Iraq to create effective security capabilities and fund major force improvements during the period before its economy can recover and before it can greatly expand its own oil revenues.

Much will depend on how well the Obama Administration comes to grips with these issues, on the ability of the Southern Gulf states to take a more realistic approach to defense cooperation, and on the new Iraqi government’s willingness to both create a true strategic partnership with the US and build up effective defense capabilities. The security of world energy exports, and a global and US economy dependent upon such exports, hangs in the balance.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy