Brandishing the American Sword in the Gulf

Brandishing the American Sword in the Gulf

The tough task of reassuring Persian Gulf allies as Iran advances.


The Islamic Republic of Iran first began to explore uranium enrichment in 1985. The program limped along for close to fifteen years, before Iranian scientists successfully introduced uranium hexafluoride into IR-1 centrifuges sometime in 1999. Iran began enrichment at Natanz in 2007. And now, Iran has some 20,000 IR-1’s under vacuum, with close to 10,000 actually enriching uranium to 3.5%.

As part of the recently concluded Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic agreed that “a comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.” The two sides are now haggling over the number of centrifuges, as part of a concerted American effort to decrease Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium, so as to lengthen the time in which Iran could reenrich its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium to weapons grade in a so-called “breakout” scenario. (Iran would then have to fashion that weapons-grade uranium into a usable weapon.)


The Gulf States—like Israel—have expressed deep reservations about Iran retaining its enrichment program, but appear to have acquiesced to a formula whereby the time in which Iran can “break out” is more than a year. The GCC appears to have accepted that the International Atomic Energy Agency can detect the diversion of any Iranian fissile material within that time period, and that the United States would then use military force to destroy the program.

Thus, regardless of whether the current negotiations are successful or not, Iran will continue to retain elements of its current enrichment infrastructure. The issue for American policymakers, therefore, isn’t whether Iran will be able to enrich, but rather how U.S. policy will be affected once Iran’s enrichment program is legitimized.

American policymakers fear that Iran’s nuclear program will prompt other states in the region to pursue dual-use technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. Those fears are misplaced. Turkey and Jordan have both opted for unique financing models for their nuclear-power stations, which all but rules out the possibility of clandestine nuclear-weapons development. The United Arab Emirates has foresworn enrichment and reprocessing. Egypt has hinted that it may relaunch its nuclear program, but there is absolutely no evidence that it has taken steps to rectify the issues that have prevented its procurement of reactors in the past. Saudi Arabia has indicated that it might acquire a nuclear weapon, but its nuclear power plans remain on the drawing board, and there are serious questions about whether or not the Kingdom has the capacity to indigenously design, develop, and then deploy nuclear weapons.

Barring any radical shift from the current status quo, the United States will continue to have to provide its regional allies with nuclear assurances. Yet, the dynamics in the region present a unique challenge to security planners that may be tempted to replicate American practice in South Korea. In the Korean context, the Obama Administration has paired the continued deployment of ground troops, with a “playbook” of scripted military responses designed to demonstrate American resolve to use whatever means necessary to defend Seoul. The plan hinges on publicizing U.S. military deployments to the region, including the round-the-world flight of B-2 bombers outfitted with dummy bombs that were dropped on a South Korean test range.

While the United States does station air and naval assets in the Middle East—most notably in Bahrain—it is forced to keep the presence of its military assets under wraps, or otherwise risk inflaming anti-American sentiment. In the Middle East, the United States does not and will not have the luxury of resorting to high-profile military exercises and simulated nuclear-strike missions to reassure the Arab states. A different approach is needed.

In the past, the United States has sought to reassure its allies with massive arms sales, designed to ensure that the Arab states retain a technological military advantage vis-à-vis the more numerous Iranian military. The United States has also emphasized that the GCC purchase missile-defense systems, which are designed to be interoperable with U.S. missile-defense systems based in the region. The missile defense architecture is intended to defend against Iranian ballistic missiles, while also reassuring the Gulf allies of the viability of the U.S. commitment to come to their defense. This strategy has some notable drawbacks.

The pairing of precision-strike cruise missiles with capable missile defenses incentivizes Iran to build more ballistic missiles, so as to negate the GCC states’ technological military edge. This, in turn, creates the need for enhanced missile defenses and greater precision strike. Thus, the two sides could find themselves locked in a conventional-arms race that only helps further destabilize the region. Absent a credible nuclear guarantee, the United States may be faced with an escalating conventional arms build-up, fueled by concerns that Iran’s small enrichment program could still be used as the basis for a nuclear weapons program.

The situation necessitates the crafting of a policy using a mixture of conventional weapons and the nuclear forces in the triad—intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers—to simultaneously reassure GCC allies and deter Iran. In the past, the United States opted to reassure wary allies of its commitment to use nuclear weapons with port visits made by ballistic missile submarines. The political situation in the Middle East, however, would appear to preclude such an option. The United States would have to dedicate significant forces to protect its ballistic missile submarines, or otherwise risk terrorists trying to target the sub in a similar manner to that of the USS Cole.

Moreover, for many leaders in the Gulf, SSBN visits could be deemed too risky, lest such overt display of American military hardware spark massive anti-American demonstrations, or empower groups that abide by a religious ideology similar to that of Al Qaeda.

Absent these options, the two sides could opt to increase consultations about nuclear war planning, in much the same way the United States and Japan cooperated on the drafting of the 2010 Strategic Posture Review. The United States could also teach courses in deterrence at the recently established Gulf Academy for Strategic and Security Studies in the UAE.

More broadly, the crux of the U.S.-GCC relationship will continue to hinge on the President’s ability to convince his/her GCC counterpart of the viability of the American security guarantee. The United States faced a similar quandary during the Cold War. European allies openly worried about Washington’s commitment to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, lest such action lead to a Russian strike on the U.S. homeland. To assuage these fears, the U.S., beginning in the 1950s, opted to deploy nuclear weapons in NATO countries and eventually resulted in the inclusion of the Allies in NATO nuclear-war planning.

The United States will not deploy nuclear weapons in the Middle East. The assurance, therefore, will have to be based on conventional weapons, backed by an ironclad presidential guarantee of the United States’ willingness to use whatever means necessary to protect its Gulf allies. This will require the U.S. President to continue to prioritize its relationship with the GCC’s leadership. The United States, therefore, has a perverse incentive to retain the regional status quo, even though the current situation fails to adhere to the promotion of democracy worldwide.

And, more broadly, it casts doubt on the notion that the United States will abandon the Middle East, as it seeks to dedicate more resources to Asia. Regardless of the outcome of the current talks with Iran, the U.S. will retain a strong incentive to engage with its Arab allies on deterrence and nuclear related issues. The time for debate about a future Iranian enrichment program has now passed. The United States must now begin to craft a strategy to reassure very skeptical allies. It wont be easy.

Aaron Stein is a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London. You can follow him on Twitter at @aaronstein1.