From the CIAO Atlas Map of Middle East 

Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

May 2001 (Vol. XXV No. 2)


The US Policy Towards the Persian Gulf: Continuity and Change
By Mohd Naseem Khan *



Since the end of World War II, the Persian Gulf region has always been a top priority in the US security policy. The most important US security concern in the region is an assured and uninterrupted supply of oil. Throughout the Cold War period, the US policy was primarily concentrated towards containing and countering the threats of growing Soviet political and military influence in the Gulf. After the end of the Cold War and the victory of the Coalition forces against Iraq, the US perceived Iran and Iraq as the major threats to its interests in the area. The adoption of the "dual containment" policy was meant to weaken them militarily, politically and economically. The US, however, was not fully successful in containing Iran due to a lack of international support. The victory of the moderates in both the presidential and Majlis elections in Iran, meanwhile, has brought about changes in Iran's relations across the globe. As a result, US policy towards Iran has undergone a perceptible change from confrontation to conciliation. Nonetheless, the US maintains a large military presence in the Gulf region. The Cooperative Defence Initiative (CDI), is a grand military strategy to safeguard US strategic interests which could also have some negative consequences in the region.


The Persian Gulf 1 region has always been among the priority areas in the overall US foreign security policy since the end of World War II. The most significant US policy goal in the Gulf is to maintain uninterrupted flow of oil at a reasonable price and in sufficient quantities to meet its requirements and those of its allies. US policy is also designed to preclude and counter any hostile foreign and regional power from gaining control and influence in the region. To achieve these goals, the US has evolved a series of alliances, security relationships, and arms transfer agreements with the Gulf states. In the post-Gulf War era, Washington has armed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states with sophisticated weapons, and trained them to effectively defend their territorial integrity and political interests against Iran and Iraq. 2

The huge reserves of oil and natural gas have made the Gulf a critically important region of the world. By current estimates, the Gulf region contains approximately 60 per cent of the world's total proven petroleum reserves. This oil is vital to the world economy and the geostrategic location of this region adds to its importance. The Gulf is a major waterway for shipping between the East and West. The geographical proximity to Russia has enhanced its importance to the United States.

Throughout the Cold War period, the US security policy in the Gulf was mainly concentrated towards containing and countering the influence of the Soviet Union, radical nationalists, and left-wing movements in the region. These were considered the main threats to regional security and especially the interests of the United States. The US adopted various policies in pursuit of these goals. After the end of the Cold War, and its victory in the Gulf War against Iraq, the US perceived Iran and Iraq as the major threats to its interests in the area. The "dual containment" policy of the US towards both the countries has been aimed at weakening them militarily, politically and economically. But this policy was not fully successful in respect of Iran due to lack of support from its allies and other countries. And, therefore, the Clinton Administration in its last phase, sought to normalise relations with Iran, especially after the reformists led by President Khatami came into power in Tehran in 1997.

The aim of this paper is to examine and analyse policies adopted by the successive American Administrations towards the Persian Gulf region. It also examines US long-term interests in the region and how it has been able to safeguard these interests through various measures.

The Cold War Years

From the Truman Administration to the Reagan Administration, the American policy aims in the Gulf were three-fold: to contain and counter Soviet political and military influence in the region, to ensure access to supply of Gulf oil, and to ensure that no threat to Israel's security emerged from the region.

The Iranian crisis of 1946 and Stalin's aggressive behaviour towards Iran had led the Truman Administration to take serious note of the Soviet factor. The containment of Soviet influence in the region came to rely on the so-called northern tier nations like Turkey and Iran. The Iran crisis induced the Truman Administration to take a harder line against Stalin. Truman feared that growing Communist and pro-Soviet groups in Greece and Turkey could eventually topple their governments, sending those countries into the Soviet bloc. Therefore, the Administration strongly responded in March 1947 by introducing the Truman Doctrine, which asserted that the United States must "support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside powers" 3 . The declaration of the doctrine and the large assistance package to friendly regions and allies made clear the US commitment to preserve the pro-Western orientation of states in West Asia bordering the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the United States secured military facilities in Dhahran (Saudi Arabia) in 1947 and a port in Bahrain in 1949. The Truman Administration was clearly keen to preserve and safeguard the pro-Western regimes in the region.

Another element driving US policy in West Asia has been its friendship with Israel. In October 1946, President Truman supported the creation of the Jewish state and subsequently, after the establishment of the state of Israel on May 14,1948, he recognised Israel to appease the Jewish community before the upcoming presidential election. Since then, Israel and safeguarding its interests has been a major factor in America's West Asia and Gulf policy. 4

The US policy in West Asia during President Eisenhowers' tenure reflected a mix of a retreat from dependence on the use of American forces abroad with a reaffirmation of the aggressive ideological interpretation of containment that had emerged in the last years of the Truman Administration. President Eisenhower greatly increased US involvement in the region and reshaped the guidelines for US policy in the post-1952 period. 5 In 1951, Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Company. In retaliation, Western European and American oil companies refused to distribute Iranian oil. The British and Americans interpreted this course of events as a threat to the stability of the region as well as the national interests of both countries. Therefore, both the UK and US decided to remove Mossadeq from power. This was done through a US sponsored coup d'etat in 1953 that brought in the Shah of Iran at the helm of affairs in Iran. 6 The episode clearly demonstrated America's willingness to use coercion to influence the internal policies of the region to protect its interests, especially in regard to oil.

From the early stages of the Cold War, the US made serious efforts to create a system of security alliances with the regional powers in the Gulf as a part of its global strategy. The US supported the establishment of the Baghdad Pact (renamed in 1958 as the Central Treaty Organisation-CENTO) in 1955, in alliance with Iran. The pact was to facilitate political and military cooperation among the signatories and to provide for collective defence should a member state be attacked.

After the Arab-Israeli War of 1956, the United States decided to take direct interest in the affairs of the region. Perceiving a threat from the Soviet Union in the region, President Eisenhower said, "The existing vacuum in the Middle East must be filled by the United States before it is filled by Russia." 7

The Eisenhower Doctrine enunciated in January 1957, in keeping with previous policies, sought to contain and reduce the growth and spread of Arab nationalism and radical forces which were perceived as a sign of increasing Soviet influence in the region. The doctrine premised that the United States must be prepared to use its armed forces "to secure and safeguard the territorial integrity and political independence of such states, requesting any aid against overt armed attack and aggression from any country controlled and directed by international communism." 8 Therefore, the US objective of the doctrine was to declare a very strong commitment even to use armed force to eliminate Soviet influence in the Gulf region.

During the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, the US security policy towards West Asia, for various reasons, was overshadowed by events in Southeast Asia. Both Administrations were unable to pay much attention towards the Gulf region due to the American involvement in Vietnam. Throughout the 1960s, the United States provided huge arms aid and assistance to friendly Gulf states.

The Nixon Doctrine of 1969 was somewhat different from the policies of the previous US Administrations. The Nixon Administration formulated a policy, which sought to avoid the repetition of the Vietnam Syndrome of its bitter experience in the Vietnam War, by using regional surrogate states instead of direct involvement to protect US interests. The doctrine's emphasis was to build and militarily strengthen American allies in the region who saw their interests tied to US interests and objectives in the area. Therefore, the United States established a twin-pillar system of security to guard the region having close ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. 9 (Moreover, the United States assured its allies in the region of every kind of assistance, including military assistance, whenever they felt threatened by any act of aggression). The twin pillar strategy of the Nixon Administration was to provide military and economic assistance to pro-Western states in the Gulf, with Iran to assure principal responsibility to ensure regional security.

The oil embargo of 1973 was a clear indicator that serious uncertainties could suddenly endanger oil supplies from the Gulf region. According to some analysts, the United States did consider the possibility of military action to secure the flow of oil from the Gulf. President Nixon's National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger even talked about the feasibility of a military operation to secure the oilfields of the Middle East. 10 But there is little evidence that any attempt was made to seize and control the oilfields. Instead, the United States mostly relied on diplomatic efforts and initiatives to respond to the 1973 oil crisis.

The late 1970s witnessed a substantial change in the political affairs in the Gulf region with the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the fall of the Shah, who had been the main pillar of the US-led Gulf security arrangement. The same year, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan brought the Communist influence closest to the Gulf since the 1950s. The US-brokered Camp David Accord in 1978 between Israel and Egypt, meanwhile, blunted the growth of Arab nationalism which reduced its threat to Israel.

In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, in January 1980, President Jimmy Carter adopted a new course of action for securing US vital interests in the Gulf. In his State of the Union address, he articulated a plan of action which came to be known as the Carter Doctrine. In his own words: "Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the 'vital interests' of the United States of America and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." 11

The intention of the Carter Doctrine was to restore the American political leverage; to secure the cooperation of the regional states; to check the growing Soviet influence; to contain the spillover of the Iranian Revolution; and to encourage closer relations between the Arabs and Israelis. The doctrine also incorporated the idea of direct US intervention in the Gulf. The US threatened to use "all means", including nuclear weapons, to protect the Gulf from adversaries. It created the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) in February 1980 which subsequently transformed into the Central Command (CENTCOM) in January 1983.

President Carter, on the other hand, branded the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan to prop up the left-wing People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government as an "offensive act", carried out in pursuit of historical and ideological ambitions of achieving regional domination in the Gulf. 12 The Carter Doctrine and RDF were crafted to deter a direct Soviet intervention in Iran. The shift in US policy must, therefore, be understood more as a result of a perceived change in Soviet motives than a response to the growing Soviet capabilities.

In a wider strategic sense, the Carter Doctrine marked not only a change in the security policy towards the Gulf, but also a reassessment of US regional priorities and global military commitments. Thus, the Gulf region had come under America's direct control and protection in one of its central strategic zones and a position of new importance in US global security policy. 13

Nevertheless, the Carter Doctrine incorporated both political and strategic objectives: its immediate objective and aim was to establish a credible American military capability in West Asia. 14 Thus, the defence and security of the Gulf was considered to be of "vital interest" to the United States, a concern which no subsequent US president has sought to alter.

Thereafter, the Reagan Administration reiterated the reimposition of the Carter Doctrine with the aims and intentions of the Truman Doctrine which represented "an unequivocal commitment to respond, in whatever fashion necessary, to any Soviet effort to gain a geopolitical presence in the Gulf." 15 According to one strategic analyst, "the US deterrent capability in the region is linked with its ability and willingness to shift or widen the war to other areas." 16 Hence, the United States decided to support the Afghan Mujahideen by supplying sophisticated weapons and resorted to acts of coercion against Iran to weaken it militarily, politically and economically.

The Gulf War of 1990-91 had radically changed the landscape in the region. President Bush regarded the region a "nerve centre" of the industrialised and developed Western economies. 17 It was a stark economic struggle for domination and control of oil resources of the Gulf region. The Gulf oil is not only the life-blood of modern developed countries, but also a vital element of military power. Control of oil in the Gulf would give the United States a strong leverage and advantage over its rivals in the region. The denial of access to Gulf oil would be a great blow to the security and economies of the Western industrialised countries. 18

After the demise of the Soviet Union and the success of the US-led Coalition force against Iraq, the United States emerged with unprecedented standing power in the Gulf with no strong outside rival. Till recently, this situation has not changed and there is no sign that it is likely to change in the near future.

US Dual Containment Towards Iran and Iraq

Since the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War, one of the main objectives of American foreign policy has been the containment of "rogue states". President Clinton has described the "rogue states" as the major challenge to the Cold War order that poses a serious danger to regional stability in many corners of the globe. 19 President Clinton's National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, argued that "as sole superpower, the United States has a special responsibility for developing a strategy to neutralise, contain, and through selection of pressures, perhaps eventually transform the 'backlash states' into constructive members of the international community". 20 Therefore, he advocated the doctrine of "dual containment" towards Iran and Iraq, because they are included in the list of "backlash states". The "backlash states" consist of Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Anthony Lake blamed these regimes-their authoritarian ruling cliques, their aggressive and defiant behaviour, their chronic inability to engage constructively with the outside world; and their pursuit to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD) made clear "their commitment to remain on the wrong side of history." 21 Thus, it was an effort by the Clinton Administration to articulate a containment doctrine to deal with the challenges posed by "rogue states". US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed her concern to the members of the Council of Foreign Relations in September 1997: "Dealing with 'rogue states' is one of the great challenges of our time. . . because they are there with the sole purpose of destroying the system." 22 She argued that the "rogue states" constitute one of the four distinct categories of countries in the post-Cold War international system (the other three being advanced industrial states, emerging democracies and failed states).

Martin Indyk, the senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs, enunciated the policy of "dual containment" in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on May 19, 1993. In his address, he stated: "The Clinton Administration's policy of 'dual containment' of Iran and Iraq derives in the first instance from an assessment that the current Iraqi and Iranian regimes are both hostile to American interests in the region. Accordingly, we do not accept the argument that we should continue the old balance of power game, building up one to balance the other. We reject that approach not only because its bankruptcy was demonstrated in Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. We reject it because of a clear headed assessment of the antagonism that both regimes harbour towards the United States and its allies in the region. And we reject it because we do not need to rely on one to balance the other." 23

A diplomatic correspondent of the New York Times wrote that the past Administration routinely looked at Iran and Iraq as players in a balance act, historic rivals that could be used against each other to ensure that one did not become too strong at the expense of the other. And the Clinton Administration argued that neither of the regimes should be strengthened and that each should be dealt with as a separate problem-a sort of parallel containment. 24

In the case of Iraq, though not directly, the US objective was a change of regime, but Washington sought full compliance of United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions. This constituted an implicit policy of rollback. In the case of Iran, by contrast, the objectionable thing was Iranian external behaviour-its sponsorship of terrorism and support of radical groups seeking to oppose the Arab-Israeli peace process, its effort to subvert friendly governments across West Asia and in parts of Africa, and its sustained effort to acquire nuclear weapons and WMD. 25 In addition, it was agreed that while the US was not against the Islamic government, it emphasised a change of policies across the board.

The United States pursued this policy multilaterally with its allies in the case of Iraq and unilaterally vis-a-vis Iran. The US sought the support of its allies to impose multilateral sanctions against Iraq, but in the case of Iran, it has not been able to secure the support of its allies in imposing economic sanctions on Tehran. While the US objective towards Iran has been the moderation of objectionable Iranian behaviour, in case of Iraq, the goal is to seek Baghdad's compliance with Security Council resolutions and to topple Saddam Hussein from power.

The Clinton Administration, during 1995-96, struggled to maintain its allies' support for comprehensive containment and isolation of Iraq through multilateral sanctions. Unlike Iran, although no one has advocated an engagement policy with Iraq, concerns have been raised about the dire impact of sanctions on the Iraqi people and the unexpected political durability of Saddam Hussein. Therefore, these concerns, in turn, have raised questions about the efficacy and effectiveness of the American strategy. Some US officials referred to this policy as the "endgame". 26

During the initial days of the Clinton Administration's second term, the strategy of "dual containment" came under strong criticism in regard to its coherence and efficacy. There was growing concern and the view in the policy-making community that "dual containment" was a strategic dead-end. By the year 1997, it was observed that the US policy towards the states of the Persian Gulf was at an impasse and stalemate. Maintenance of the policy of "dual containment" concerning Iran and Iraq has produced uneven results, not all of them positive from the point of view of either the US or those of its allies and friends among the Gulf states. 27 Thus, the outcome of the US containment policy towards Iran and Iraq has been mixed. The US has been able to keep President Saddam Hussein contained, but has failed to topple his regime in Baghdad. In the case of Iran, the US was not in a position to prolong the containment for long due to a lack of international support. Therefore, the US sought to move forward from confrontation to some kind of conciliation.

In late 2000, the Clinton Administration changed the nomenclature from "rogue states" to "states of concern" reflecting a softening of attitude in order to diplomatically deal with some of these states, especially North Korea and Iran. However, despite the changes, Iran and Iraq are likely to remain sources of concern for the US' long-term security strategy in the Gulf. From the initial reports and statements, it appears that the new Bush Administration is likely to harden its approach towards these states.

US' Changing Perception Towards Iran

The US policy of isolating and weakening Iran's military, political and economic development through containment, as mentioned earlier, was not entirely successful. After the electoral victory of the reformists in May 1997 and Mohammad Khatami coming into power as president in Iran, the Clinton Administration realised that it was in the country's strategic interest to seek normal relations with Tehran. With the landslide victory of the reformists over the conservatives in Tehran in 1997, changes had also been perceived at both the internal and external levels. At the external level, a proactive foreign policy was initiated by President Khatami. Though the policy of rapprochement had been adopted by former President Rafsanjani, it was firmly and confidently adopted and implemented by the Khatami regime. Since 1997, the policy of detente has been the cornerstone of Iranian foreign policy under President Khatami.

Under President Khatami, Iran's foreign policy has undergone a perceptible change: moving away from confrontation towards conciliation. Avoiding a "clash of civilisations", he favours a "dialogue of civilisations" and "dialogue in place of conflict" in his foreign policy choices. 28 Therefore, Khatami's policy of detente has created a harmonious environment for expanding Iran's relations with the world and improving its relations with the major powers, although the relations with the United States are still marred by mutual suspicion and distrust.

There has been some change in the US' attitude and sentiments towards Iran after the presidential election in May 1997. President Clinton stated at a White House dinner in April 1999, that it is important to recognise that "Iran, because of its geographical importance, over time has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations." 29 The Clinton Administration has moved to ease the economic and trade sanctions against Iran. Again, in April 1999, a White House official announced "an exemption of commercial sale of food, medicines and medical equipments, enabling bulk sale of US grains to Iranian buyers." 30 Therefore, it is evident that the US is interested in engaging Iran. Although Iran is also keen to normalise relations with the US, it is cautious due to its past experiences. Khatami has said that he "respects the American people and hopes for better relations between Tehran and Washington, but what we criticise is the foreign policy of the US in relation to other states, and in particular, Iran in the past." 31

In an address to students at Tehran University, President Khatami said, "When we say there is a wall of distrust between Iran and the US, it not just a simple slogan." 32 But, at the same time, he underlined that Iran was not an enemy of the American people and said that "they should know that the Iranian people do not accept any domination and believe that the basis of all relations should be mutual respect and bringing down of the wall of distrust". 33 President Khatami stressed that, "Iran would restore relations only after the US had agreed to accept its clearly defined demands. As long as those demands are not met, and as long as the high wall of mistrust between Iran and America is not brought down, we will not witness any substantive change in the relations between the two countries." 34 The climate of mutual suspicion and distrust remains there, so it will take much time in building a trustworthy relationship.

Iran had been considered a hostile state since the fall of the Shah in 1979, the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran and the call for the export of Islamic revolution throughout the Gulf region. But now Iranian foreign policy is undergoing change towards a moderate and liberal path adopting a new approach. Therefore, Iran has changed its external behaviour in terms of foreign policy with the US and its allies in the region. The presidential elections in May 1997 and February-May 2000, Majlis elections have changed the mindset of the United States and Western countries towards Iran. The result of the Majlis elections was welcomed by the US and the West. The Clinton Administration welcomed the election result and interpreted it as an unequivocal demand for greater freedom within the country and improved relations with the rest of the world. The US Department spokesman, James Rubin states that "we hope the desires of the Iranian people can be translated by their elected representatives, and we hope this trend will be continued to reflect a new approach of Iran's relationship with the outside world." 35

However, President Clinton expressed strong concern in a letter to the House of Representatives and the Senate, "that actions and policies of the government of Iran, including support for terrorism, its effort to undermine the West Asia peace process and anti-Israel attitude, and quest to acquire weapons of mass destruction, continue to severely threaten national security, foreign policy and economy of the US". 36 Despite these dilemmas, the US is making serious efforts to normalise its relations with Iran by adopting a softer approach. From its policies of isolation and containment, it has moved towards the policy of engagement. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whilst addressing an US-based Iranian forum spoke of "a new beginning" in US relations with Iran and announced the "lifting and easing of the embargo on the import of caviar, carpets and pistachio." 37 Furthermore, the US secretary announced that the Administration is ready to "increase efforts with Iran aimed at eventually concluding a global settlement of outstanding legal claims between the two countries." 38 It was a reference to the monetary claims that the two sides, or their citizens, have vis-a-vis each other.

The most important recent development between the two countries is the US acknowledgement of the past mistakes in its policy towards Iran and its decision to ease the sanctions. Madeleine Albright, in this regard, said that "we are really and sincerely sorry for having interfered in Iran's external affairs in the past. As the representative of the American people, the American government is prepared to do whatever the Iranians say." 39 Thus, she expressed regrets for past US conduct towards Iran and announced the lifting of the import ban on some Iranian products. The Clinton Administration's lifting of sanctions on some Iranian commodities and expression of regret for some US actions in the past which had harmed Iran was considered a deliberate move by the US to appease the reformist government.

Iran's geostrategic location is another important factor that serves its strategic purpose in tomorrow's world. Iran's territory covers almost half of the coastline of the Gulf on one side of the Strait of Hormuz, through which most of the Gulf oil, commerce and transport move. It borders the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus, the Central and South Asian region, and is the place of huge reserves of oil and gas. The strategic and economic interests of the US in West and Central Asia have compelled it to normalise relations with Iran. Iran is also the only stable and safe passage to the disintegrated republics of the erstwhile Soviet Union and this further underscores its economic and strategic importance to the US.

The visits of Iranian President Khatami in 1999 and 2000 to various European countries are evidence that Iran's relations with the West are improving. Khatami's official visit to Italy and the Vatican City in March 1999, (the first by an Iranian president to the West since the Islamic Revolution), and talks with Italy's prime minister, and business communities, enhanced his perceived image as a moderate democrat and a moderniser. In a meeting with Pope John Paul II during his visit to the Vatican City, Khatami reiterated his call for a "dialogue of civilisations".

President Khatami visited France twice in 1999, which indicates that Iran is interested in having normal relations with the West. This move of Iran has been applauded by the West and the US. The recent visit of Khatami to Germany in July 2000 reflects Iran's growing interests in the West and the US. In an interview with German television, regarding normalising relations with the US, President Khatami said, "Our problem with United States is clear. One knows where the problems are-but the key to overcome them lies solely and uniquely in the hands of the US. And one can be sure that when US has a key in their hands, they do not give that key up." 40 Therefore, it is apparent from his interview that the US is solely responsible for the new relations and holds the key to better ties with Iran.

Iran's response to the US' changing new overtures has been cautious. Though the latter's changed attitude is welcomed at the highest levels in Iran's domestic power structure, the US' close and strong ties with Israel are viewed as an obstacle to the successful restoration of US-Iran relations. Secretary of the Expediency Council Mohsen Rezari said that the US move could be successful only if Washington changed its policy towards Israel. He stressed that the "new strategy adopted by the US can lead to restoration of relations with Iran only under the condition of the country's success in removing contradiction in its foreign policy." 41 While the US is adopting a positive and soft attitude towards Iran, the process of normalisation of relations would take some time owing to the mutual suspicion and distrust that still exists between the two states.

US Military Presence and CDI

The US military forces and installations in the Gulf region are a clear manifestation of the US intent to dominate and consolidate its position in the volatile and vulnerable Gulf. The main objective of the presence of US forces in the region is to provide security to the Strait of Hormuz, the entire Gulf and the oil producing countries, and to serve its strategic and economic interests in the region. The proposal of the Cooperative Defence Initiative (CDI) in April 2000, by former US Defence Secretary William Cohen, is a part of the grand strategy of the US to increase its military base facilities and consolidate its military position in the region.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the occupation of Kuwait by Iraq in August 1990, provided an opportunity for the US to further increase and enhance its military presence in the Gulf. 42 Thus, after the Gulf War, the US established its military bases in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.

Since the end of the Gulf War, the US has stationed 5,000 troops comprising 4,000 airmen and 1,000 soldiers in Saudi Arabia. Though there is some speculation about reducing the strength of the US military force from Saudi Arabia, it was later denied by Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz. On April 9, 2000, Prince Sultan expressed the desire for a continued US military presence in Saudi Arabia, despite emerging opposition from the Saudi people. 43

In addition, the US has the Fifth Fleet of the US Navy in Kuwait and Bahrain. The US also maintains a full brigade's worth of equipment in Qatar. During his recent visit, Cohen asked Qatar for an airbase at Al Udaid, to accommodate US aircraft carriers for future operations to meet any crisis situation. The Fifth Fleet of the US Navy in Bahrain monitors the traffic and sea-lines of communications (SLOCs) throughout the region. It covers the Indian Ocean, Gulf, Arabian Sea and Red Sea. In essence, the Gulf has been vital for the US for its energy security and regional and global involvement, and holds the key for future US strategic and interdictory operations which also include the National Missile Defence (NMD) system.

William Cohen's trip to West Asia, in April 2000 and his proposal of the CDI was to launch and introduce a strategic plan for protecting and safeguarding the US' Gulf allies in the region. The concept, to a large extent, resembles the Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) system which was proposed by the US to protect it regional allies from any missile attack.

The US trend to pursue the proposed architecture (CDI) in all the GCC member states and other West Asian countries reflects a desire to counter and contain any threat from Iran and Iraq. The CDI is a regional early warning system designed to counter missile attacks from anywhere in the region. Undoubtedly, the US perceives these threats from Iran and Iraq, since both countries have missiles capable of delivering such systems. 44 The CDI will be able to alert the regional allies of the US through satellites almost instantaneously and will help track the missiles. By enhancing threat perceptions, the US is inducing Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and UAE to purchase hi-tech military equipment for their security. The CDI has five main components: 45 Active Defence; Passive Defence; Shared Early Warning; Consequent Management; Medical Counter-Measures.

The United States has expressed its readiness to work bilaterally and multilaterally with regional powers in the Gulf to develop capabilities in each of the five crucial areas. Cohen emphasised that the goal of the CDI is to alert the countries in the region to the nature of the threat and to explore ways in which the militaries of the US and its allies in the region can share information and intelligence, and cooperate so that the threat can be deterred or minimised. 46

Cohen ruled out the requirement of new satellites or radars for the proposed programme, and stated that the US would take the responsibility to provide all necessary information. The partners would set up an interoperable communication system. Active Defence means intercepting and destroying the attacking missiles these include the version of the Patriot anti-missile missile system which the Saudis and Kuwaitis already have and the Egyptians are ready to buy, and other air defence systems. Passive Defence includes intelligence, protective gear and medical supplies. The US has already made some advances in the areas of medical counter-measures and consequence management and is willing to share these with its partners in the CDI.

Cohen's trip in April was certainly intended to promote and increase the US' incessant arms sale drive in the Gulf region. The Saudi officials confirmed that they are considering the purchase of two dozen F-15 fighter aircraft. If this arms deal with the US materialises, the planes will replace older F-5 fighter jet models in the Saudi Air Force. In 1998, Saudi Arabia was the top buyer of US arms in the region, spending US$2.7 billion. 47 Therefore, if the CDI programme of the US does materialise, it will further intensify the arms race in the region.

Commenting on the US proposed CDI plan, some Gulf observers have expressed a view that Washington was exaggerating the security risks in the Gulf to promote its own arms industry, and that Iran and Iraq are no longer a security threat in the region.

Responses and Reactions

Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have shown some positive responses and have been energetic in embracing the CDI. 48 However, the GCC countries have also been cautious and careful in their responses so as not to offend the sentiments of Iran and Iraq. Most of the GCC countries have said that they do not perceive any threat from either Iran or Iraq.

Kuwait has been most cautious in its response to the CDI and has said that it did not want to do anything that might send the wrong signals to Baghdad. 49 Qatar has been the only country, among the GCC states, which expressed an interest in the early warning system, which is a part of the CDI. In a Press conference on April 5, 2000, in the joint statement of Cohen and Qatar's Foreign Minister Harnad bin Jasim bin Jabir Al Thani, the latter said, "The early warning system for the area is an important issue. It is no secret that the US would like to protect its troops in the region, and this would allow us to protect our area. In fact, such a position as taken by Qatar was expected as it has already given permission to a pre-positioning depot of a brigade size for the US troops on its soil." 50

The strongest opposition and criticism came from Iran and Iraq with regard to the CDI and the US military presence. Both Iran and Iraq have openly and vehemently criticised Cohen's proposal. Al Thawra, a newspaper of the ruling Baath Party, commented on April 9, 2000, that "Cohen wants to transform the entire Gulf into a US protectorate." 51 On the other hand, Iran was also strongly critical and opposed the American policy in the Gulf. Tehran radio sought to make charges against the CDI and stated, "Washington is trying to ensure that its illegitimate military presence in the Gulf will become permanent. It is also trying to ensure that it will have a monopoly on military information and secrets in the Arab countries of the region. By doing so, it is trying to prevent a regional security system in which all the littoral states of the region participate." 52 Tehran expressed its great concern that the CDI will strengthen and consolidate the US military presence in the region. Over the past few years, Iran has been calling for a regional security pact (which consists purely of regional states) as the cornerstone of stability in the region. Iran feels that the US intention to sell the missile early warning system would be an obstacle for such a pact.

Since the moderates came to power in Iran, its relations with the Gulf countries are improving. Cohen's tour to the Gulf states with his CDI proposal is a political and strategic ploy to generate mistrust and suspicion among the Gulf states. Iran has voiced its objections to these obstacles and hindrances in consolidating and growing cooperation between Iran and the Gulf states.

The issue of the CDI has produced negative and opposite reactions among the Gulf states. All the Gulf states are taking highly cautious steps and are responding to it very carefully. Moreover, both Iran and Iraq have accused the US of seeking to foment mistrust and apprehension among the Gulf states and off-loading hi-tech expensive and unnecessary weapons on them in order to achieve its strategic, political and military purposes.

The most categorical and clear reaction to the CDI has come from Saudi Arabia. It has reiterated that it does not perceive any threat from Iran and Iraq. It further emphasised that GCC states would take up the matter for discussion in totality, and the issue of the CDI would be decided jointly by agreement of all the GCC countries.


The security of the Gulf has been and will continue to remain the prime concern of the US foreign policy. Assured and uninterrupted flow of Gulf oil is the foremost determinant of US security interest in the region. The US' overall policy towards the Gulf revolves around oil, Israel's security, threats from Islamic movements and Arab nationalist regimes-that may use chemical weapons, nuclear programmes and missiles. The short-term as well as long-term changes in the international market will definitely have a profound impact on the US security role in the following decades of the 21st century. While Gulf oil will remain a major US interest for many decades to come, the degree to which it is vital to the US may diminish gradually in the subsequent quarter of the 21st century with the drying oil reserves. Therefore, it is likely, that in the coming decades, the US may well reevaluate the energy assumptions which underpin its strategic policy in the Gulf.

The US policies seeking access to Gulf oil at reasonable prices would be severely tested in future. The unstable international oil market could have substantial consequences. It could provoke angry oil producers like Iran and Iraq, using force to punish those who might expand oil production in contravention of Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quotas like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It could also result in instability within the states dependent mostly on oil revenues who, because of the fall in oil revenues may become unable to pay debts or subsidies to their citizens. This encompasses all the oil producing countries in the region. This scenario is unlikely to be prolonged, but very low prices of oil would gravely affect the domestic policies of the Gulf.

The sudden increase or decrease in oil prices would seriously affect the policies of both consumers and producers. The low oil price is the most serious source of instability of the region. The recent hike in oil prices is a substantial result of the worsening domestic situation due to very low oil prices.

Iran and Iraq have been seen by the US as the major threats to the security of the Gulf, and the "dual containment" strategy seeks to weaken Iran and Iraq economically, politically and militarily. The policy has been supported by deterrence, diplomacy backed by military force, and economic and military sanctions against them. The US Congress has also strengthened this policy through legislation that imposed sanctions against Iran and Iraq.

The military resurgence of an adversarial Iran and Iraq is likely to require US long-term commitment to defend the Gulf with its military presence in the region. The likelihood of a long-term adversarial relationship with Iran is probably greater than with Iraq. A number of factors indicate that the US and Iran will remain adversarial in the foreseeable future. In the near-term, one fundamental dispute will continue to be the presence of a large US military force in the region. Any substantial increase in the strength of US forces in the Gulf will further sour the relationship between Iran and the GCC states. Therefore, it may be said that the current Gulf security structure is mainly determined by the US. It is the US which is providing the military force to counter-balance Iran and Iraq, in defence of the GCC states.

For future Gulf security, the US needs a long-term vision for an Iranian as well as Iraqi role that integrates them into the region and at the same time deters attempts by either to attain regional hegemony and military domination in this strategically significant region.

After the abandonment of the containment policy, the US will need to consider confidence-building measures that would ensure a cooperative Iran rather than a hostile one. Engagement with Iran could also enable the US to maintain a military presence in the region that would be less objectionable.

Lastly, it may be said that the Gulf will remain a troubled region and may become more turbulent. Proliferation of weapons seems to be accelerating. Moreover, it will occur against the background of unsettled issues, troubled economic affairs, regime changes and other potentially destabilising events. Consequently, US interests will face growing challenges, perhaps more so in the Greater Middle East, than in any other key region. The task for the US will be to manage change and establish effective policies and capabilities in response to these challenges in the region.


Note *: Researcher Back.

Note 1: The Persian Gulf is integral to the economic, political and strategic complex of West Asia. The countries of the Gulf are Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the largest littoral states of the region. The largest area covered by this waterway runs between the Zagros Mountains on the Iranian side and the central uplands (Najd) on the Saudi Arabian side. The Gulf region is bordered by the Republic of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia in the north, the Arabian Sea in the south, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the east and the Red Sea in the west. The Gulf measuring about 1,000 km in length, is between 200 to 300 km broad. It covers an area of approximately 226,000 sq km. On an average, its depth is about 35 metres. Near the Strait of Hormuz, this waterway is about 100 metres deep. The strait connects the Gulf to the Arabian Sea and then the Indian Ocean. Back.

Note 2: I.A.Al Mutrif, "Perceptions of Arabian Gulf Security," Review of International Affairs, vol.XLIX, 15II, 1998,p.20. Back.

Note 3: Charles A. Kupchan, The Persian Gulf: The Dilemmas of Security (Boston: Allen & Unwin Press, 1987) p.13 Back.

Note 4: Ibid.pp. 16-17. For details of the debate within the Truman Administration about the recognition of Israel, see William Roger Louis, The British Empire in the Middle East 1945-1951, Arab Nationalism, the United States, and Power Imperialism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. 526-528. Back.

Note 5: Kupchan, n.3,p.17. Back.

Note 6: Ibid.p.17. Also see Robert Divine, Eisenhower and the Cold War, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p.74. Back.

Note 7: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Waging Peace, 1956-1961: The White House Years (New York: Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1965), p.178. Back.

Note 8: Text in US Department of State, United States Policy in the Middle East, September 1956-June 1957 (Washington DC: GPO, 1957) pp.15-23. Back.

Note 9: Colbert C. Held, Middle East Patterns:Places, Peoples, and Politics (Boulder: Westview Press, 1989), p.185. Back.

Note 10: Department of State Bulletin, vol.72, no.1857, January 27, 1975, p.101; and no.1859, February 10, 1975, p.172. Back.

Note 11: Department of State Bulletin, vol.80, no.2036, March 1980, P.A. See also in Zbigniew Brezezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser 1971-1981 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983), p.426. Back.

Note 12: Amin Saikal and William Maley, Regime Change in Afghanistan: Foreign Intervention and the Politics of Legitimacy (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991) pp.45-49. Back.

Note 13: Kupchan, n.3, pp.97-98. Back.

Note 14: Ibid., p.99. Back.

Note 15: Zbigniew Brezezinski, "America's New Strategy", Foreign Affairs, vol.66, no.4, Spring 1988. Back.

Note 16: Washington Post, July 17, 1981. Back.

Note 17: Keesing's Records of World Events, vol.36, no.9, September 1990, p.37696. Back.

Note 18: Energy Statistics Yearbook, 1990 (New York: United Nations, 1992) pp.190-196 and 476-479. Back.

Note 19: See President William J.Clinton, A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement (Washington DC: White House, 1995). Back.

Note 20: Anthony Lake, "Confronting Backlash States", Foreign Affairs, vol.73, no.2, March-April 1994. Back.

Note 21: Ibid. Back.

Note 22: Department of State, Office of the Spokesman, Secretary of State Madeleine K.Albright's address before the Council on Foreign Relations, September 30, 1990. Back.

Note 23: Martin Indyk, "Challenges to US Interests in the Middle East: Obstacles and Opportunities," The Soref Symposium (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 18-19, 1993), p.4. Back.

Note 24: New York Times, April 11, 1993. p.4. Back.

Note 25: Lake, n.20, pp.52-53. Back.

Note 26: Robert S.Litwak, Rogue States and US Foreign Policy: Containment after the Cold War (Washington DC: The Woodrow Wilson Centre Press, 2000), pp.68-69. Back.

Note 27: Zbigniew Brezezinski, Brent Scowcroft, and Richard Murphy, Differentiated Containment: US Policy Towards Iran and Iraq - Report of an Independent Task Force (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1997) p.19. Back.

Note 28: His novel idea "dialogue of civilisations" and dialogue in place of conflict is a turning-point in Iran's foreign policy. Thus, the foreign policy of Iran has moved from confrontation to conciliation with the efforts of President Khatami, and the phase of dialogue with the West and other states has been started. Hence,a new opportunity has been created by President Khatami for other nations to have a rethink towards Iran. See Shah Alam, "The Changing Paradigm of Iranian Foreign Policy Under Khatami", Strategic Analysis, vol.xxiv, no.9, December 2000, p.1632. Back.

Note 29: International Herald Tribune, December 4-5, 1999. Back.

Note 30: International Herald Tribune, December 4-5, 1999. Back.

Note 31: The Khaleej Times, July 12, 2000. Back.

Note 32: The Hindustan Times, December 14, 1999. Back.

Note 33: Ibid. Back.

Note 34: BBC, SWB, Third Series, ME/3879, June 29, 2000. Back.

Note 35: International Herald Tribune, February 23, 2000. Back.

Note 36: The Times of India, February 27, 2000. Back.

Note 37: Keesing's Records of World Events, vol.46, no.3, 2000, The Hindu, March 28, 2000. Back.

Note 38: Ibid. Back.

Note 39: BBC, SWB, Third Series, ME/3806, April 4, 2000. Back.

Note 40: The Khaleej Times, July 12, 2000. Back.

Note 41: "Coming Year Seen Most Important for US-Iranian Ties", Gulf News, March 20, 2000, quoting Mohsen Rezari, secretary of the Expediency Council and former chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Back.

Note 42: Pirouz Mohlahed-Zadeh, "Regional Alliance in the Persian Gulf: Past Trends and Future Prospects," The Iranian Journal of International Affairs, vol.1, nos. 1-2, Spring-Summer 1998, p.9. Back.

Note 43: Middle East International, no.623, April 21,2000, pp.12-13. Back.

Note 44: Jim Garamone, "Cooperativie Defence Initiative Seeks to Save Lives", American Forces Press Service, April 10, 2000. Back.

Note 45: Dean Mathew, "The US and the Gulf: The New Calculus", Strategic Analysis, vol.xxiv, no.4, July 2000, p.801. Back.

Note 46: Middle East International, no.623, April 21, 2000, p.12. Back.

Note 47: Ibid., p.12. Back.

Note 48: Garamone, n.44. Back.

Note 49: "Kuwait Says it Doesn't Want to Provoke Iraq", Arabic, Kuwait Politics, April 4, 2000. Back.

Note 50: Mathew, n.45, p.803. Back.

Note 51: Middle East International, no.623, April 21, 2000, p.14. Back.

Note 52: Ibid., p.14. Back.