Even as it withdraws from Iraq, the United States is increasing its military presence and arming the states in the Persian Gulf. President Barack Obama has boosted arms sales, stepped up the deployment of anti-missile defenses, and upgraded defenses for the oil infrastructure in the region. This military buildup is intended to deter the Iranian “enemy”, reassure and strengthen the Arab “friends”, and pacify the trigger-happy Israelis, but will it actually bring the intended result?
US commitment to security in the region is a noble goal, and the military buildup in the Gulf seems to be of a purely defensive nature. Hopefully, the American support will reassure the Gulf states and encourage them to form a united front against Iran’s nuclear pursuits. Indeed, engaging the neighbors must be the first step for solving the Iranian problem. However, further militarizing an already volatile region and meddling into the Arab states’ regional rivalry with Tehran could instead exacerbate the situation. The fact remains that – for economic and political reasons – the Gulf states are not ready to unequivocally align themselves with the United States against Iran. And additional weapon sales are hardly going to change that.
The Gulf states will invest over $63 billion toward their armed forces and security in 2010, according to Forecast International. Over the next five years, the greater Middle East defense market is projected to grow by over 11 percent, reaching nearly $120 billion by 2014. These figures foreshadow more than a steady profitable business for the US military-industrial complex, however.
While the possibility of Iranian missile strikes is a recent development, the United States has been arming that very region for decades. And so far the results have been all but positive: they continue to challenge US security and values.
The Gulf states embarked on a costly rearmament drive in the 1980s, in light of the Iraqi-Iranian war, after Washington had to protect the Gulf oil routes and tankers and later defend the region against Iraqi Scuds. As the United States started combining diplomatic isolation, economic pressure and military warnings to contain Iran, its ties with the Gulf states grew stronger. Even though most of the hijackers were from the Gulf region, the US-Arab cooperation withstood 9/11, and the Gulf states joined Washington in its war on terrorism and contributed to the American efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Allying with the United States did not automatically make them Iran’s enemies, however. While the US-Iranian post-1979 enmity has gone from bad to worse, Iran’s relationship with the Gulf states has improved. Facing isolation from the West, Tehran needed good neighbors and trade partners more than ever before.
Iran’s trade with the Gulf states grew fivefold between 2000 and 2007, and even the 2005 election of the Iran-Iraq war veteran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not disrupt that trend. Iran remains a much more important export market than the United States for states like the UAE. Iran’s neighbors have large Iranian minorities, thrive on Iranian investments, host thousands of Iranian companies and even several Iranian universities.
A tangled web of political rivalry, economic cooperation, and ethnic and cultural ties, Tehran’s relationship with its neighbors is far more complex than its relationship with the United States. And the Gulf states’ views of regional security and Iran’s place in it are, accordingly, much more nuanced. Among other things, these states do not see economic and diplomatic ties with Tehran as contradictory to arming up against the Islamic Republic and pragmatically avoiding confrontation.
As a result, the Gulf states chose to sit on the fence on what would seem to be the most obvious threat to their security – Iran’s nuclear program. While the Gulf Cooperation Council (UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar) seems to agree with Washington over the dangers of nuclear proliferation, Qatar provided the sole dissenting vote on the resolution calling on Tehran to “suspend all enrichment related and reprocessing activities, including research and development” when it represented the Arab states on the UN Security Council in 2006-07. Keeping these things in mind, the US government should perhaps demand more loyalty from the states it is fortifying and at least get their unequivocal backing for tougher sanctions against Iran.
Having experienced first hand what Tehran’s Scud attacks feel like, the Gulf states are wary about acknowledging US guardianship, and with good reason. Just as the US battery of interceptors on Polish soil not only strengthened the country’s ties with Washington, but also thrust it into the middle of a dispute with Russia, so the presence of US bases and missiles makes the Gulf states potential targets for Iran. Were Iran to retaliate, it wouldn’t even need to launch a missile attack, against which the region has been busily fortifying. Instead, Tehran might simply cut some trade ties, incite the Shiite communities to rise, or interrupt the oil routes with mines.
Ironically, as the Gulf states’ security dependence on the United States grows, so does their wariness and suspicion of the US influence. Iran has been accusing the GCC states of having invited a hostile power into the region for a long time, and the growth of US military presence in the Gulf (and plans like tripling the size of a 10,000-man protection force in Saudi Arabia) could give some credibility to Tehran’s argument, spurring local opposition. It could also further strengthen Tehran’s determination to develop nuclear weapons as the threat to the Islamic Republic is becoming quite real.
When weighing the pros and cons of further arming the Gulf, one needs to recall the role of US military presence in the Middle East in its conflict with al-Qaeda or the reverberations of Washington’s support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Washington should rethink its policy of arming the unstable region and increasing its military footprint where it has never been welcome. It should realize that its Gulf “allies,” who so easily agreed on the types and cost of weaponry to purchase, will continue having fundamental disagreements with the United States not only in the democratic and cultural realm, but also on the Iranian issue, the very reason cited for the US arms sales to these states. Instead of helping the Gulf states withstand Iran’s bullying, the military support could accelerate the arms race and feed the anti-American sentiments in the Middle East.