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Searching for Stable Peace in the Persian Gulf

Authored by Dr. Kenneth Katzman. Edited by Dr. Stephen C. Pelletiere. | February 1998

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The Persian Gulf region continues to be plagued by instability, and is subject to erupt in crisis on short notice. Iraq sees itself as the guardian of the Arab world's eastern flank, and Iran sees itself as a well-developed civilization with a long Gulf coastline, entitled to police the region. Regimes now in power in both countries have staked their legitimacies on ensuring their independence from great power influence, even though this goal has brought extraordinary costs to both.1

The current U.S. policy of ?dual containment? of both Iran and Iraq is temporarily useful, to the extent that it rejects the past policy of alternately promoting Iran or Iraq as U.S. surrogates in the Gulf. That strategy contributed to the Shah's unpopularity within Iran and ultimate downfall. Later, the policy may have emboldened Saddam Hussein to believe that seizing Kuwait would not incur significant U.S. opposition, or that he might even receive U.S. approval. These outcomes, and others like them, are an almost inevitable outgrowth of the inherently competitive system the United States has relied on in the Gulf.

Although dual containment does not, as previous U.S. policy did, depend on natural animosity between Iran and Iraq, it does assume hostility between the United States and the regimes in power in those two countries. Because the task of containing Iran and Iraq falls squarely on the shoulders of the United States, the dual containment strategy comes with high costs and high risks to the United States and the Persian Gulf allies on which the strategy depends.

Rather than making adjustments to what remains an essentially competitive Gulf security system, some thought should be given to a completely new paradigm that promotes peaceful cooperation among the Persian Gulfparties. Although it is difficult to envision a cooperative system while the current regimes are still in power in Iran and Iraq, a comprehensive diplomatic vision for the region could seek to modify the ambitions of Baghdad and Tehran for regional hegemony, and reduce the size of the U.S. presence needed in the Gulf, as well as the need for comprehensive economic sanctions on these rogue states. Over the longer term, creating a cooperative system in the Gulf could eventually produce less ambitious regimes in Iran and Iraq. A new approach could begin with U.S.-led multilateral talks?covering all outstanding issues? among the United States, the Gulf monarchies, and Iran and Iraq.


Any set of ideas might be judged workable or unworkable, but some thought might be given to a new paradigm for U.S. policy in the Gulf that attempts to promote peaceful cooperation. The costs and risks to the United States of dual containment, or any policy that preserves the essentially adversarial character of the Gulf security system, are likely to increase rather than diminish over time. Of course, the issue of trust is a major concern to the United States and the Gulf states, and Saddam, in particular, has shown a willingness to abrogate past agreements. However, a successful peace process is one that creates a reinforcing nexis of interests in that process' success.

The unexpected outcome of Iran's May 1997 presidential election has brought some indication that the Clinton administration might want to improve relations with Iran, although there is no indication the administration is considering the framework discussed above. Administration officials from Clinton down called Khatemi's election and his subsequent overture over U.S. television a ?hopeful? sign although they have added that U.S.-Iran relations could not improve unless Iran changes its unacceptable international behavior. The administration might believe that unremitting hostility toward Iran has set back other objectives, such as containment of Iraq and economic development in Central Asia, and was meeting too much resistance from U.S. allies. However, a U.S.-Iran dialogue is unlikely if it is demonstrated conclusively that Iran was involved in the June 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, a conclusion which could precipitate U.S. military action against Iran.

As noted earlier, a U.S.-Iran dialogue?in the absence of a similar dialogue between the United States and Baghdad?would likely be perceived in the Gulf as a tilt toward Iran and a return to the previous strategy of alternately favoring Iran or Iraq. That policy was rejected by the Clinton administration because it proved impossible to calibrate the balance between Iran and Iraq, and it is not clear that such a strategy would be more successful now. It is yet possible that policymakers will ultimately conclude that the way out of the unending security dilemma in the Gulf is to try to fundamentally restructure the Gulf from what has been, for almost three decades, a crisis-prone adversarial system into a system based on peacefulcooperation. One way to try to bring about that transition would be to organize a dialogue among all eight Gulf states, plus the United States, with all issues on the table for discussion.


1. Some of the themes in this article have been discussed by the author previously in Middle East Insight, November 1995, and the Emirates Occasional Paper Series, December 1996, in articles titled ?Beyond Dual Containment.?