The battle for control of and influmustence over the Persian Gulf has been described variously as a manifestation of Sunni-Shi’ite, Arab-Persian and/or American-Iranian rivalry. Each carries more than a grain of truth, and what we are now witnessing is these tensions each coming to a head with the result that Tehran and Washington are in the midst of a latent battle royal with the Gulf monarchs in the middle.
Iran regards and certainly presents itself as a regional (if not global) power that is fundamentally superior to its Arab-Sunni and American opponents. In order to protect its petroleum industry, coastline and shipping lanes, the Tehran regime holds that the
Persian Gulf (and if recent statements are to be believed, the Mediterranean Sea as well) falls within Iran’s sphere of influence, and foreign powers are therefore seen as a threat. In this regard, Iran’s revolutionary regime views the United States as particularly menacing, making enmity with the United States one of its enduring principles.
The Arab Gulf states, ruled by Sunni monarchs, are threatened by Iran and to varying degrees by restive Shi’ite populations inspired by the recent instability in the region. Unable to defend themselves against their much larger Iranian neighbor, they have hedged their bets by aligning themselves with the United States and relying on its defensive and deterrent power, while simultaneously appeasing the Islamic Republic.
Since the first American ship entered port in Bahrain in 1949, the United States has seen regional stability as a national security interest of the highest order, first and foremost to ensure the secure passage of oil at reasonable prices. The U.S. role in protecting this passage began during the Cold War and continues today. Though most Gulf oil now flows east to China and Japan rather than west to Europe and America, the United States recognizes that any disruption of the flow of oil through the Gulf is likely to destabilize oil markets worldwide. To prevent such disruptions Washington has developed alliances and deployed forces throughout the region; each “friendly” state happy to purchase American military technology and to rely on the American military presence—but none of which has been eager to adopt American ideals of governance.
America's regional alliances have come with significant costs, however. American support of the Saudis (and the Mubarak regime in Egypt) was the primary grievance behind al-Qaeda's formation in the early 1990s. The U.S. military presence in the Gulf has been, and continues to be, a source of popular resentment. Today Washington finds itself struggling with the perceived need to support regimes on the “wrong” side of recent demonstrations, especially in the Gulf.
The region's current upheaval comes as the United States continues to withdraw its forces from Iraq (scheduled to be completed by the end of 2011) and plans to do the same in Afghanistan (starting in July 2011). These steps reflect American domestic political considerations much more than the security situation on the ground in either country. Not coincidentally, in both places, Iran increasingly is working to enhance its status while undermining U.S. influence and policy goals. One can only hope that the American withdrawal will potentially give U.S. forces a freer hand to act in the Gulf as necessary and pose a more credible threat vis-à-vis Iran than they did when they were preoccupied with Baghdad and Kabul.
It is difficult to avoid the sense that tensions in the Gulf are coming to a head. In the shadow of the anti-regime (and ostensibly pro-democratic) demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, similar protests have taken place elsewhere, most prominently in Bahrain, though with a more interdenominational flavor, given the country’s Sunni monarchy and politically repressed Shi’ite majority.
The American-Iranian rivalry expresses itself in various ways in Bahrain. On the one hand, the American Fifth Fleet is based there, undoubtedly a thorn in the side of the Islamic Republic and an important American tool of containment. On the other hand, Iran has fanned the flames of the protests, identifying with its Shi’ite coreligionists and publicly criticizing the Bahraini monarchy. Most of Iran’s subversive activities in the Sunni Gulf states, however, have been covert, including the training, arming, and inciting of opposition forces (both Shi'ite and Sunni) and even occasional terrorist attacks (e.g., the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996). This pattern has repeated itself in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Iranian agents have assisted anti-American forces as well. Therefore it is likely that Iran is doing more than just simply voicing its support for the protesters in Manama.
This is a new era in Gulf politics and security. While Iraq is undoubtedly less threatening than it was under Saddam and still subject to American influence, the Gulf monarchies now regard it as an Iranian satellite. Iran continues to amass power and expand its regional influence. While Washington continues to be Iran's primary competitor in the Gulf, it appears to be struggling in its efforts to restrain Iran's nuclear program and in the eyes of the Gulf Arab leaders is no longer as attractive a partner as it was in years past. The Gulf monarchs are concerned that the balance of power in the area is tipping toward Iran while the order underlying their "moderate" camp is crumbling.
By and large, the United States has stood by its Gulf allies as they face popular uprisings. Maintaining the stability of the pro-Western Gulf monarchies, deterring Iran, and securing the region's energy resources will continue to be an American national interest for the foreseeable future. Washington needs to further convince the monarchs that despite its withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States remains committed to staying in the Gulf—and even to bolstering its presence there to deter Iran. This would go a long way toward easing the apprehensions set off by what is perceived as its "abandonment" of Mubarak.
It is clear from recent events across the Middle East that American support is not unconditional. Gulf rulers can help ensure continued American allegiance by tolerating peaceful expression of dissent and enhancing the pace and quality of political reform. It is time for the Americans and the monarchs to reaffirm their alliances by convincing each other of their intentions. This will make the containment of Iran at least a possibility.