U.S. And Iranian Strategic Competition: The Role Of The Southern Gulf States And Yemen

The Gulf is the strategic center of the competition between the US and Iran. The stability of the Gulf is critical to the global economy, as roughly 40 percent of the world’s oil and product trade is exported from the Gulf.  Most of this goes through the Strait of Hormuz, which at its narrowest point is just 21 miles wide. This makes the US partnership with Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states a key factor in the US competition with Iran as well as a vital US national security interest.

These issues are laid out in detail in a new analysis by CSIS entitled U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Role of the Southern Gulf States and Yemen. This analysis is available on the CSIS web site at: https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/120228_Iran_Ch_VI_Gulf_State.pdf

It is part of the Burke Chair project analyzing US strategic competition with Iran, funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation.

This analysis examines each Southern Gulf state in turn, as well as the role of the Gulf cooperation council (GCC). It shows that the US is already seeking to strengthen its military partnership with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies in an effort to decrease the threat of terrorist activity and to combat Iranian influence.

The US and its Gulf allies must be ready to deal with the fact that the strategic competition with Iran will continue to intensify. This means the US must work with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to deal with factors like the uncertain character of the future Iraqi government, the effect of international sanctions on Iran’s policy calculus, Saudi succession, developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict, global economic stability, and what emerges in several key states in the aftermath of regional Arab unrest.

In spite of these uncertainties, it seems likely that the competition will play out in much the same way as it has in recent years. Bilateral relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be characterized by public accommodation, with periodic moments of heightened tension, and underscored by fundamental distrust and competition in the economic, political, and military realms. Iran will continue to exploit divisions between the Gulf States in order to gain influence and undermine the US policy of military and security cooperation in the Gulf.

The US will continue to strengthen its military partnership with Gulf States in ways based on a mutual interest in deterring the Iranian threat. In order to achieve this, the US will continue to supply the Saudis and other GCC states with counters to Iran’s growing naval asymmetric and missile capabilities. This means new arms transfers including missile defense systems and ongoing cooperation with all Gulf states. It also means that unless Iran gives up its nuclear and missile programs, the US must be ready to offer a tangible ands credible form of extended deterrence, or accept the fact that Arab Gulf powers like Saudi Arabia may seek their own nuclear deterrent.

It is important to stress, however, that the success of US efforts depends on treating the Arab Gulf states, other key Arab states, and other regional powers like Turkey as real partners. The US cannot simply count on friendly regional states to follow its lead, particularly as the level of confrontation increase as does the risk of war. The US cannot count on access to Gulf bases, or the support of Gulf governments and military forces, unless it constantly engages each Southern Gulf government, and shows its leaders and senior officers that the US is committed to giving them as much military effectiveness and responsibility for their own security as possible.

The US should do everything possible to support the new GCC initiative to strengthen the integration and interoperability of Gulf military forces put forward by King Abdullah at the December 2012 GCC Ministerial. It means that US arms transfer must be a means to the end of enhanced Gulf security and not a means of increasing US sales or dependence on the US. These are the current goals in US policy, but the US needs to make unambiguously clear that it is serious in pursuing them at every level.

There are five other critical aspects to US policy dealing with the Arab Gulf states and other friendly Arab states. The first is preparing for the possible use of force in the Gulf. As our analysis of Iranian conventional and asymmetric forces in this series makes all too clear, the US and Arab Gulf states may be forced into military encounters in the Gulf as the new sanctions take hold. The US must be ready to show every Gulf State it will act immediately to protect them, but also show that it will only escalate as far as it is forced to do so. This reflects the plans and advice of US senior officials and officers, and the Obama Administration to date. Unfortunately, the political rhetoric in a US election year can be more reckless and extreme. Most Gulf officials and officers understand this, but this again calls for as much engagement between the US and its Gulf partners as possible.

The second is coming to grips with the issue of preventive strikes. The US cannot stop Israel from acting unilaterally and the US has made it clear at every level to Israel’s leaders that Israel would face an American “red light” and opposition if it did so. The US must again engage its Gulf allies, however, and make the US position equally clear to them. It must consult on at least a “what if level” and do what it can to defuse the problems and anger that will result even if Israel has a high degree of success.

The US also, however, must begin a similar “what if” level of dialogue over the future need for US preventive strikes if Iran moves from its present “threshold” posture to testing or deploying nuclear weapons. The analysis of Iranian nuclear programs in this series explores the risks and trade-offs of such an action in detail.

It is clear that any such action is a last resort compared to diplomacy and sanctions, and it is equally clear that if the US does pursue this course, it will be far more effective if it has the support of at least some key Gulf states, and can maintain a persistent strike and restrike capability from forward bases in the Gulf. Any such dialog must be as secret and invisible as possible, but it needs to occur. The US cannot trust in the pace of events to substitute for the kind of dialog – and high level transparency regarding intelligence on Iran’s actions and why such a strike is necessary -- that makes partnership real and can build real world contingency capabilities.

Third, the US needs to work closely with its Southern Gulf allies and key states like Jordan in seeking to deal with the problems caused by the ongoing political upheaval in the Arab world, and the near paralysis of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Iran is only one issue in a region in turmoil. Iraq and Syria are also areas where the US needs to work as closely with Arab partners as possible. The future of Egypt and Jordan are other key areas for cooperation, and ones where the US must do everything possible to preserve the Camp David accords. This does not mean sacrificing Israel’s vital interests in any way, and friendly Gulf governments understand that the US will never make a choice between them and Israel, but it does mean that the US cannot abandon or pause its peace efforts.

Fourth, as is described in detail in another analysis in this series, US and Gulf competition for influence in Iraq -- both economically and militarily -- will be a critical new dimension in competing with Iran. This competition is evolving rapidly now that the US military has withdrawn from Iraq, and threatens to spiral out of control into a Sunni and Shi’ite power struggle and possibly a new round of ethnic conflict. The US cannot afford to focus on Iran to the exclusion of Iraq, and it is all too clear that it no longer has the lead in Iraq affairs. If it cannot find ways to work with friendly Arab states and Turkey, its position is likely to steadily erode, and Iraq to drifts towards a steady increase in Iranian influence.

Finally, the US needs to be cautious in dealing with the internal problems of friendly Arab states. This does not mean abandoning its concern for human rights and increased movement towards democracy. It does mean a pragmatic focus on evolutionary change, on working at the pace that each state can move forward, and recognizing the need given states have for security and stability in a time of intense unrest. Finding the right balance will be difficult and often require the kind of constant recalibration of US efforts that must rely on a strong US embassy and county team.

It means being acutely sensitive to local values and needs, and the fact that no country in the region can become a mirror image of US systems and values. It also means dealing with counterterrorism in ways that build up local capabilities as much as possible, keep American hardline rhetoric and ideology to a minimum, and above all show respect for Islam. The US cannot succeed in competition with Iran if it confuses the acts of a small minority of terrorists and extremist who launch far more attacks on their fellow Muslims than on the US and the West with some form of Islamic threat. It cannot succeed if it leaves the impression that it is at war with Islam rather than with terrorists.

This Chapter is part of a larger work on US competition with Iran.  The rest of the book can be found below:

Below you will find each chapter on the CSIS website. Select the chapter title to download the PDF.

  1. Introduction
  2. Types and Levels of Competition - This chapter looks at the various arenas in which Iran and the U.S. compete for influence.
  3. Iran and the Gulf Military Balance - This chapter looks at Iran’s Military forces in detail, and the balance of forces in the Gulf Region.
  4. Iran and the Gulf Military Balance II – This chapter looks at Iran’s Missile and Nuclear forces.
  5. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Sanctions game: Energy, Arms Control, and Regime Change - This chapter examines the impact of sanctions on the Iranian regime, Iran’s energy sector, and the prospects for regime change in Tehran.
  6. US and Iranian Strategic Competition in the Gulf States and Yemen - This chapter examines the competition between the US, and Iran and how it affects Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman and Qatar.
  7. The Outcome of Invasion: US and Iranian Strategic Competition in Iraq - This chapter examines in detail the role Iran has played in Iraq since 2003, and how the US has tried to counter it.
  8. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Proxy Cold War in the Levant, Egypt and Jordan - This chapter examines US and Iranian interests in the Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Syria.  The military balance is also analyzed.
  9. The United States and Iran: Competition involving Turkey and the South Caucasus - This chapter analyzes the US and Iranian competition over influence in Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
  10. Competition in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan - This chapter examines the important role Iran plays in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, and how the US and Iranian rivalry affects Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
  11. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of China and Russia - This chapter examines the complex and evolving relationships between China, Russia, Iran and the US.
  12. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Competition Involving the EU, EU3, and non-EU European States - This chapter looks at the role the EU, and in particular the EU3, have played as the U.S.’s closest allies in its competition with Iran.
  13. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Peripheral Competition Involving Latin America and Africa - This chapter examines the extent and importance of the competition between the US and Iran in the rest of the world.