Iran and Saudi Arabia: Rapprochement on the Horizon?

Paul Pillar

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, has announced an invitation to his Iranian counterpart to visit Saudi Arabia.  This development is unsurprising, and it is welcome.  It follows visits that Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made a few months ago to some of the other Arab members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.  Rapprochement between Iran and its Arab neighbors is good for the neighbors as well as for Iranians, good for stability in the Persian Gulf, and good for U.S. interests in the region.

Secretary of State Kerry's comments welcoming the Saudi move are doubly appropriate, given that the United States can claim some of the credit because of its role in currently negotiating an agreement with Iran to keep its nuclear program peaceful.  The Saudis' invitation is very likely being made partly in anticipation of successful completion of those negotiations and the prospect of Iran and the United States taking a step toward a more normal relationship.  This is the sequence that should be expected: the superpower leads, and lesser allies follow.  It is the sequence that should have been obvious to anyone who hasn't been trying to spin Arab reactions to the negotiations to cast doubts on where the negotiations are going.

Interestingly, some of the same people doing the spinning are also ones who have been quick to criticize President Obama for leading from behind, or not leading at all, on other matters in the Middle East.  But on this topic the critics seem to think it is best for the United States to bow to whatever parochial objectives may have been driving an ally's whining.  An objective may be to get the United States to take sides in sectarian conflicts in the region, which would not be in U.S. interests.  Another objective is to limit U.S. options in dealing with different regional powers, which also clearly is not in U.S. interests.  We should be pleased that in the current instance it is not the United States that has done the bowing but instead Saudi Arabia that has bowed to U.S. leadership, to geopolitical reality, and to the kingdom's own well-considered long-term interests by moving toward a less tense relationship with Tehran.

The only people bamboozled by this move are those who do not want to see any agreement with Iran, in order to limit those U.S. options and to keep Iran as a pariah and as the focus of the region's supposedly biggest threat.  The spinning about Gulf Arab reactions continues, but it seems rather confused.  One recent appeal for taking a hard line toward Iran, for example, warns that regional allies may respond to an impending nuclear agreement “both by confronting and accommodating Iran, perhaps simultaneously”—whatever that means.

The same commentary also suggests that allies may “cut side deals with Tehran inimical to U.S. desires.”  Such as what?  Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai assesses that the Saudis would not have issued the invitation without assurances of Iranian cooperation on some matter important to Saudi Arabia.  A very likely subject in this regard is Lebanon, where the Saudi ambassador recently returned to participate in efforts to end deadlock between the competing political coalitions over the choice of a new Lebanese president.  Is there anything wrong, from the standpoint of U.S. interests, with Iran and Saudi Arabia cooperating to reduce the chance of escalating conflict in Lebanon?  There isn't.

Nor is there anything wrong, and there is a good deal that is right, with the Saudis and Iranians talking about, and cooperating on, matters closer to their homes in the Persian Gulf, where they and we share interests in the security of the oil trade and in keeping tensions from escalating out of control.  The Iranian foreign ministry responded to the Saudi announcement by saying “We welcome negotiations and meetings to help solve regional conflicts, resolve misunderstandings and to expand bilateral relations.”  Good attitude.

Keeping the Iranian nuclear program peaceful is the chief and immediate reason to see the current negotiations in Vienna through to a successful completion and to implement and observe the agreement that emerges.  A broader and longer term reason is to move toward a situation in the Middle East and Persian Gulf in which the United States and all the regional powers deal with each other and with their mutual problems in a normal, flexible way.  Such a situation would be much more in U.S. interests than one of restricted, stifled diplomacy and permanent ostracism of important powers.

Image: Office of the President - Iran.

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsIran

Chinese Assertiveness in the South China Sea: What Should Vietnam Do?

The Buzz

Since 1 May, China has deployed the Haiyang Shiyou 981 floating oilrig off the central coast of Vietnam for an exploratory mission. Vietnam has been infuriated as the rig has been parked well within Vietnam’s lawful Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), just 120 nm from its maritime baseline. It has also caused widespread concerns across the region.

The incident is the latest development in what can be seen as a new wave of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea following its successful de facto seizure of the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012. After a relatively calm year of 2013, this new wave started earlier this year with China’s siege of the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys. There are also reports that China has been actively preparing for the construction of an airstrip on the Johnson South Reef, which it occupied after a naval skirmish with Vietnam in 1988.

Deploying oilrigs in Vietnam’s EEZ isn’t a new tactic for China in its maritime disputes with Vietnam. In 1997, and in late 2004, China deployed the Kantan-3 floating oil platform to drill in Vietnam’s Block 113 off Thua Thien-Hue province. In both cases, China had to withdraw the platform after Vietnam issued diplomatic protests.

Nevertheless, the deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 can still be seen as an escalation of Chinese assertiveness. Unlike the Kantan-3, the new rig is equipped with much more advanced technologies that make drilling more feasible in deep-water areas. Although it’s still unclear whether the rig has indeed undertaken drilling, the enhanced feasibility of the operation means that this time China is able to pose a more credible threat to Vietnam’s legitimate rights and interests.

Vietnamese authorities also report high levels of Chinese aggression at the scene. For example, China has dispatched up to 80 vessels from different forces, including seven naval warships, to the scene to protect the rig and to intimidate the Vietnamese vessels. Chinese vessels were reportedly using high-pressure water pumps to attack Vietnamese ships. Some also rammed Vietnamese vessels intentionally, causing major damage and endangering the lives of Vietnamese crew.

Against this backdrop, questions arise as to why China has targeted Vietnam rather than other claimant states in the South China Sea.

First, China might have considered Vietnam a more ‘convenient’ target than other ASEAN claimant states. Targeting Vietnam might not stir up as much concern and protest from other powers as targeting the Philippines, which has recently tightened its military cooperation with the US.

Second, the rig’s area of operation is close to the Paracels, which facilitates China’s protection of the rig. In that sense, it’s physically easier for China to coerce Vietnam than other claimants for simple reasons of geography.

Third, Vietnam is China’s biggest rival in the South China Sea so targeting it can provide Beijing with an opportunity to test Vietnam’s genuine capabilities and resolve. Vietnam has recently invested considerably in upgrading its navy as well as paramilitary forces, such as the Vietnam Coast Guard and the newly-established Vietnam Fisheries Resources Surveillance.

Fourth, Vietnam has recently made efforts to forge closer ties with the US so the deployment of the rig might serve as a timely reminder of the consequences of such actions.

Regardless of what China’s intentions might be, its deployment of the rig is undoubtedly a serious threat to Vietnam’s legitimate interests. Vietnam must therefore stand up to the Chinese challenge. Unfortunately, Vietnam seems to have only a limited range of options to deal with this.

It’s obvious that Vietnam isn’t willing to use force to evict the rig from its EEZ—it risks a major war with China, which is undesirable for Hanoi. Vietnam’s restraint in using force is therefore understandable, although it might raise doubts regarding Vietnam’s deterrence capabilities against China.

As a result, the most important thing Vietnam can do now is to name and shame China internationally and to enlist international diplomatic support in denouncing China’s actions. In addition to diplomatic protests, Vietnam will likely maintain the constant presence of its paramilitary vessels around the scene, at least as a form of protest against China’s actions, if not as a tactic to obstruct the deployment and operation of the rig.

The most likely outcome is that there’ll be a standoff between the two countries over the rig until August 15, the date China announced it would withdraw the rig. Still, it’s unclear as to whether China will do so, and if so, whether it’ll move the rig back to its waters or simply to another location unacceptable to Vietnam.

Le Hong Hiep is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, Australia. The following article was originally published by ASPI’s The Strategist here.

Image: Wikicommons.

TopicsSecurity RegionsVietnam

China and Vietnam Clash in the South China Sea

The Buzz

East Asia was stunned last week when the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) moved its most advanced drilling rig to a gas and oil block 120nm from the coast of Vietnam. Reportedly protected by dozens of Chinese coast guard ships and - according to some reports - navy ships, the move caught Hanoi off guard. Vietnam quickly dispatched its own coast guard ships to confront the Chinese, which resulted in several collisions within the 3nm exclusion zone around the rig. Vietnam's options are constrained by its lack of military allies, ASEAN disunity and its relative naval weaknesses vis-à-vis China. Nevertheless, it cannot condone unilateral Chinese drilling in its Exclusive Economic Zone. In addition to its considerable diplomatic campaign to isolate China, the government of Vietnam should take CNOOC to court in Vietnam in response to China's move.

What Happened?

CNOOC placed the HD 981 rig in Vietnamese waters on May 2. The rig is supported by 80 Chinese ships including seven naval vessels, which should dispel any suspicion that the move is directed by anyone other than the Chinese leadership. Vietnam has sent 29 ships to the site in an effort to delay, disrupt, or otherwise raise the costs to CNOOC of continuing to drill. Collisions between these ships - a standard practice when trying to expel ships from an exclusion zone - have resulted in a number of injuries. The move is surprising because relations between Beijing and Hanoi have been relatively cordial in recent months. Fortunately, channels of communication are open. Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh spoke on the phone with State Councillor Yang Jiechi in an effort to defuse tensions, but to no avail. Although both sides claim the waters in which the rig lies, it remains to be seen what, if anything CNOOC will discover of commercial viability. If it discovers natural gas, for instance, it would need to be sent by pipeline to markets, presumably in China, which is quite a distance and very costly. Sustained drilling operations so close to a rival claimant would be a first in the history of the South China Sea dispute.

Vietnam's Limited Options

Despite a number of investments in recent years - including in Russian made kilo-class submarines - Vietnam is ill equipped to confront China militarily. Vietnam is not the Philippines but it is certainly not Japan. It is thus unlikely that Vietnam has the military power or the will to coerce a Chinese withdrawal. Moreover, the economic consequences of a conflict could be devastating given the vibrant nature of Sino-Vietnamese economic ties and the potential for China to attach costs in other areas of a very complex bilateral relationship. On other hand, Vietnam could condone the move and attempt to access CNOOC's operation in cooperation with China, as Japan did at a similar CNOOC site in the East China Sea in 2008. CNOOC may find a partnership with PetroVietam tempting given the field's distance from markets other than Vietnam. However, by doing so Hanoi leaves itself vulnerable to similar moves in the future, which has also been the Japanese experience.

A third option would involve taking CNOOC to a Vietnamese court for unpaid taxes and duties, not seeking the correct Vietnamese regulatory approvals and other violations of Vietnamese law. This option is ideal for three reasons. First, it adds teeth to Vietnam's diplomatic protests by attaching financial costs to CNOOC that could limit that company's ability to do business in Vietnam in the future. Furthermore, it gives Vietnam the legal pretext to seize the rig as collateral should CNOOC be found guilty, although actually recovering the rig raises the issue of confronting China.  Second, it strengthens Vietnam's position on the moral high ground. Although few countries are likely to be swayed by China's claim that the field is within the EEZ of the Paracels, which it occupied by force in 1974, Vietnam remains a non-Western country governed by an authoritarian government. Taking CNOOC to court demonstrates Vietnam's commitment to the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Finally, and most importantly, the move is fully consistent with the preferences of the United States and a number of regional states equally concerned about Chinese behavior. On his recent swing through the region, Barack Obama was able to secure statements from Japan, the Philippines, and Malaysia that maritime disputes in the region should be settled by peaceful means including international law and arbitration. In particular, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for a regional maritime order based on the rule of law. The Vietnamese move would be fully consistent with the sentiment contained in these statements and, given the current regional context, further isolate China.

In short, using Vietnam's domestic legal processes to isolate China avoids condoning China's move without creating the pretext for further Chinese escalation. Above all, it would be a proactive step that gives Vietnam the initiative ahead of a summer of ASEAN meetings, some of which China will attend. In time Vietnam could work with likeminded states to further isolate China on this basis, up to and including initiating an international legal process or working with the Philippines in the context of their ongoing case against China.

James Manicom is a Research Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Canada. This article was first published by CSIS: PACNET here.

Image: Wikicommons.

TopicsVietnam RegionsSoutheast Asia

Iran Talks: Practical Considerations in a Race to the Bomb

The Buzz

Over at LobeLog, former French diplomat François Nicoullaud lays out the remaining issues in the Iran nuclear talks this week. He calls attention to the important issue of breakout time—how long it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon if it chose to expel international inspectors and rush for the bomb. Leaving Iran with a vast number of centrifuges would allow it to enrich its uranium stockpile to weapons grade more quickly, so the West is eager to limit Iran’s centrifuge capacity. Western nuclear experts typically estimate that Iran’s present capacities would let it make a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium in about two months. Reducing Iran’s centrifuge capacity below its present level could make that time longer, but Iran has resisted dismantling existing capacity. This is an important obstacle to a final deal.


Nicoullaud suggests the fixation with breakout time is misplaced. He correctly notes that “having enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb does not mean having the bomb.” An Iranian nuclear breakout would require constructing the bomb itself—not a simple engineering feat. Iran would also have to develop a way to get the bomb to its target, which would require making a bomb small enough to fit atop a missile—another engineering challenge—or delivering the bomb by a less reliable method, like dropping it from an aircraft (Iran’s air force is in miserable shape) or smuggling it into the target country (very risky). And a truly reliable nuclear deterrent would require more than one device, which in turn requires more enrichment, lengthening the breakout.


Nicoullaud is thus technically right to resist the conflation of enrichment capacity with actually having a usable nuclear weapon. But from the standpoint of practical policy, it’s not so simple. Enrichment infrastructure is a big, relatively easy target for intelligence collection, especially since the international nuclear nonproliferation inspection regime gives leaders a fair bit of information without any major spying necessary. And enrichment infrastructure is hard to hide. All this isn’t true of bomb development or missile development. That means that Iran might develop these other components of a deliverable nuclear weapon in secrecy. Enrichment capacity is, then, the only part of a breakout that can be reliably monitored. It’s appropriate to make it a point of focus.


Nicoullaud also questions the political merit of a longer timeline: “One wonders why the international community would need more than one or two months to properly respond to an Iranian rush for a bomb. If it can’t make it in two months, why would it succeed in six?” In other words, two months should be enough time to mobilize the international community in support of a response firm enough to either make Iran change its mind or prevent it from completing the breakout. Given past statements by American and Israeli leaders, war would likely be an element of that response. And it’d be a nasty war, too. The economic damage could be serious and global. The attacker would thus be risking major diplomatic setbacks, and would want to have as many countries supporting it as possible. (A wide coalition would also make Iran feel more vulnerable to future attacks should it decide to rebuild its destroyed nuclear capacity.)


Forming coalitions isn’t easy, and rushing the process can only make it worse. The United States would need to mount an intense effort in diplomacy, international institutions, and the media to get unsure allies on its side. But we’ve done this before, and it didn’t work very well. The run-up to the Iraq War in the fall of 2002 and early 2003 saw America essentially create an international crisis where none had existed, a crisis serious enough to destabilize domestic politics in places like the Netherlands. Yet America’s power to force other nations to a decision point did not translate into a power to get those nations to support us, or to sustain that support. The “coalition of the willing” was small and flighty, with many participants withdrawing when the war got bloodier and even more unpopular. (And many of the more reliable participants didn’t care much about Iraq, either—they had already wanted to deepen or maintain their ties to America, and saw supporting its war as a way to do that. America presumably could have found constructive, mutually beneficial outlets for those desires—an opportunity foregone.)


A longer breakout time would thus be an asset in avoiding a rerun of that diplomatic disaster in the event of an Iranian rush for the bomb. But Iraq was also a military disaster. Longer breakout times won’t be of much use in preventing another one of those.

TopicsNuclear ProliferationSecurityWMD RegionsIran

A U.S. Policy of Weakness towards Russia?

Paul Pillar

Over the past several weeks of the Ukraine crisis, there has been much commentary in the United States to the effect that the West and the United States in particular has been letting Vladimir Putin run amok.  The commentary has been a sub-theme in a larger theme about Washington supposedly exuding weakness.  To the extent such criticism has been linked to specific alternative policy proposals, the proposals usually include some combination of being quicker in imposing more extensive sanctions on Russia, making threatening military deployments, and giving lethal military aid to the Ukrainians.

Over the past few days, Putin's policy on Ukraine has taken shape in two important ways.  First, he has not embraced the “referendum” organized by dissident leaders in the restive eastern portion of Ukraine.  Before the vote he called for it to be postponed; after the vote his government did not respond to dissident talk about accession to Russia, said it respects the “will of the population” of the eastern regions but did not recognize the result of the vote, and called for the whole matter to be resolved through negotiations with the government in Kiev.  Second, despite ominous military moves near the border, he has not used Russian military forces to invade eastern Ukraine.

Both of these developments are subject to varying interpretations.  Perhaps Putin could do more to influence the behavior of dissidents in Donetsk and Luhansk than he wants us to believe—the White House, based on its public statements, seems to think so—but this is not clear.  Neither do we really know what Putin's intentions were for the military forces that had been conducting maneuvers near the border.  Maybe he did not know himself.  But both of these developments are significant.  Not doing something can represent a decision, and not doing something can be just as important as doing it.

Maybe I've missed something, but there does not seem to be any surge of commentary taking account of these developments, from the same sources that had been wailing abut how we had been letting Putin kick us around.  Why has there not been acknowledgment that maybe the best way to deter additional undesirable behavior isn't to start firing away with more sanctions whether the behavior occurs or not, and that threatening military actions isn't necessarily the best way to get results when what we are threatening is a war that everyone knows we would rather not fight?  Why hasn't there been more updating of the scorecard on policy regarding Ukraine?

I hasten to add two caveats to these observations, lest the observations exhibit some of the same deficiencies as the subject commentary.  First, not everything that the Russian government, or any other foreign actor, does can be attributable to the influence of U.S. policy.  Much that happens is beyond the influence of the United States, and that includes many of the good things that happen as well as many of the bad things.  Second, this whole story is far from over.  Any assessment of policy is necessarily only an interim assessment.  Russian forces could invade Ukraine tomorrow, and the scorecard would need to be revised again.

Most of the criticism about a supposed U.S. policy of weakness giving free rein to Putin has ignored these two realities.  It vastly overstates the ability of the U.S. government to shape events, particularly in an area where U.S. interests are less than those of Russian interests.  And it includes grand judgments as if they will be the final word of history, when really they are only the perspective of a single point in time. 

The criticism also is like much commentary on other subjects in that it pays inadequate attention to non-events.  Non-events can include wars that are not launched, terrorist attacks that do not occur, or unconventional weapons that are not built.  Non-events are the other side of the same coin as events in their impact on U.S. interests.  They constitute important data points in assessing which policies work well and which ones do not.  The tendency to score policy performance only in terms of what has happened, without paying attention to what has not, produces an incomplete and biased scorecard.   

Image: White House Flickr.                         

TopicsSecurity RegionsUkraine