Potential of Gulf states to influence US policy

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By Kenneth Katzman

Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been loyal and crucial allies of US policy in the Gulf region for over three decades. Some Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have been pillars of US Gulf policy since the end of World War II. Furthermore, the Gulf states have fully supported all US interventions in the region in which their interests matched those of the United States. The 1991 Persian Gulf War against Saddam Hussein is one such example.

Perhaps more significant is that the Gulf states have even supported the United States in cases where the outcome of US intervention might threaten GCC interests. They supported Operation Iraqi Freedom (in March 2003) which aimed to remove Saddam Hussein from power, making bases and facilities available but not supplying any actual forces. The GCC states provided this logistical and material support (although publicly opposing the action as an unjustified war on an Arab state) even though they knew that ousting Saddam would inevitably lead to an Iraq dominated by the majority Shiite Arab Muslims.


GCC logistical support for Operation Iraqi Freedom also demonstrates the limits of GCC influence over US policy in the region. At the time of the US decision (from late 2002 to 2003) to remove Saddam militarily, none of the GCC states was agitating for a US invasion of Iraq. A March 2002 visit to the region by then US Vice President Richard Cheney was intended to elicit the views of some of the GCC states on any US effort to invade Iraq. Statements by Gulf and other Arab leaders during the visit indicated that they had told the vice president that Saddam was well contained and was no longer a threat to the region, and that US policy should focus on resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute. Implicit within those sentiments was the opposition of the Gulf states to Iraq's likely emergence as a Shiite-run state likely to be sympathetic to Iran. And that has been the outcome, in large measure, although Iraqi voters in provincial and then national elections in 2009 and 2010 have largely rejected extensive Iranian influence inside Iraq. However, the lessons of these examples are that Gulf state influence over major US national security decisions involving the Gulf region is inherently limited.

Iraq Policy

We will likely see key and major decisions regarding the Gulf region being made by the US over the next three years. First and foremost will be the decision on whether to fulfil US President Barack Obama's stated timetable – which is enshrined in the 2008 US-Iraq 'Security Agreement' – to withdraw the remaining US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. As of 1 September 2010, there are approximately 50 000 US forces in Iraq, but Iraqi leaders have been unable to form a government more than six months after that country's 7 March 2010 general elections, and high-profile violent attacks in Iraq have continued throughout much of 2010. If the violence escalates, it is likely that Iraq and the United States might renegotiate the Security Agreement to permit a US military presence beyond 2011 to back up Iraqi forces and continue training them.

The Gulf states fear a return of sectarian warfare in Iraq. If their fears are realised, it will almost certainly result in a return to the streets by Shiite militias armed by Iran. However, it is highly unlikely that the Gulf states will have a major influence over what is decided between the United States and Iraq. Any mutual agreement for US troops to remain in Iraq beyond 2011 will almost certainly be a product of a joint US-Iraqi discussion, and will be based on whether or not Iraq can be secured by Iraqi forces alone.

However, it can also be argued that the GCC states will not seek major influence over a US decision about the latter's post-2011 presence in Iraq. Even at the height of the sectarian conflict in Iraq – from 2006 to 2007, this conflict did not spill over or threaten the vital security interests of the GCC states. Contrary to the expectations of some experts, the GCC did not intervene significantly to help their Sunni Arab brethren during this period of strife.

Iran Policy

In terms of US-GCC planning and cooperation, policy on Iran is far more complicated than is policy toward Iraq. In the first instance, decisions about war and peace in Iraq have already been made. On Iran, almost every option imaginable is still 'on the table' for consideration.

It is clear that the GCC states – which are well within striking range of a wide variety of Iranian retaliatory options – would prefer to prevent the emergence of a nuclear armed Iran without a US or Israeli resort to armed force against Iran. The United States, in repeated statements by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, have also stated that the use of force against Iran's nuclear programme would likely produce major unintended consequences and would not necessarily achieve the long-term objective of suppressing that Iranian programme.

The issue, for the United States, the GCC states, Israel, and others is: are the effects of a nuclear armed Iran worse than the effects of taking military action to prevent a nuclear armed Iran. On this point, there is fertile debate within and among all countries concerned. For now, the United States and the GCC states appear to have reached similar conclusions: that an attack on Iran is a highly undesirable option, and that any decision on such an option is to be deferred until Iran's nuclear intent and capabilities become clear and are too far advanced to be amenable to those options now being employed.

For now, in an environment in which the International Atomic Energy Agency continues to find no evidence that Iran has diverted nuclear material for enrichment beyond 20 percent (as in its early September 2010 report), the United States and the GCC states do not believe that the situation is at 'crisis' level. That perception is enhanced by the view that there is an emerging global consensus to impose increasingly strict economic sanctions against Iran. Between July and September 2010, the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, Japan, Canada, Australia, and South Korea all imposed sanctions on Iran that were far more comprehensive than had been expected, even though doing so hurt the business prospects of their companies. Iran's economy has yet to feel the full effects of these measures, but Iranian officials have already conceded that these new sanctions will constrain their ability to develop a liquefied natural gas sector, for example. The assessment of the United States and its allies is that current policy towards Iran has started to affect the political and foreign policy calculations of Iran's leaders, and should be given additional time to produce a change of position on Iran's nuclear enrichment program. This growing sense of optimism about the potential success of economic sanctions against Iran has also, temporarily at least, forestalled Israeli agitation that Iran's nuclear programme must be stopped almost immediately, and militarily if necessary.

Yet, there is still a question of whether the GCC states would back US military action if the US decided that a nuclear Iran was too threatening a scenario to be permitted. The UAE ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, said in July 2010 that his country would rather back a strike on Iran if no other options succeeded than see Iran become a nuclear state. His comments were considered to reflect the thinking of a good portion of not only his government, but of the other GCC governments as well. However, the GCC states will not, by themselves, come to a conclusion on when sanctions and diplomacy have run their course as options. Rather, the GCC states will carefully examine the US decision-making process and will almost certainly back any decision that the US makes. They will make available the facilities that are currently being used by the United States for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for a military mission against Iran. Further, if there is a decision to take action, the GCC states will ask the United States for all possible missile defence and counter-terrorism defences to brace themselves for Iranian retaliation.

A decision to allow time for sanctions and diplomacy to produce a satisfactory outcome does provide the GCC states with significant opportunities to assist US policy. They are in a position actually to improve the prospects for this policy track to succeed by implementing UN and US sanctions that have been imposed on Iran. For example, a new US law signed on 1 July 2010, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), imposes sanctions on energy companies that supply Iran with over one million dollars worth of gasoline, including aviation fuel. Even before enactment of the legislation, many of the major gasoline suppliers in Europe had stopped supplying Iran. However, reports began to surface that small refiners in Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE were attempting to make up the shortfall. US officials subsequently began talks with these countries and their energy industries to try to encourage cooperation with the US effort to cut gasoline supply to Iran. Such measures are part of the US strategy to create economic and political pressure within Iran for a change of Iran's position on the nuclear issue.

The GCC states are also in a position to facilitate US strategy by cooperating to demonstrate to Iran that its nuclear programme is counterproductive – that is, to show Iran that its programme will not deliver absolute security but will, instead, make Iran less secure. This has begun to be demonstrated to Iran though a programme called the Gulf Security Dialogue (GSD). The GSD envisions a major round of new arms sales to the Gulf, focusing heavily on an integrated missile defence system and sales of advanced combat aircraft and naval systems. Many of these sales have already begun and more are planned, including a reported major purchase of US-made F-15s by Saudi Arabia. The UAE has purchased the most advanced US missile defence system available – the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system, although it has not been delivered as yet.

The GCC states are, furthermore, in a position to head off war with Iran by helping the United States try to slow down Iran's nuclear progress. Much of Iran's nuclear programme relies on obtaining technology and materials from abroad. The UN sanctions that have been imposed since 2006 prohibit sales to Iran of virtually all technology that it could use. Iran is well-known to have an active procurement apparatus in Dubai to buy such equipment in a manner that bypasses the sanctions. The United States has been working with UAE authorities to try to shut down UAE firms that are knowingly selling advanced technology to Iran, but such an effort requires vast resources to ensure effectiveness. The United States has sought a more proactive approach from the UAE, in which it uses its own law enforcement resources to exercise constant vigilance against illicit Iranian procurement. However, the UAE's results, to date, have been mixed, and a provision of the US CISADA law does provide for tightening of US export controls to countries that are allowing technology to leak to Iran. The UAE was a clear target of this provision in that law.

The US and the GCC states might encounter a major rift in the event that any or all of the GCC states decide to try to achieve a nuclear weapons capability to counter an Iranian capability. Thus far, the United States has supported a peaceful nuclear programme in the UAE because the UAE has agreed to strict safeguards that would prevent its use for a weapons programme. Should the UAE, alone or in concert with its GCC allies, decide to abrogate such controls, and to build a countervailing nuclear programme, a rift is likely to emerge between the United States and the GCC states. A multiplication of nuclear programmes in the Gulf region is certain to lead, eventually, to miscalculation and possible nuclear use. The United States will forcefully attempt to persuade the Gulf states to shut down any nuclear weapons programme, and to cooperate with a US containment strategy against Iran, within a US security umbrella. The question of a United States security umbrella has been raised several times by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, including during her 2008 presidential campaign, and is likely to form a major underpinning of US strategy if Iran becomes a nuclear state.

* Dr. Kenneth Katzman is an expert with the Congressional Research Service of the United States of America, and a senior analyst of African and Middle East affairs for the Library of Congress. He wrote this article, however, in his personal capacity

** This article is published in terms of a partnership agreement between the Afro-Middle East Centre and the AlJazeera Centre for Studies

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 March 2015 15:49

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