COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS , CFR
Who should maintain the future security of the Persian Gulf? This question looms large in the minds of policymakers in the United States, Western Europe, Japan and, of course, the Persian Gulf states. The fact that this question is raised with a deep sense of urgency in numerous capitals of the world indicates the extent to which Iran was perceived as having ensured Gulf security before the outbreak of its recent revolution. Although American rhetoric spoke of pursuing a “twin-pillar policy,” the United States itself actually relied primarily on Iran to perform the role of the “policeman” for the Gulf region.
Prior to the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the perception of Iran as the main protector of Gulf security was reinforced by the American reluctance to fill the power vacuum left by Britain as a result of its historic decision to withdraw forces in 1971 from the area “east of Suez,” including the Persian Gulf. As the most populous and the strongest military power in the area and as the main country straddling the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which some 57 percent of world oil trade must pass to world markets, Iran was willing to undertake the burden of responsibility for Gulf security-the immediate problem then being the creation of a federation of the Trucial and other small states near the entrance to the Gulf.
When Saudi Arabia emerged as a world financial power after the 1973 war, it seemed for a time to be regarded as the “linchpin” of American policy in the Persian Gulf. The Carter Administration in particular seemed to have some preference for the financial power of Saudi Arabia as contrasted with the military power of Iran. In fact, however, the idea died on the vine. Saudi Arabia lacked the population and military power necessary for playing a major security role in the Gulf region, and in any case Riyadh was unwilling to undertake such a role.
But Saudi Arabia was willing, especially after the assassination of King Faisal in 1975, to use its monetary prowess in support of a more active diplomacy, as a means of neutralizing the influence of such “radical” states as South Yemen and Iraq and bolstering the governments of such “moderate” states as Oman, North Yemen and Egypt. Although Saudi dollar diplomacy was extended to states located outside as well as within the Persian Gulf, it complemented the Iranian security role in the Gulf area. Saudi Arabia’s increasingly active diplomacy, added to Iran’s security policy, poured concrete meaning into the hitherto empty rhetoric of an American “twin-pillar policy.”
Plainly, Iran will no longer act in any sense as a pillar of American policy in the Persian Gulf. Even before the short-lived government of Dr. Bakhtiar was formed, he told the United States that a future government in Iran would abandon Iran’s “policeman” role and would confine its security concerns to the defense of the country’s national boundaries. Now, with the Khomeini forces precariously allied with the Bazargan government, this policy seems nailed down. In response, Washington circles appeared to be weighing two possible alternatives. One was to search for a new “second pillar,” on the assumption that Saudi Arabia would now be willing to play some Gulf-wide security role, but could not do so alone even if it were willing, because of its small population and still low levels of military and underlying economic strength. On this view, despite its geographic distance from the Persian Gulf proper, Egypt loomed as a desirable candidate partly because it shares the Saudi concerns with the perceived Soviet and communist threats to the region around the Red Sea.
The other initial idea about Gulf security was a spin-off from a larger conception of American security which called for reliance on “regional influentials,” to borrow the phrase of the National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. India would presumably qualify as such a regional power center in the Indian Ocean with its twin arms of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.
Most recently, however, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown’s visit to the Middle East in February 1979 has suggested a new American security formula in the Middle East that may be broader than either of these. Clearly, it is a formula for a more forward American policy, overturning the previous more distant approach of the Carter as well as Nixon and Ford Administrations toward the Persian Gulf. His pronouncements were intended particularly to assuage Saudi anxieties that had been intensified largely by the perceived American failure to support the Shah’s regime, in the context of a background of perceived Soviet and communist gains in Afghanistan and especially in the Horn of Africa. But they also went further than ever before in warning the Soviet Union that the United States would not tolerate any future threat to vital American interests in the region either as a result of overt Soviet incursions or Soviet-supported communist coups in the Gulf states, and in signaling to Moscow that the United States is committed to a growing military and economic relationship with “pro-Western” governments of the Middle East toward the same end.
Apparently, what is now envisaged would include a sharp increase of American military supplies and economic aid to “pro-Western” governments outside the Gulf as well as within it, including Saudi Arabia, North Yemen, the Sudan, Egypt, Jordan and Israel. Saudi Arabia would be expected under the new formula to play a more prominent military and economic role in the small states of the lower Persian Gulf. Significantly, the new formula would also include the expansion of a “quick-strike force” of American paratroopers and marines (an idea first broached by Secretary Brown a year earlier) to be used in case of a request for help by Saudi Arabia or other oil-producing Gulf states threatened with the turmoil of a Soviet-supported coup. Moreover, it would possibly involve the construction of more port facilities for major American ships in the Indian Ocean naval base of Diego Garcia. However, President Carter stated at the end of February that American bases in the Middle East itself are not envisioned.
This new American commitment to the future security of the Persian Gulf has clear advantages and disadvantages. If in fact it clarifies the intention and resolve to defend vital American interests in the Persian Gulf, it may well reduce the chances of Soviet miscalculation and simultaneously assure American friends and allies of the U.S. commitment to their independence.
One need not be a doctrinaire student of geopolitics to realize, in the light of actual Soviet behavior, that ever since the end of World War II Moscow has sought to expand its power and influence-at the expense of the West in general and the United States in particular-in a widening circle of regional states lying south of Soviet borders. The Soviet thrust, first into the Northern Tier, and then into the Eastern Mediterranean, has since 1968 been extended into the Indian Ocean-Persian Gulf area. Its principal instruments have included the encouragement of nationalization of Western oil companies and the acquisition of oil and gas privileges for the Soviet Union, propaganda attacks on the CENTO alliance and American military sales, transfer of Soviet arms, support for national liberation movements, massive infusion of Soviet and Cuban arms supplies and military personnel, encouragement of communist participation in national-front governments and support for communist coups. Now the potential for Soviet and communist pressure on the states located in and around the Persian Gulf has increased substantially as a consequence of the Iranian revolution. Anti-American sentiments have been fomented by Soviet propaganda, and there are emerging signs of Soviet influence on militant leftist elements in Iran.
The other great advantage of the emerging American security posture is the apparent reversal of the decade-old reliance of the United States on one or two local powers to maintain regional security. The indiscriminate sale of billions of dollars worth of arms to the Shah’s regime had been justified as a way to avoid the commitment of American troops to the defense of the strategic Persian Gulf. To be sure, the Shah’s own preoccupation with military strength underpinned his enormous purchases of sophisticated military equipment, but U.S. eagerness to comply with Iranian requests during the Nixon Administration paved the way for the massive transfer of arms once the explosion of oil revenues made this financially possible for Iran and economically profitable for the United States. However one evaluates the diverse causes of the Iranian revolution, there is little doubt that these unrestrained arms transactions contributed to its outbreak. They not only diverted badly needed funds from social and economic projects, but also placed unprecedented burdens on Iranian skilled manpower resources and economic and communication infrastructures.
And the new American commitment to the economic and military strength of half a dozen states (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and secondarily North Yemen and the Sudan) seems a healthy corrective to the previous temptation to treat Saudi Arabia as the “linchpin” of American policy in the whole Gulf area.
There are, however, several disadvantages in the nascent American security posture. One is the potential polarization of the Middle East into camps of “pro-Western” and other nations. Secretary Brown’s new prescription would seem to suffer potentially from all the previous shortcomings of American security policy in the Middle East, especially since the creation of the Baghdad Pact (subsequently the Central Treaty Organization or CENTO). His commitment to the security of the “pro-Western” regimes in the Middle East, like Secretary Dulles’ commitment to the Northern Tier states in the 1950s, may be portrayed as a new American effort for the “enslavement” of Middle Eastern governments. And his planned American “quick-strike force” that would come, on request, to the aid of any government threatened by a Soviet-supported coup smacks of the ill-fated Eisenhower Doctrine that allowed the United States to go to the aid, also on request, of any pro-Western government threatened by “international communism.” That doctrine was invoked by a Middle Eastern government only in one instance, the Lebanese crisis of 1958, and in hindsight the cost of its invocation far exceeded the actual benefit. Neither the Eisenhower Administration nor the Chamoun government gained in the long or even the medium term from American intervention in that earlier Lebanese civil war. It simultaneously increased popular resentment against the United States and deepened ancient communal divisions within Lebanese society.
A second potential disadvantage is the intensification of arms transfers to the Middle East. No aspect of past American security policy in the Middle East has been subjected to greater criticism. Whatever the short-term financial benefits of unrestrained arms sales, on balance indiscriminate arms supplies can contribute more to destabilization than stabilization of the region. This apparent new American commitment to a sharp increase in arms supplies also raises serious questions about President Carter’s often repeated, but still unfulfilled, goal of limiting the sale of arms worldwide.
A third shortcoming of the new American security formula is the possibility that it may hobble efforts to achieve security in the Persian Gulf, by linking them to the extremely difficult Arab-Israeli peacemaking process. These efforts aim at two quite different objectives: to align the “pro-Western” Gulf regimes with the United States; and to break the deadlock on peace negotiations. The increased American security commitment to Israel as well as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is intended to attain both objectives. However, as a result of this coupling, the more easily attainable objective of future security in the Persian Gulf will almost certainly be obstructed by the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict.
However, the greatest shortcoming of the new American security scheme is that it addresses threats to Gulf security that may be more hypothetical than potential. The United States has made it emphatically clear, and rightly so, that the American commitment is intended for defense against “external threats.” This appears to exclude threats emanating from within the region as well as internal coups-unless either is supported by the Soviet Union. As a consequence, two of the more likely sources of instability and conflict in the Persian Gulf are not covered.
First, let us take domestic crises. If the Iranian revolution has taught us nothing else, it should have made clear that the sources of domestic conflict and upheaval in the Persian Gulf societies are more pressing than hitherto anticipated. Unlike the Dhofari rebellion in Oman that received ample Soviet and communist support both directly and indirectly, the Iranian opposition was transformed into a full-scale and bloody revolution within a year primarily as a result of misguided and disastrously executed economic, social and political decisions of the indigenous elite. As early as 1972, and repeatedly thereafter, I warned that international capability was no true substitute for internal political stability in Iran no matter how actively it tried to project its power abroad in the pursuit of its national objectives.1 Without any significant outside aid, thousands of strikers and millions of street demonstrators finally brought down with their bare hands one of the world’s best-equipped military forces. It is not likely that Saudi Arabia, for example, will face the challenge of internal communism; it hardly has a native proletariat. But there is ample reason to envisage the outbreak of a genuine indigenous internal convulsion to which the present American security scheme would be irrelevant.
Second, this scheme would not bear directly on the containment of regional conflicts. The Persian Gulf region is as rich in potential conflicts as in oil, although, as we shall see, the Gulf states have had a remarkable record of peaceful settlement of their disputes. The spillover of conflicts from the more conflict-prone adjacent areas into the Gulf region proper is also a major problem. The Arab-Israeli war of October 1973, the Arab oil embargo and the explosion of oil prices have been followed by the growth of unprecedented social and economic ties between the Gulf states proper and other Middle East societies on the one hand and South Asian nations on the other. It is difficult to envisage a future Arab-Israeli war that would not quickly spread to the Gulf area as a result of Saudi Arabian arms transfers to the Arab confrontation states, or an Israeli preventive or preemptive attack on Saudi Arabia. It would also seem more likely today than, for example, in 1971, that a conflict in South Asia would swiftly spread to the Gulf area-probably not as a result of another Indo-Pakistani war but of an armed conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan or Afghanistan and Iran. Again, a political upheaval in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or a separatist movement in Baluchistan or Pushtunistan, would be likely to spill over into the Gulf.
On balance, therefore, the new American security formula could at best aid the objective of security in the Persian Gulf only indirectly, peripherally and partially. The American commitment to the security of Saudi Arabia against “external threat” and internal Soviet-supported coups seems to address, in the last analysis, two hypothetical threats emanating from the Soviet Union, and the increased U.S. security commitment to Egypt, Israel and Jordan can hardly contribute to the solution of the urgent problem of security in the Persian Gulf proper.
The uninterrupted flow of oil supplies to the world is the pivotal problem, and the bulk of the Gulf oil, including Saudi oil, must pass through the strategic Strait of Hormuz, whose security must be our paramount concern. Furthermore, the Iranian revolution has shown for the first time that the disruption of oil supplies can be used as an instrument of domestic political coercion by a noncommunist opposition and that it can have as adverse an effect on oil exports as an oil embargo. Without necessarily implying that oil workers in other Gulf states are susceptible to the same kind of call for strikes as in Iran, the main point is that Secretary Brown’s emerging security formula would be clearly inadequate as a deterrent against potential threats to oil supplies arising from both domestic crises and regional conflicts in the heart of the oilfields and in the main artery of oil transportation.
The most effective way to cope with domestically and regionally based threats would be for the Persian Gulf states themselves to continue their own search for indigenous security arrangements. This search is all the more appropriate at this particular time when the sense of a common security concern has heightened to an unprecedented degree in the wake of the Iranian revolution. Any indigenous security arrangements made at the initiative of the Gulf states themselves could have the full support of the United States if the local states should so desire. Such arrangements could prove more effective not only against domestic and regional threats, but also against Soviet threats if the local states should choose to seek American and other Western support.
The problem with Secretary Brown’s security formula for the Persian Gulf is not merely the shortcomings discussed above. Equally important, its existence might cause the United States to overlook the great potential for indigenous regional security arrangements in the area. A wide variety of considerations now seem conducive to the definition of common security problems in the Gulf, the adoption of common security strategies, and ultimately the creation of common procedures and institutions for the collective attainment of common objectives.
First of all, the Persian Gulf is a distinct and compact region. Geographically it is an “arm” of the Indian Ocean and a “finger” of the Middle East. These two larger regions are relatively undefinable, but the Gulf area is physically set apart as a shallow and narrow semi-enclosed sea. It is connected to the high seas only by the strategic Strait of Hormuz, squeezed between the Iranian shore and the Omani tip of the Musandum Peninsula.
Second, all Persian Gulf states have a vital stake in freedom of navigation and the control of pollution. The Gulf’s special geographic features have been acknowledged repeatedly at international conferences on the law of the sea as a justification for the adoption of special regional regulations. Because of its limited access to the Gulf waters, Iraq has been the greatest advocate of the concept of “transit passage” through the Strait of Hormuz, while Iran as one of the straits states has favored a kind of “regulated transit passage,” and Oman as the other straits state has insisted on the application of the traditional concept of “innocent passage” to the strait. Despite such divergencies regarding the details, however, all eight Gulf states share a deep sense of obligation with respect to the maintenance of secure and unimpeded navigation. The Gulf waters constitute not only their main trade artery and the vital route for their oil exports, but also an increasingly important source of their food supplies. Because they share the shallow and narrow waters and navigable channels of the Gulf, the littoral states also share a deep sense of common concern with the problem of pollution.
Third, all the Gulf states have a heightened interest in social and economic development projects. The revolutionary rise in oil revenues has financed ambitious economic development projects particularly in the large oil-producing states of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait and Iraq. The Iranian revenues increased from $194 million in 1972 to $22 billion in 1974, and their massive infusion into the economy lay at the heart of the social and economic dislocations that in combination with political repression and unprecedented corruption led to revolution. Saudi Arabia has also launched an extremely ambitious economic development plan (1976-1980) that calls for a spectacular $140-billion expenditure. Saudi society is now having to grapple with the side effects of swift modernization. The signs of rapid inflation, corruption and waste are already visible and their adverse political consequences cannot be ruled out. The Gulf states in general have in common the blight as well as the blessing of sudden wealth.
Fourth, all the Gulf states are prone to internal political upheaval, but the larger oil producers, particularly Saudi Arabia, are more susceptible to political convulsion.
It would, however, be a mistake to predict the rise of a religious opposition against the Saudi royal family on the model of that in Iran. The danger of this kind of analogy is increased by talk about the phenomenon of the so-called “resurgence of Islam.” To be sure, the signs of religiously based political opposition are everywhere to be seen in the Muslim world, from Mauritania to Malaysia, but two points should be borne in mind in order to avoid drawing false analogies. First, the relationship of the religious leaders (the ulama) and the wielders of political power has been generally different in the Sunni, as contrasted with the Shi’i, communities. For example, the ulama in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have not been so completely kept out of the political process as they were in Iran. Second, the Iranian revolution probably owes much of its fervor and zeal to the character of Shi’ism as a historically revolutionary, messianic and legitimistic movement. The anti-establishmentarian thrust of Shi’i Islam is also marked by a perpetual drive for social justice and equality hallowed by an ethos of martyrdom that is unparalleled in the larger world of Sunni Islam.
The doctrinal-political differences between Shi’i and Sunni Islam do not of course preclude the rise of religiously based opposition in the Sunni communities, whether secularized as in Turkey or traditional as in Saudi Arabia. What will make the real difference, however, are the basic human conditions, as one learns from the Iranian experience. All Gulf regimes would face potential internal political explosions if their peoples felt dissatisfied, hopeless and resentful of great disparities in wealth and power.
Fifth, the Gulf states share not only a common aspiration for economic modernization, and an uncertain political future, but also an urge for the control of their own destiny in world politics. Political awakening is the hallmark of every Gulf society at a crucial time when the outside world increasingly covets their oil, their most precious and finite natural resource. Many of them have enjoyed the status of independent states for less than a decade, and all of them share the desire to maintain their territorial integrity and political independence in the future. The West in general, they know, is committed to the maintenance of their political independence. For this fundamental reason none of them is likely to become permanently “anti-Western.” Just as the Iranians have risen to challenge their excessive dependence on the West in general and the United States in particular, Iraq has begun to question its heavy dependence on the Soviet Union. On balance, suspicion of the Soviet Union is prevalent in the Gulf societies and the perception of a common threat from Moscow is yet another potential element of commonality among them.
Despite all these factors of commonality, would it be realistically possible for the Gulf rulers and governments to develop a sense of common security responsibility? Since all the peoples of the Gulf are Muslim, would it be possible to develop such a sense out of their common faith? The commonality of faith in general is counterbalanced by the division between the Sunni and the Shi’i communities in the Gulf area. Most Iranians and more than half of the Arab population of Iraq are the followers of Shi’i Islam. Given the fact that these are the two most populous nations of the Gulf, the Shi’i believers numerically predominate in the Gulf.
However, Saudi Arabia, though with a much smaller population, is the site of two of the most holy places in Islam (Mecca and Medina), the birthplace of Islam and the home of a distinctively puritanical branch of Islam (Wahhabism). Furthermore, this sectarian division is compounded by the cultural disparity between Arabs and Iranians. For these reasons, therefore, Islam is unlikely to play a unifying role in the Gulf and might at times exacerbate regional differences.
Yet, as noted in the previous section, there are cohesive factors that do counterbalance these ancient sectarian and cultural divisions. Those elements of cohesion are more “modern,” in the sense that they largely represent the ethos of the “world culture,” one that knows no boundaries of religion, culture and race. It is a culture in the process of worldwide diffusion and is based on “advanced technology, and the spirit of science, on a rational view of life, a secular approach to social relations, a feeling for justice in public affairs, and, above all else, on the acceptance in the political realm of the belief that the prime unit of the polity should be the nation-state.”2 Will these states that are in the process of becoming modern nations in this age of rampant nationalism be able to develop in practice extensive ties translatable over time into an obligation to maintain their security collectively?
This important question should be addressed on the basis of the experience of the Persian Gulf states themselves. Most of these have attained the status of independent and sovereign political entities only recently. Nevertheless, their past interrelationships contain an important clue to their future ability to cooperate with each other.
Fortunately, the Gulf states, as contrasted with the Arab confrontation states and Israel, have not been plagued with the kind of intractable conflict that has plunged those countries into four wars in 30 years. The most remarkable fact about the experience of the Gulf states, on the contrary, is their demonstrated ability to settle peacefully numerous multifaceted, overlapping and interlocking disputes in a short span of time. These include the Bahrain settlement (1970), the historic Iraq-Iran conflict resolution (1975), and a series of other agreements between Iran and every Arab state of the Gulf and between the Arab states themselves, like the important agreement between Iraq and Saudi Arabia over the land boundary in the Neutral Zone, and between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi over the Buraimi oasis.
Why should there be this predilection for peaceful settlement of disputes in the Persian Gulf? My own examination of the record suggests that the impressive web of agreements that the Gulf states have developed over the years has been rooted in the imperative of practical necessity. Given the universal urge for social and economic development in the area, on the basis of uninterrupted income from oil and in the face of the nightmare of oil depletion, the Gulf states have accorded regional security the highest priority because they are, in the last analysis, hostages of each other.
Armed conflict diverts scarce resources from economic development in any society, but in the Gulf area it would destroy the very foundation of economic betterment and political survival. The dramatic settlement of the conflict between Iraq and Iran is the best illustration of the influence of this all-important mutual vulnerability on the security behavior of the Gulf states. After decades of smoldering hostility, Iran and Iraq decided to resolve their ancient and festering conflict as soon as it became clear that armed skirmishes might finally lead to an all-out war that would result in the mutual destruction of their oil facilities and the disruption of their oil exports.
The experience of the Gulf states also reveals that they have in fact gone beyond the avoidance of armed conflict and the peaceful settlement of disputes in their search for regional security. Ever since the settlement of the Shatt al-Arab dispute between Iraq and Iran in 1975, the Gulf leaders have pressed forward for mutual defense cooperation despite a number of setbacks. In that year their foreign ministers first discussed in Jiddah the possibility of plans for mutual defense against external threats, and also, significantly, mutual aid in case of internal coups. Subsequent developments in the Horn of Africa and the coup in Afghanistan intensified their common concern with the advance of Soviet power and influence around the Persian Gulf. This concern reached a new peak by the middle of 1978 when Iraq began to share the Saudi and Iranian perceptions of the threat to their security. The Shah and the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, even held “security consultations.”
Has the Iranian revolution increased or decreased the chances for further development of a security consensus in the Persian Gulf area? The answer will, of course, partly depend on the outcome of the revolution, but, assuming that an Islamic republic in some form is established, a best-case and a worst-case scenario may be envisaged.
The best case would be an Iran turned inward but still clearly anti-communist, which confined its security perimeter to the defense of Iranian national boundaries, pursued a hands-off policy in the Gulf, and concentrated its energies on badly needed domestic economic reconstruction and political consolidation. Such a regime would presumably pull the remaining Iranian troups out of Oman (if it has not already done so). It would perhaps try to settle the Iranian disputes with the Sheikh of Sharjah over the Gulf island of Abu Musa and with the Sheikh of Ra’s al-Khaymeh over the two Tunbs.
If so, the atmosphere for regional cooperation in the Gulf area would certainly improve. The Shah’s overbearing manner often alienated Iran’s neighbors, and the decline in Iranian assertiveness (as well as military power) could contribute to better relations and a fully shared perception of the external threat. The dramatic change already evident in Iran’s policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict would also ease past tensions between the Arab states of the Gulf and Iran over the Shah’s favorable policy toward Israel. The new regime’s embrace of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), however, would not necessarily endear it to all Arab states, including some in the Gulf area. In fact, if the new regime should push its association with the PLO too far it might indeed alienate several leading Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as long as they have “moderate” regimes.
At worst, the new regime could turn outward virulently. If the Shah’s Gulf policy was inspired by the glories of ancient Persia, the new regime’s might be influenced by the golden age of Islam. Pan-Shi’ism would embitter Iran’s relations with not only the anti-Shi’i Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, but also the Sunni Baathist minority of Iraq who dominate the Iraqi Shi’i majority. Any outward thrust by a new Iranian regime would surely sour Iran’s relations with its major Gulf neighbors.
In either case the importance of Iran for the future security of the Persian Gulf would continue. Under the best-case scenario, the Gulf states and Iran might finally be able to develop a sense of common obligation to maintain their security against external threats and internal subversion and coups, and Iran’s cooperation would be of critical importance. However, should Iran prefer to stay out of any collective security arrangement, there would be no reason for the Arab states of the Gulf to abandon past efforts toward the adoption of common security arrangements that would stand them in good stead even if Iran’s security concerns were confined to the defense of its own territory and maritime interests.
The United States should not only encourage local initiatives toward security arrangements and be prepared to assist the regional states to achieve their own common security goals, but should also try to persuade other advanced industrial countries in OECD to join in common efforts to develop both economic and security ties with a prospective group of Gulf states if they choose to invite Western support. The United States, as contrasted with its NATO allies, is much less dependent on Persian Gulf oil. The Strait of Hormuz is potentially a global chokepoint largely because of the great dependence of Western Europe and Japan on Persian Gulf oil. (The socialist world’s dependence on Gulf oil is relatively minimal at the present time, although it may well increase in the near future.) There is no convincing reason why the United States should try to go it alone in forging economic and security ties with a prospective group of regional states in the Persian Gulf. But there are all sorts of good reasons for doing so in cooperation with some other oil-consuming nations of the Western world.
Existing economic and military ties with the Gulf states, of course, already involve the OECD governments and corporations. This is partly due to the common interest of the Gulf states in diversifying the sources of their technology imports despite a general preference for American know-how. The European Community as a whole is a significant market for the Gulf states because of geographic proximity and the lesser cost of transportation, as well as traditional patterns of trade. As has been revealed in Euro-Arab and European-Iranian dialogues, this market would be of the greatest interest to Iran and Saudi Arabia for the future export of their petrochemicals. Western Europe has also been an important source of military equipment for the Gulf states. This is again the result of their determination to diversify their sources of arms, despite a general preference for American military equipment, especially sophisticated weapons.
Second, although an American near-monopoly of arms supplies to the Gulf states would help our balance-of-payments deficit, the long-term cost is too great. Our excessive military sales to Iran became a major target of religious and political opposition to the Shah’s regime not only because of the perceived economic and social harm involved, but also because they symbolized the military and political commitment of the United States to the survival of an unpopular regime. A prudent future arms sales policy would have a better chance of success if the Gulf states understood that despite their preference for American arms, the United States and its allies were committed to spreading the sale of military equipment among themselves. Such a common Western arms policy might reduce the pressure on Washington from the Gulf states for excessive amounts of American arms.
Third, and finally, increased bilateral partnerships between the United States and individual Gulf states that seem bound to result under Secretary Brown’s new security formula would tend to entail even greater American omnipresence in the Gulf region, whereas the Iranian revolution has shown that this should be all the more avoided. Excessive presence of nationals from any one nation would inevitably become unpalatable to indigenous populations, not only as a perceived infringement on their political independence, but also an imagined affront to their cultural and religious values.
In sum, a comprehensive economic and security partnership between a group of Gulf and OECD countries along the lines suggested in this essay would in the long run better contribute to the processes of regional order as well as peacemaking in the Middle East than would the security formula of Secretary Brown. Since the chances of regional cooperation are far greater in the Persian Gulf sub-area than in the Arab-Israeli zone of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf model of indigenous security arrangements could be expanded subsequently to include the other interested states, including Israel, when the Arab-Israeli conflict is satisfactorily resolved.3
Moreover, comprehensive security cooperation among a group of Gulf and OECD states would place the United States in a better position to pursue the larger long-term goal of establishing “rules of the game” between the superpowers in the Middle East. Without the threat of the Soviet hand on the economic throat of the Western industrial democracies and Japan at the Strait of Hormuz, the United States would eventually be able to enter into negotiations with Moscow from a position of strength. These would be aimed at the threefold objective of mutual reduction of arms supplies to the Middle East, mutual limitations on naval deployment and use of base facilities in areas adjacent to the Gulf, and mutual acceptance of restraints on direct and indirect intervention in local conflicts in and around the Persian Gulf.
In the foreseeable future, however, the vital interests of the industrial democracies and those of the Gulf states, which are basically compatible, must be protected by means of any combination of skillful multilateral and alliance diplomacy that the realities of the situation permit. The challenge to American leadership is unmistakably clear. The courage and resourcefulness with which it is met today will make a significant difference to world peace and prosperity to the end of the century.
3 I argued before the Iranian revolution that American policymakers should not compartmentalize the Middle Eastern problems into those of the Arab-Israeli and Persian Gulf sub-areas as if they are separable, since the problem of order-building is universal in the entire Middle East. See R. K. Ramazani, Beyond the Arab-Israeli Settlement: New Directions for U.S. Policy in the Middle East, Cambridge, Mass: Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, 1977.