No one has ever been able to travel to the Gulf without discovering just how different the perspectives and values of the West and the Middle East can be. During the last two years, however, these differences have threatened to become a chasm at the strategic level.
Many in the West still see the political upheavals in the region as the prelude to some kind of viable democratic transition. Western commentators focus on Iran largely in terms of its efforts to acquire nuclear forces, and see Saudi Arabia and the other conservative Gulf states as somehow involved in a low-level feud with Iran over status.
The reality in the Gulf is very different. Seen from the perspective of Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states, the upheavals in the Arab world have been the prelude to chaos, instability, and regime change that has produced little more than violence and economic decline. The tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia reflect a broad regional power struggle that focuses on internal security, regional power, and asymmetric threats far more than nuclear forces. It is a competition between Iran and the Arab Gulf states that affects the vital interests and survival of each regime.
This struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia is now made more complex by growing doubts among Saudis and other Arabs about their alliance with the United States and about U.S. policies in the region. At a popular level, these doubts have led to a wide range of Arab conspiracy theories that the United States is preparing to abandon its alliances in the Arab world and turn to Iran. At the level of governments and Ministries of Defense, these doubts take the form of a fear that an “energy independent” and war-weary America is in decline, paralyzed by presidential indecision and budget debates, turning to Asia, and/or unwilling to live up to its commitments in the Gulf and Middle East.
Finally, few in the United States and the West understand the extent to which this is a time when both Iran and Arab regimes face a growing struggle for the future of Islam. This is a struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ites, but also between all of the region’s regimes and violent Islamist extremists.
This is a struggle where the data issued by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center and other efforts to track the patterns in terrorism indicate almost all of the attacks and casualties are caused by Muslims attacking Muslims, and much of the violence is caused by Sunnis attacking Sunnis. The West is only on the periphery of this struggle, not its focus. It is a “clash within a civilization,” and not a clash between them.
These are Gulf and Arab perspectives that the United States and Europe cannot afford to ignore. They affect divisions and threats that are all too real in a region where some 20% of all world oil exports, and 35% of all oil shipped by sea, move through the Strait of Hormuz, along with substantial amounts of gas. Millions more barrels move through the Red Sea and an increasing flow of oil moves through Turkey, transshipment routes that are also affected by regional instability.
The global economy and that of every developed nation is heavily dependent on the stability and security of this flow, and on steady rises in its future volume. No nation can insulate itself from a crisis on the Gulf region. All nations will pay higher world prices in a crisis regardless of where their petroleum comes from. Talk of U.S. energy independence ignore the fact the U.S. Department of Energy still projected at least 32% U.S. dependence on the import of liquid fuels through 2040 in the reference case in estimates issued as recently as December 2013. More importantly, the U.S. economy will remain far more dependent indirect imports – imports of Asian exports of manufactured goods that are dependent on Gulf oil – than it is on direct imports of petroleum
Iranian and Arab Perspectives on Tensions in the Gulf and the Region
There is nothing new about Arab Gulf tension with Iran. Arab fears are built on the legacy of the Shah’s ambitions and claims to Bahrain that Iran has sporadically repeated ever since Britain withdrew from the region in the 1960s; Iranian occupation of Abu Musa and Tunbs – islands near the critical shipping challenged just West of the Strait of Hormuz; and the Shah’s nuclear weapons programs.
Arab fears are also built on eight years of Iraqi-Iranian conflict and the “tanker war” that involved the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab Gulf states during that Iraq conflict. They are built on more recent Iranian threats to close the Gulf, Iranian intervention in Lebanon dating back to the foundation of the Hezbollah, Iran’s growing role in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran’s alliance with Syria that began early in the Iran-Iraq War and has taken on a steadily more threatening form since 2011, and a major arms race in the Gulf region that has steadily accelerated since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the presidency in 2005.
Most recently, they are based on the fear that the recent nuclear agreements between the P5+1 and Iran, coupled to the lack of U.S. action in Syria, mean that the United States is either unwilling to take risks in dealing with Iran, or may reach some rapprochement with Iran at Arab expense.
The Arab perspective following the P5+1 agreement with Iran is in some ways a mirror image of Iran’s. At one level, there are Arab voices that feel some kind of lasting détente and stable strategic relationship with Iran may be possible.
At an official and military level, however, Arab fears and concerns about Iran – and particularly its role in Iraq and Syria are still all too real. In the case of Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, officials and senior officers see Iran posing a range of serious military threats from asymmetric forces to efforts to acquire nuclear-armed missile forces. They see the United States as keeping forces in the Gulf, and as providing over $70 billion worth of modern arms transfer, but as taking positions on Egypt, Iraq, and Syria that do much to explain the growing Saudi distrust of the United States and actions like refusing a seat on the UN Security Council.
At still another level, it is impossible to attend a academic Arab conference on the security situation in the Gulf without encountering a wide range of voices that really believe the United States is engaged in a secret dialogue, if not plot, to create an alliance with Iran, betray its Arab allies, and back Shi’ite instead of Sunnis. The “conspiracy theory school” of Arab Gulf opinion reflects the critical limits to strategic studies and the media in the Arab Gulf; a failure to ever examine numbers, facts, and trends; the details of the regional military balance; and the details of U.S., British, and French military cooperation and exercises with Arab forces. Like their Iranian counterparts, these Arab voices choose a conspiracy theory, push it to extremes, and never seek to verify the underlying facts.
At the same time, Iranian fears and ambitions are the mirror image of Arab views as well. They are built on some thirty years of war and tension with Arab states. Iran sees Saudi Arabia as a nation that supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, the United States in liberating Kuwait, and as an enemy backing Sunni jihadist forces in Syria. Iran is reacting to de facto Arab military alliances with the United States – as well as Britain and France. Iran has its own religious and revolutionary ambitions, and ties to Shi’ites and other sects outside Iran.
Iranian fears of the U.S. alliance with the Arab Gulf states emerge out of a history of confrontation with U.S. forces in the Gulf that took the form of active combat during the “tanker war” in 1987-1988. They respond to the times the United States seemed to present the threat of invasion of Iran after the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, when Iranians feared that might launch a major intervention to force regime change on Iran.
If one talks to Iranians in the Gulf and Europe today, some Iranians have real hope that the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 over the nuclear issue will put an end to sanctions and open up Iran to a more moderate and progressive regime.
At the same time, many Iranians who want a more moderate regime still deeply distrust the United States and the West, and see Iran as under threat when it should be the leading power in the Gulf. They see the sectarian struggle in Islam as a growing struggle between Shi’ites and Sunni extremists, see Iran as facing encirclement by hostile states, and see Iran as the victim of a massive military build up by the Gulf states and the United States. They often fear U.S. ties to the Arab states as much as the Arab states fear U.S. actions that would align the United States with Iran.
Other more hardline Iranians feel the United States and Europe will accept nothing less than a weakened and vulnerable Iran, drastic regime change, and U.S. and Arab dominance. This kind of thinking is particularly common among the most hardline clerics and officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), but even quiet personal conversations with moderate Iranians in Europe and the Gulf make it clear that most Iranians see a threat to their nation and culture, question U.S. motives and goals, and worry about Sunni extremism.
“Arab Spring” versus National Survival
These tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states cannot be separated from the political upheavals in other parts of the Arab world, tensions with the United States, and the other factors driving the full mix of security issues in the region. They are part of a game of three dimensional chess where there are no rules and the piece often seem to move on their own, but every regional power has to play.
For what should be obvious reasons – but which seem to be obvious to few in the West – Saudi and other Gulf officials and officers – and key members of royal families — do not see the upheavals in the Arab world as some kind of “Spring” or prelude to political reform, democracy, and development. Like Iranian leaders, officials, and officers, they put national stability and security first.
This is not simply a matter of regime survival – although no leader or regime in world wants to “go gentle into that great night.” Most see the faults in their country and political system, but they also see the cost of every upheaval to date in terms of massive political instability, failed new political systems and governance, economic crisis, refugees, and human suffering.
They look across the region and they see chaos in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq, and Yemen. With a considerable Sunni bias, they see instability in Bahrain and see a U.S. and European emphasis on “human rights” and “democracy” that so far has done little more than devastate the nations most affected and directly threaten their country and their political system.
The more sophisticated and informed Saudi and Gulf leaders and officials do not share conspiracy theories about U.S. plots with Iran or U.S. and European efforts to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt. They do, however, see U.S. and allied efforts in Iraq as having led to the creation of a de facto Shi’ite dictatorship in there, as well as the destruction of the Iraqi forces that served as a military counterbalance to Iran until the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
They see U.S. and European efforts at reform as being just as ineffective and destabilizing in Afghanistan, and as having been a key factor in Mubarak’s fall and the creation of political and economic chaos in an Egypt – a chaos where many Arab officials and analysts privately question how long the Egyptian military can bring some degree of order and stability. Arab leaders see a lack of any concerted or useful U.S. and European effort in Libya or Tunisia. They see a focus on Shi’ite rights in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that ignores the risk of violence and instability, and the role Iran has played in supporting such Shi’ite actions – a role they sometimes exaggerate but which U.S. and European intelligence experts and diplomats do feel is real to some degree.
Western experts may argue with some justification that the upheavals in the Arab world since 2011 have been the product of decades of authoritarian repression, weak and ineffective governance, failed social policies, poor economic development and growing inequality of income distribution, corruption, and crony capitalism – points made equally clear by Arab experts in the series of Arab Development Reports issued by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
The fact remains, however, that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies have valid reasons to see these upheavals as direct threats on or near their borders, and to the two other remaining monarchies in Morocco and Jordan, and can argue that they were far better at meeting popular needs with their oil wealth than any of the Arab states with titular presidents and pseudo democracies. It is also interesting to note how many Russian and Chinese diplomats and scholars have the same impression of the results of the upheavals in the Arab world and the Western response – views that strike an immediate chord with Arab experts at conferences and meetings in the region.
It is hard to argue why most citizens of any Arab Gulf state or Arab monarchy would envy or want to emulate any citizen of Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, or Yemen. Whatever hopes outsiders may have in the eventual triumph of modernization, democracy, and development, it is far from clear why anyone in their right minds would want to live through any of the examples of such transitions to date. At present, the best any outside power can do is to try to find the least bad course of action. There are no good sides, merely ones that offer less risk and less potential for future damage.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states view the Arab spring in different terms from Iran. The political upheavals in the Arab world have so far benefited Iran. It may face a greater threat from Sunni extremism, but it has had new opportunities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. It no longer faces a stable and largely hostile Egypt, and it has new opportunities to try to make use of the Shi’ites in the Arab Gulf states and Yemen.
The Arab-Israeli Peace Process and Preventive Strikes
The tensions between Iran one the one side and Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states on the other are further complicated by the role of Israel and its relations with the United States. For Iran, Israel has been as much a convenient political tool as a serious threat. While some Iranian leaders really do oppose Israel’s right to exist – and see its mature thermonuclear-armed missile forces as a serious threat – many others have seen demonizing Israel as a way to justify Iran’s military build-up, nuclear programs, role in Lebanon and Syria, and Islamic legitimacy in spite of its Shi’ite character.
Iran cannot ignore the risk Israel poses in terms of preventive strikes on its nuclear facilities, as a potential trigger to U.S. intervention if Israel acts unilaterally, and role in pressuring the United States to take a hard line on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear programs. At the same time, Iran may feel that its negotiations with the P5+1 have reduced or ended that risk and it may still be able to covertly pursue a nuclear option.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states have to live with the fact that the United States is Israel’s closest and only major ally. They have to live with the priority the United States – and especially the U.S. Congress – gives to Israel, and with the uncertainties this creates for U.S. policy and arms sales.
The Saudi and Arab League peace proposals have made it clear that most Arab leaders want to put an end to the issue, but they have made it equally clear that they do give serious priority to Palestinian concerns and the issue of the Islamic status of Jerusalem. As a result, they view Secretary Kerry’s new peace efforts with deep distrust, many see the United States as a major barrier to reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian leadership on the west Bank, and many see U.S. efforts as weak and doing little more than buy time for Israel to create new facts on the ground.
Saudi Arabia and Israel do share one common goal: opposing Iran’s nuclear programs. This eases their tensions to some degree. The fact remains, however, that they do not share any other common goals, have different priorities in dealing with the United States, and very different priorities in dealing with the other aspects of Iran’s conduct – particularly in dealing with Syria and with the military threat that Iran poses in the Gulf.
A Different Set of Threat Perceptions and Priorities
If one analyzes the security threats shaping Iranian and Saudi tensions in more detail, it is important to understand the hierarchy of how both Iran and Saudi Arabia perceive such threats. Internal security and counterterrorism come first. Regional security and influence come second, asymmetric and conventional warfare come third, and the Iranian nuclear threat comes last – in some ways the exact reversal of how many in the West see regional security priorities.
Threat Priority One: Internal Threats and Regime Stability
At this point in time, the Iranian regime seems to feel relatively secure in dealing with its internal threats – although that feeling of security still seems relative. U.S. and other outside efforts at regime change have had little or no real effect. The “green revolution” has been largely suppressed. No one takes the “baby Shah” or Mujahideen-e-Khalq (People’s Mujahedin of Iran) seriously.
Arab unrest in Iran’s southwest seems to have been fully suppressed, and anti-regime elements in the Baluch areas in the southeast east are capable of only token violence. President Rouhani may be a “moderate” within the Iranian power structure but does not contest the Supreme Leader’s position or role. If anything, he is a lightning rod that defuses the legacy of Ahmadinejad’s extremism.
The Saudi and Arab Gulf perspective on their internal threats is different. Ever since 2003, Saudi Arabia has faced an all too real threat from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – one it has largely brought under control inside the Kingdom but which has moved to Yemen and remains an active threat. The other Arab Gulf states face lesser threats from Sunni Jihadist extremism, but these threats are still all too real and are reflected in major increases in internal security forces as well as in major new efforts at a job creation and meeting other popular expectations.
The demographic and economic forces that helped generate the political upheavals in the rest of the Arab world increasingly interact with terrorism and religious extremism. Massive increases in mature populations have left many young men without jobs or with disguised unemployment – estimates as high as 20-30% in Saudi Arabia. While Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE have enough wealth to buy off such tensions for at least the near term, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Bahrain do not.
Few in the US and West understand just how relative oil “wealth” is in terms of per capita income, job creation and value, and economic incentive to support the regime. The CIA estimates that Qatar ranks 1st – and it the wealthiest state in per capita terms in the world. Kuwait ranks 25th. The UAE ranks 49th, but only if both the native and foreign labor are counted. The UAE has more than enough wealth to take care of its native citizens.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia ranks 44th — a moderate ranking by world standards for a nation with a large native population. It is a tribute to the Saudi royal family, technocrats, and businessmen, and other members of the Saudi elite that they have reacted to these pressures with a massive investment and economic and educational reform effort. Iran – with a dismally low per capita income ranking of 100th in the world, has tended to rely far more on propaganda and repression, and most other Arab states have relied on rhetoric and let the situation grow worse.
The other Arab states face progressively more serious problems. Oman ranks 51st in GDP per capita, and Bahrain ranks 52nd – ranks that are moderate to low. As for the other Arab states in the Gulf region, Jordan ranks 147th, Iraq ranks 140th, and Yemen ranks 187th — all at the low to crisis level and all effectively facing serious threats to internal stability.
Several of the Arab Gulf states also face sectarian threats that they fear Iran now actively exploits. Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Yemen have significant Shi’ite populations, and Bahrain – a partial shield to Saudi Arabia – has a Shi’ite majority. No one has a reliable estimate of the relative percentages of Sunni and Shi’ite nature populations or Shi’ite foreign workers and residents. They have, however, presented internal security problems in each Gulf state, in part because they often face religious, economic and political discrimination. Iran, for its part, does not face any serious internal sectarian threats.
While Arab Gulf states sometimes exaggerate Iran’s role in covert efforts to use their Shi’ite population, U.S. and European intelligence experts do agree that a combination of a covert elements of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards called the Al Quds Force – the same group that attempted to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir in the US – and the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security of the Islamic Republic of Iran (MISIRI or MOIS) have actively supported Shi’ite unrest in the Arab Gulf and particularly in Bahrain and Yemen.
Given the primacy that Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states now assign to internal security, this is a driving factor in their perceptions of Iran as a threat that matches the threat posed by Jihadists and violent Sunni extremism.
Threat Priority Two: Arab Gulf Tensions with Iran over Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon
If one looks at the second set of threats and tensions in terms of Iranian, Saudi, and other Arab Gulf perspectives, it is again important to point out that Saudi and Arab Gulf strategic priorities do not give Iran’s nuclear programs the same priority as do those of the United States, Europe, and Israel. Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are particularly concerned with the threats posed by the outcome of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the political upheavals in Syria, and the long-standing instability of Lebanon have created. They fear what Arab voices like King Abdullah of Jordan have called the “Shi’ite crescent” – a zone of Iranian influence which extends from the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.
Iran now has a significant military presence and zone of influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The U.S. invasion of Iraq not only destroyed Iraqi military capability to counterbalance Iran, it created a level of sectarian and ethnic tensions and Shi’ite dominated central government which has come to give Iran more influence in Iraq than the United States. Iraq is not an Iranian proxy, but it also is not an “Arab state” tied to other Arab states, and its Shi’ites and not its Sunnis are now the dominant political elite.
The Arab Gulf states do not take a unified approach to Iraq, but Saudi Arabia and several other states see Prime Minister Maliki and his government as being under heavy Iranian influence and Iraq as a potential threat. Saudi Arabia has adjusted its military forces to deal with a potential threat from Iraq and Iran in the upper Gulf and with the fact that Iraq has an 814-kilometer long border with Iran. Saudi Arabia is building a security fence and barrier along this entire border, and also plans for the risk that Iran might try to thrust through Iraq against Kuwait. While Saudi Arabia probably does not see these as a high probability threats, it again has a fundamentally different perspective from the United States and Europe. These threats are on its borders, and proximity alone gives them a strategic importance that Saudi Arabia cannot ignore.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia and all of the Gulf states see the Syrian civil war as a nightmare that has created a humanitarian disaster, tied Assad to Alawite and Iranian support, pushed Sunni rebels increasingly into Jihadist extremism, and linked instability in sectarian conflict in Iraq to sectarian conflict in Syria and Lebanon – boosting Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in ways that have spread its influence deeply into Syria and had some impact in strengthening Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, (AQAP) in posing a threat inside Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
The end result not only poses what Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Arab states see as a serious growth in Iran’s influence and the Iranian threat, it has raised serious questions about the credibility of the U.S. role in the Gulf and the credibility of many of the West’s humanitarian goals and postures.
Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Arab states do not really care about U.S. efforts to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons or hold conferences like Geneva II. They care about the U.S. and European failure to make good on claims they would back moderate rebel elements against Assad and above all, President Obama’s failure to strike Assad’s military with cruise missiles after the regime employed chemical weapons in August. They care about the outcome of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the U.S. treatment of Egypt and Mubarak, they raise serious Saudi and Arab concerns about placing trust in the United States – especially in the light of the P5+1 agreement with Iran and the U.S. secret talks with Iran that helped make such an agreement possible.
And yet, Iran has regional fears of its own that fuel its tensions with the Arab Gulf states. Iran’s gains in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria are tenuous. Iran’s level of regional vulnerability remains all too real, and its influence only goes as far as the self-interest of Iraqi, the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and independent Shi’ite and Alawite factions coincide with Iran’s policies. As always, the Middle East is a region where alliances are sometimes for rent but never for lasting sale.
Iran’s leaders have to understand that Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are not Iran’s “proxies.” Even Iran’s allies will only be its allies to the extent this is clearly to their advantage. None take Iran’s revolution or its concept of a Supreme Leader seriously, and Alawites are not Shi’ites in any meaningful sense of the term. All of the regional states Iran can see as partial allies are Arab, not Persian.
In spite of Saudi and Arab Gulf doubts about the United States, Iranians also understand that sanctions are all too real; US and P5+1 pressures to limit Iran’s arms imports have been effective; and the United States possesses overwhelming dominance in air, sea, and missile power, supported by key allies like Britain and France.
Threat Priority Three: The Threat of Asymmetric Warfare and “Closing the Gulf”
The third set of threats that shape the tensions between Iran — and Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states – is the steady build-up of Iran’s asymmetric warfare capabilities in the Gulf, around the Strain of Hormuz, and in the Gulf of Oman. Iran has steadily repeated its threats to use its steadily increasing number of mine warfare, missile attack boats, IRGC naval forces, submarines and undersea craft, and land and air-launched anti-ship missiles to “close the Gulf.”
Iran first made such threats publically in June 2008, when Mohammed Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards threatened that if Iran would close the Strait of Hormuz if Iran were attacked by either Israel or the United States. It stepped up such threats repeatedly in 2012, and it steadily increased its exercise activity after 2008 to show how serious its threat could be – along with creating new bases and dispersal facilities along its entire coast within the Gulf on key Iranian islands, and increasing its capability to deploy forces east of the Strait and in the Gulf of Oman.
As Iran’s exercises again made clear in January, February, April, and July 2013; Iran has created very real military capabilities and regularly exercises them. There is nothing symbolic about these Iranian activities, and while the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab Gulf states could counter even the most determined Iranian effort this could take up to several weeks to make effective enough to reopen the Gulf under worst case circumstances.
This Iranian build up has been serious enough for the United States to hold major international anti-mine warfare exercises, work with Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states to improve their ability to defend their coasts and facilities in the Gulf, deploy more mine warfare and patrol boats, deploy a Special Forces command ship and base in the Gulf, and create and begin to implement plans for restructuring the 5th Fleet and U.S. air and missile capabilities in the region.
It helps explain why the United States transferred some $50.4 billion worth of new arms deliveries between 2004 and 2011 – out of total Arab Gulf orders of $78.4 billion, and why it now has over $70 billion worth of new orders in delivery or the pipeline – many of which will give Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Arab Gulf some of the most advanced air combat, land-based air defense, and naval warfare capabilities in the world.
Threat Priority Four: Missiles and Air-Sea Conflict
The fourth set of threats that divide Iran from Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states lies in the changing balance of Iranian missile forces vis-a-vis U.S. and Arab Gulf missile defenses and air-sea power. Iran is not waiting for nuclear weapons to build-up steadily larger ballistic missile forces that can attack targets throughout the Gulf. While Israel may worry about the longest-range Iranian missile systems like the Shahab 3, and the United States may worry about the longer term risk of some form of Iranian missile capability to strike deep in Europe or reach the United States – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states already face a far more serious and very different missile and rocket threat.
Many of Iran’s short to medium-range ballistic missiles can be used to strike any area target in the Gulf. Some of its artillery rockets could be used to strike targets in the Gulf or nearest to Iran. Unclassified estimates of such numbers and capabilities are very uncertain, as are the level of precision in Iranian strike capability and its ability to lunched large enough numbers or “volleys” of such weapons to do serious damage to key targets rather than act as terror weapons that destroy building and kill civilians almost at random.
This is why virtually all of the Arab Gulf states have bought improved versions of the Patriot and are examining options for far more advanced missile defenses like THAAD and the Standard. It is why the United States is deploying new missile defense ships in the Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean.
Iran also is seeking to create more accurate systems that can attack critical infrastructure and point targets in the Gulf and on the Arab side of the Gulf. It is developing cruise missiles and armed drones. It also is developing long-range anti-ship missiles and drones and other systems to target them. The Iranian missile threat is adding to the naval threat posed by Iran’s ability to use smaller patrol boats, submarines and submersibles, and a variety of ordinary and “smart” mines.
This is why the combination of U.S. and Arab Gulf air and sea strike power has taken on new meaning regardless of the Iranian nuclear threat, and another reason why Saudi and Arab Gulf concern with the depth of the U.S. commitment to defend them is so critical.
As long as the United States is a reliable ally, Iran is anything but the “hegemon of the Gulf.” It has no truly advanced combat aircraft in inventory – only a limited number of early export versions of the MiG-29, as well as Su-24s, F-14s and F-4s left over from the time of the Shah. Its basic land based air defense systems consists of versions of the U.S. Hawk surface-to-air missile whose technology dates back the Shah, and Russian and Chinese systems which – with the except of few very short-range TOR-Ms, date back to the Vietnam War.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE alone each have far more advanced combat aircraft like the F-15, F-16, and Typhoon in larger numbers than Iran. While neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE emphasizes the fact, they both are buying long-range precision strike systems they can use against Iran. The United States not only has carriers, but land-based air forces in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE and access to British facilities in Diego Garcia. It can deploy steadily larger numbers of stealth strike aircraft and more advanced air-to-surface weapons and sea-launched cruise missiles.
The United States also has a vast advantage in terms of modern naval systems, key command and control systems, and sea-air-space based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. It can strike — and coordinate strikes — on Iran as well as use them to defend and deter in ways no other nation can come close to matching. Moreover, these U.S. capabilities, bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states, and regular Gulf-wide and bilateral exercises and training activity allow the United States to make up for the fact the Gulf Cooperation Council has made only limited and largely cosmetic progress increasing any ability to effectively coordinate Arab Gulf forces.
It is this combination of U.S., Saudi, and other Arab Gulf forces – with British and French support – that offsets the Iranian advantage in asymmetric forces and missiles, underpins deterrence and defense in the Gulf area, and acts as a key stabilizing force. At the same time, the limits to Arab capability without the United States remain critical, pose very real Iranian threats to Saudi Arabia and its Arab neighbors, and again help create deep Saudi and Arab concerns about the reliability and persistence of the U.S. role in the Gulf.
Threat Priority Five: The Nuclear Arms Race
The fact that Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states do not give priority to the nuclear threat over more immediate threats does not mean they do not recognize that it is real. It also does not mean that they do not share U.S. concern with preventing an Iranian nuclear breakout that is the current focus of the P5+1.
Key Saudi voices have pushed for a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is considering its own military options.
Saudi Arabia has upgraded its Chinese supplied ballistic missile forces and to have expanded its launch areas. Key Saudi strategic thinkers like Prince Turki al-Faisal have said that the Saudis are considering a nuclear option, and some analysts feel that Pakistan might sell Saudi Arabia nuclear weapons.
The United States has also done more than negotiate. It has steadily refined and improved its military options for preventive strikes. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began to discuss giving the Arab Gulf states the same kind of extended nuclear deterrence that the United States once offered Europe in 2008, and made this offer public in a NPR radio broadcast on August 29, 2009. The United States has repeatedly said it will not tolerate Iranian deployment of nuclear weapons and that it has developed military options for preventive strikes – planning informally confirmed by U.S. officers in the staff of the U.S. joint chiefs.
Israel has clearly planned and exercised more limited forms of preventive strikes. More importantly, it has long been engaged in a preemptive nuclear arms race with Iran that both Iran and Arab states like Saudi Arabia are fully aware of. Israel sharply upgraded the range-payload of its missile booster in the late 1980s, and had a remarkable level of access to French fission and thermonuclear weapons design and test data before De Gaulle publically cut French ties to Israel in November 1967.
At the same time, there are reasons why Saudi Arabia is uncertain about the present and future U.S. commitment to the defense of the Gulf and support of Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states – and future P5+1 enforcement of a truly meaningful nuclear agreement with Iran. Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned about the prospect of Iran actually deploying a nuclear force that might offset the credibility of both U.S. and Arab Gulf deterrent forces and willingness to actually use them. Recent calls in the Iranian Majlis for 60% enrichment if the United States increases sanctions have not helped ease Saudi concerns, nor have all the uncertainties surrounding Iranian weapons development activities and possible simulated tests at place like Parchin.
From a Saudi perspective, Iran’s nuclear programs are not an exercise in status or prestige. They are not a matter of reaching the nuclear threshold. They are a matter of Iran actually acquiring a capability that could begin with some real nuclear launch on warning or launch under attack capability, test the credibility of US security guarantees and Arab willingness to act, compensate for the limits to Iran’s conventional missiles, and offset the current massive Saudi, Arab Gulf, and U.S. advantage in aid and sea power.
Moreover, references to existential nuclear threats apply far more to a Saudi Arabia and Arab Gulf without nuclear weapons than to an Israel, Israel may be a state with a small population and list of key targets, but Israel has the ability to launch thermonuclear warheads against every Iranian city and produce at least as much existential damage to Iran.
What Bernard Brodie might have called the “indelicate balance of terror” in the Gulf region is another very real issue dividing Iran and Saudi Arabia, creating deep concern over just how real the P5+1 agreement with Iran will prove to be, and the strength of alliances with the United States. In fact any such Iranian capability is at least several years away – as distinguished from timelines that could be less than a year for some kind of Iranian rush to detonate a first nuclear fissile event – do not mean that nuclear threats are not a key and real part of the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Looking Towards the Future
There are no easy ways to deal with any of the major forces that now divide Iran and Saudi Arabia and threaten the stability and security of a region so critical to the global economy. It is all too easy to “round up the usual suspects” and call for regional security conferences and solutions, more arms control negotiations and treaties, more dialogue and confidence building measure, and trust in the good intentions of all involved. Rounding up the usual suspects, however, has led to remarkably little real world progress in conflict resolution to date, and once again there are so many key variables that this is a game of three dimensional chess where there are no clear rules and no clear limits to the number of players.
Some things are clear. A truly successful P5+1 agreement with Iran could have a powerful impact in eliminating the most dangerous mid-to-longer term threat in the region. Firm U.S. and other P5+1 insistence on a real and verified elimination of Iranian nuclear weapons efforts would go a long way towards creating military stability, just as ending sanctions and establishing normal relations between the P+1 and Iran would greatly ease Iranian fears and concerns. This will take at least year, but it is a beginning.
U.S. efforts to reassure Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states that it will not turn to Iran, and will sustain its military alliance, will be critical to any Saudi and Arab willingness to deal with Iran and avoid Arab efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. The United States has already begun such efforts with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s visit to the Gulf in early December 2013, and his December 7th speech at the Manama Dialogue.
As Secretary Hagel pointed out, the United States actually increased its presence and exercise activity with Arab states in 2012, will deliver some $70 billion more worth of advanced arms, and its strategy and defense planning documents give the Middle East the same priority as Asia. These are reassurances, however, that the United States now needs to repeat and publicize on a much broader level, and do in cooperation with Britain and France. The only meaningful criteria for reassuring an ally is that you must do it as often and as in many ways as they want.
The United States and Europe also need to stop seeing regional political upheavals as some brief prelude to the triumph of Western values and democracy, and focus on their real world human impact as well as the threat to they pose. This does not mean accepting repression or exaggerated claims of Iranian involvement, but it does mean giving the security and stability of allied states the priority it deserves. It means accepting the fact that years of effort will now be needed with unstable states and changing regimes. It means dealing with the human consequences of what is happening, and understanding how deep the threat of the religious struggles within Islam and posed by violent religious extremism has become.
Finally, it means all sides need to begin efforts to find some form of a credible negotiated security structure in the Gulf that can ease the current arms race. It may take years before serious negotiations are possible, but some form of negotiations are needed to produce more trust between Iran and Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, and gradually ease Arab reliance U.S. and European presence in the Gulf without either creating new Arab fears or empowering Iran. This may take a decade in the real world, and a real and fully enforced P5+1 agreement with Iran is an essential precondition to making a meaningful beginning. It is, however, the only strategic goal that can ensure lasting security and stability.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.