March 19, 2013

US Persian Gulf Policy in Obama’s Second Term

[This article will appear, in Italian, in the next issue of Aspenia, Aspen Istitute Italia’s highly regarded journal on international affairs, with the following title: Il problema visto da Washington: oltre i pregiudizi”, Aspenia 60, conti del Golfo, aprile 2013.]

US Persian Gulf Policy in Obama’s Second Term

By Gary Sick

The beginning of a second term for an American president is a magical mystery moment: he is free (or so it is believed) of all political restraints and can therefore vanquish all the intractable problems of the first term. The reality is very different. Presidents still have political constraints, and those may actually increase in the second term as the incumbent is perceived as a lame duck. Still, at the start of his second four years, President Obama can be sure of one thing: there will be no shortage of free advice, on every subject under the sun.

 The president probably is not listening. He has had four years of on-the-job training; now he has another four years to leave a permanent mark on his times, and he knows it will not be easy. So I will resist the temptation to offer my own personal wish list. Instead, here are a few issues that will require decisions in the next four years. His choices will determine how his presidency is viewed by future generations.

 A new war in the Middle East?

 There are powerful voices in the United States pushing Obama in the direction of direct U.S. military action in the Middle East. Specifically, there are calls for more active intervention in Syria and in favor of explicit threats of military action against Iran.

 In Syria, the rationale begins with the horrors of the humanitarian disaster, as the Alawite government of Bashar al-Assad fights, literally, for its life. A second reason put forward by proponents of a more muscular policy is to neutralize Iran’s role in the Levant and counteract its direct assistance to Damascus. A third reason, which goes to the very heart of America’s policy dilemma in the 21st century, is that the United States, according to these voices, is still the indispensable nation and should not be satisfied to “lead from behind.”

 With regard to Iran, the reasoning is somewhat different. Despite the most stifling precautionary economic sanctions ever imposed against a member state of the United Nations, Iran continues to pursue its nuclear development program. The sanctions, it is argued by some, must be reinforced with clear promises of military action if Iran fails to comply with the demands of the United Nations Security Council.

 In both cases, a more aggressive U.S. posture carries real risks that minor skirmishes or even accidents could escalate quickly into a full blown war. After two enormously costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public is war weary. And most observers recognize that combat in either Iran or Syria would be far more dangerous than anything experienced since 2001.

 Obama sent a clear signal on this subject in the early days of his new term. He nominated Senator John Kerry as Secretary of State and former Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Despite the controversy surrounding the nomination of Hagel, both he and Kerry are establishment politicians who are known to be non-ideologues and moderate representatives of the “realist” school of foreign policy. Hagel is known to be his own man and to speak his mind bluntly, without regard for the conventional wisdom, which is dangerous in polarized Washington.  

 Nevertheless, both Kerry and Hagel reflect Barack Obama’s pragmatic, centrist approach to international politics. Both men are veterans of the Vietnam War, and both have been outspoken in their opposition to war under any but the most extreme circumstances. That is not a popular position with many on the right wing of American politics, but it almost certainly corresponds with the views of their commander-in-chief.

 Military Presence in the Persian Gulf

 As recently as 1986, the United States had only a tiny presence in the Gulf. Until the early 1970s, America relied on the British to handle security in the region. Then, after the British withdrawal, America turned to the shah of Iran as the proxy defender of their interests. Even after the collapse of the shah’s regime in 1979, the United States resisted stationing significant military forces in the region – partly due to Arab opposition to American bases on their soil. Even during the early years of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), American involvement was largely indirect – the so-called “over-the-horizon” strategy.

 In 1986, as the tanker war between Iran and Iraq expanded, the Arabs finally concluded that a permanent U.S. presence was required, and they invited Washington to provide escorts for Kuwaiti shipping. Within two years, the United States was drawn into sporadic combat with the Iranian navy and had established operational military facilities in several Arab states. That presence was greatly augmented when Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait in 1990. The United States responded by mobilizing a vast coalition of forces, operating from an array of regional military bases, which succeeded in driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991.

 When that war was over, the United States did not withdraw. Instead, it continued to maintain a massive presence in the region, with Arab approval and cooperation, to prevent Saddam Hussein from launching still another invasion. In retrospect, it is obvious that the rapid expansion of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf was due almost exclusively to the actions of one man, Saddam Hussein. It is hugely ironic, therefore, that the existence of this enormous military machine made it possible for President Bush to launch his invasion of Iraq in 2003.

 For a decade now, the U.S. military has fought two wars from military bases in the Gulf. Al-Udeid outside Doha, Qatar, is the most active U.S. military air field in the world.[i]  The facilities on land have been greatly augmented by U.S. naval and amphibious forces. In recent years it has been typical to have two carrier task forces on station in the region at all times. This is a huge investment of resources, which is not only expensive in dollars but also represents an important opportunity cost, since these forces are not available for other major theaters of operation.

 The U.S. war in Iraq has now ended, and American forces will be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The U.S. military presence in the Gulf is also almost certain to decline over the next four years. President Obama will set the time and pace for this withdrawal. No one expects it to be sudden or complete. However, the president has sent some important signals about his view of the future.

 The January 2011 defense planning paper, Sustaining US Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense called for a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region as military demands decline in Southwest Asia. Officials have emphasized that this does not imply an abandonment of U.S. security responsibilities in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.

 A second signal came much more recently with the announcement that the second carrier task force scheduled for deployment to the Gulf would remain in its home port due to prospective cuts in defense funding being debated in the Congress. While this may be a political ploy to apply pressure to the legislature, it no doubt also reflects the new strategic reality. It will be interesting to see if and when there will be two carriers on station again in the Persian Gulf region.


 The availability of oil for the world’s industrialized economies is and will remain a major concern for the United States. The United States assumed responsibility to protect the sea lanes to and from the Persian Gulf after the British withdrawal in 1971.  At that time, the principal threat was considered to be the Soviet Union. Today, the nature of threats to oil supplies is more ambiguous.

 In the past few years, the United States has collaborated with many of its allies to impose sanctions on Iran that have removed about one million barrels per day of Iranian oil off the market. That was accomplished with only a minor increase in the price of oil because of (1) the global recession, which reduced demand; (2) the parallel increase in production by Saudi Arabia to compensate for the loss of Iranian oil; and (3) the availability of substantial new oil and gas supplies from Iraq and from the United States itself, where a revolution is underway in the production of oil and gas from shale deposits. Thus, at least for the present, the availability of an ample global supply of oil appears to be assured, and the biggest threats to supply tend to come from natural disasters rather than any strategic interference.

 Iran at least theoretically has the possibility of interfering with shipping through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, the southern entrance into the Persian Gulf, either by attacking shipping directly or by sowing mines in the area. But in reality that is not a realistic option. Iran would soon find itself engaged in a military confrontation with all of the major Western powers, a confrontation it could not possibly win. Moreover, Iran relies on the Strait for its own oil exports, so closure of the Strait would be a losing strategy in every way.

 The question is not whether the United States would abdicate from its responsibilities for protection of the Arab Gulf states and the continued flow of oil to the world’s industrialized economies. Still, it is often forgotten that the United States fulfilled those responsibilities as recently as the first term of the Reagan administration relying on a handful of warships and virtually no shore bases. No one anticipates a hasty return to that situation; however, if oil supplies are generally secure, and particularly if a modus vivendi with Iran can be negotiated, it is reasonable to expect a gradual process of attrition, as scarce U.S. military resources are needed more urgently elsewhere.

 The Centrality of Iran

 The common element in all three of the decision issues above is Iran. Iran’s interaction with the United States and its allies will have an important influence on issues of peace and war, the need for large military deployments, and the security of oil flow from the Persian Gulf. As a simple rule of thumb, a hostile and confrontational relationship with Iran will increase the risks of war and interference with the regular flow of oil, thereby increasing pressure for the United States and others to maintain large standing military forces in the region. Alternatively, a diplomatic resolution of some outstanding issues and a more businesslike relationship on both sides could relieve many of the tensions in the region.

This is not a utopian idea. Although Iran has a well-deserved reputation for radical Islamist governance and brutal repression of its own people, its foreign policy has tended to be cautious. Iran is willing to support proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, who engage in direct conflict with Israel; however, it carefully avoids direct military confrontation itself. The great exception of course is the Iran-Iraq war, when Iran was invaded by Iraq. That war had several important lessons: with great sacrifice, Iran was able to defend its own territory but it could not project its power across the border. At the end of eight years of brutal combat, Iran was losing. Iran and Iraq together lost about 400,000 dead and probably twice that many seriously wounded. The economies of both states were devastated.

 Since that time, Iran has made occasional displays of its swarming small boats and has taken some hostages who had strayed off course, but it has been careful not to get into a shooting incident with the many naval forces that patrol off its shores in the Persian Gulf. On the nuclear side, despite the hysteria in the media, Iran has avoided any actions that would indicate that it is producing a bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s active nuclear sites, routinely reports that no material has been diverted for military use. Lately, Iran has been converting its 20% enriched uranium to keep it below the quantity needed for a bomb.

 Many experts who watch the Iranian nuclear program closely are convinced that Iran wants to have the capacity to build a bomb, which gives it status and negotiating leverage; not an actual weapon, which would make Iran a target. Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, appeared to confirm this interpretation when he recently said “We do not want to build nuclear weapons… .We believe that nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity and should not be built; and whatever weapons there are in the world should be destroyed. This is what we believe in; and this has got nothing to do with you (Americans). If we did not have such a belief and had decided to build nuclear weapons, no power could have stopped us. “[ii] This typically belligerent formulation seems to reinforce the view that Iran does not plan to build a nuclear weapon but intends to have the capability to do so independently if necessary.

Policy Contradictions

 The policies of the West – and particularly the United States – toward Iran are based on two contradictions. The first is woven into the very fabric of nuclear non-proliferation agreements.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) guarantees that non-nuclear signatories can pursue peaceful nuclear development in return for a promise not to produce nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, activities related to peaceful nuclear development are often identical to those that may eventually produce a nuclear weapon. As a consequence, many countries in the world have the technical capability to produce a nuclear weapon if and when they should decide to do so. The world lives with that ambiguity.

Iran is an original signatory of the NPT. It is much further away from an actual nuclear weapon than, say, Japan. But the world does not trust Iran to keep its promise, so a massive international campaign has been mounted to prevent Iran from doing what countries such as Brazil are doing with no criticism.

 Iran resists these demands as evidence of a double standard and refuses to submit with “a gun at its head,” in the words of Ayatollah Khamenei. Iran’s indignation is understandable, but the concern of many other countries that Iran is actually taking advantage of the loophole in the NPT is equally comprehensible. The underlying contradiction does, however, weaken the legal case against Iran.

 The second major contradiction in U.S. policy is that we proclaim Iran to be a mortal threat, yet we craft our policies as if Iran can do us no harm.

Iran is not, and will not become, a serious military threat to the United States in the foreseeable future. Iran is a midlevel power with a dysfunctional and unpopular government. Iran’s GDP is about the same as the state of Georgia in the United States, and its defense budget is a fraction of its Arab neighbors or Israel, not to mention the United States.

Iran has a robust self-defense capability but very little power projection capability. Its nuclear program may have attracted great political attention, but it has consistently failed to live up to its hype. Politicians have been (falsely) predicting the imminent appearance of a bomb in Iran’s arsenal for twenty years, and Iran’s ballistic missile development has proceeded much slower than expected by Western intelligence estimates. There is still time to pursue a negotiated settlement.

However, U.S. and Western strategy to deal with Iranian defiance has been to impose crippling sanctions in an effort to force Iran to change its policies. Those efforts have proved utterly unsuccessful over a period of several decades, and at each stage the Western response has been to add still more sanctions. Today, the sum total of the sanctions imposed against Iran is the equivalent of a national blockade, arguably an act of war.

Half of Iran’s oil exports have been blocked, their research and development has been starved, and the current banking restrictions are beginning to affect middle class families. In addition, Iranian scientists have been murdered, cyber warfare attacks have been launched against Iran’s nuclear program, and American drones have been operating in Iranian air space.

The implicit rationale for such strategies is that Iran, despite its fearsome reputation, cannot retaliate. That has been true, at least until recently. In the last year there have been a series of attempted assassinations of Israeli and other diplomats, a cyber attack on the computers of the giant Saudi Aramco oil company, and concentrated denial of service internet attacks against major American banks. Iran is widely suspected to be involved in all of these. In an amusing twist, the virus that wiped out thousands of Aramco computers contained a snippet of code that was taken from the Stuxnet virus that Israel and the United States are suspected of infiltrating into Iranian computers several years ago.

 By launching what was apparently our own cyber attack against Iran, we may have opened Pandora’s Box. Our military might dwarfs Iran, but the internet is a much more level (and anonymous) playing field. Iran produces large numbers of IT engineers from its elite universities every year. This may be the first round of salvoes in what could be the first actual combat – or at least a cold war competition – in cyberspace.

 Is Agreement Possible?

 The differences between Iran and the United States, which have prevented a resumption of diplomatic relations for 34 years since the Iranian Revolution, are rooted more in the domestic politics of the two countries than in their respective foreign policies. In the United States, attitudes toward Iran were permanently crystallized by the 444 days that Iran held American diplomats hostage. In that heavily televised crisis, Iran came to be perceived as an unruly mob of fanatics waving their fists and shouting “Death to America.” No American politician wins any votes by taking a moderate stand on Iran; instead, there is a competition to demonstrate who can take the hardest line. Hence the proliferation of harsh sanctions and the denunciation of former Senator Hagel for his expressed preference for a diplomatic solution.

 Iran, in turn, is a product of its revolution, which was anti-American as much as anti-shah. Iran today is still being governed by some of the same people who made the revolution, and they cling to the old slogans. In many cases, slogans are all that remain of a revolution that has failed to produce efficient governance and has replaced legitimacy with repression. There is a heavy measure of paranoia in the aging Iranian leadership, which prefers to blame Western interference for all its troubles, rather than critically examine its own failings.

 The historical landscape of U.S.-Iran relations is littered with misunderstandings and missed opportunities. It takes real political courage in Washington and in Tehran to articulate a negotiating agenda based on compromise and mutual confidence-building. Each side is wedded to its maximum demands, fearful that the other side will trick them or simply pocket any concessions without a reciprocal gesture.

 If the international community is willing to accept an Iran that, like Japan or dozens of other countries, has the technical capability to produce a nuclear weapon, it would almost certainly be possible to negotiate a settlement of the nuclear issue. Western negotiators have instead insisted that Iran must give up its entire uranium enrichment program. Iran, for its part, insists that its rights to pursue a full nuclear fuel cycle must be acknowledged before any progress is possible. That is a recipe for the kind of inertia and stagnation that have characterized the nuclear negotiations for the past decade.

 What is required is a working agenda that defines an end point that is acceptable to Iran but is preceded by a series of verifiable steps and confidence-building measures. The West must accept that Iran is permitted to conduct a civilian nuclear energy program, and Iran must accept limitations on its stockpiles of enriched uranium and extensive international monitoring of its nuclear activities. Both sides have indicated at times that this arrangement would be acceptable, but neither has yet been able to put a persuasive negotiating package on the table.

In his first term, President Obama indicated his willingness to engage with Iran, but his actions fell short of his words. If he is willing to invest real political capital and diplomatic creativity in a negotiating process, he could change the face of the Middle East. Past history, however, provides little basis for optimism.