This week the UN Security Council could begin complicated and acrimonious negotiations-involving all manner of geopolitical horse-trading-over potential sanctions on Iran. The council should instead consider an infinitely simpler, more pragmatic proposition to dealing with its Middle East concerns. This proposition, though, will require an inversion of much of the conventional thinking on global security, particularly within the Bush Administration.
The council has the ability to dramatically improve global energy security and prospects for peace and stability through one stroke of action: Guarantee the borders of every country. That means no talk of regime change. Although it may seem paradoxical to many, such a measure would put new pressure on illegitimate regimes, including those that Washington looks askance at, by making them more susceptible to domestic pressures. Given such guarantees, the citizenry of every country would have security against outside aggression. Political and social change would come from within and not be prevented or forced from abroad. There would be no need for sophisticated weaponry. Accompanying the measure would be a total arms embargo to the region.
Importantly, this measure would not entail recognition of illegitimate regimes, just a country's sovereign borders. Indeed, major powers should not recognize such regimes-that is, those not fairly chosen by (and not upholding the interests of) the general citizenry. Also importantly, legitimate regimes should be welcomed into all international economic and political organizations-without exception. Such action at the Security Council is necessary because of the Persian Gulf's internal demon or, perhaps more accurately, two-headed monster.
The Monster's First Head
Roughly 70% of the world's proven oil reserves and about 60% of the world's combined oil and gas reserves are estimated to be in the countries that border the Persian Gulf. But the distribution of these reserves is very uneven between these countries.
Some simple facts about the Persian Gulf countries should be noted: each country's proven combined oil and gas reserves in billions of barrels of oil equivalent are: Iran (304), Saudi Arabia (304), Qatar (176), Iraq (135), the UAE (135), Kuwait (108), Oman (12) and Bahrain (0.5). On a per capita basis (citizens only, man, woman and child) in thousands of barrels of oil equivalent, the picture is very different and is as follows: Bahrain (1.2), Iran (4.7), Oman (5.1), Iraq (5.6), Saudi Arabia (18.4), Kuwait (115), the UAE (188) and Qatar (789). Most (except Bahrain and Oman) have huge deposits of oil and gas oil but Kuwait, the UAE and especially Qatar have lots of it on a per capita basis. Qatar is really rich. Also important is the fact that Iran's population (nearly 70 million) is larger than the population (citizens and even including non-citizens) of all the other Persian Gulf countries combined, while the combined native population of Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE is only around 2 million.
Now ask yourself a simple question. If you were Iran or Iraq-countries that are populous, that have less in terms of per capita energy reserves and that are more powerful than their neighbors-would you not be tempted at some point to find a way to control the energy reserves of Kuwait, Qatar or the UAE, be it by supporting a corrupt ruler or through the use of military force? Is this not exactly what outside powers have been doing or been trying to do for years? Is this not what Saddam Hussein tried to do by invading Kuwait? Isn't conflict inevitable in a region where there is such a huge concentration of oil and gas wealth, and where this wealth is so unevenly distributed? Why wouldn't the more powerful countries resort to the use of force, especially when the United States openly talks of regime change for Iran and invades Iraq? Before you answer these seemingly offensive questions wait until you look the second head of this monster in the eye.
The Second Head
The British, French, Russians and now most openly the United States have supported and continue to support all manner of illegitimate and corrupt rulers who do not represent the interests of their citizenry. These outside powers keep their client dictators in power to ensure the continuity of corporate oil and gas contracts and energy supplies. They play one country against another, with the intended result that weak family rulers rely on U.S. military might to guarantee the continuation of their rule, without due regard for the welfare of their people.
What have been the results on the ground? In none of the Persian Gulf countries do citizens enjoy the right to pick their leaders; Iraq is in transition; Iran is somewhat better than the rest; and families rule all the other Persian Gulf countries. The United States picks on Iran (some of it deserved) because it has no business interests there and conveniently looks the other way when it comes to its own business clients (all of whom have a worse record than Iran). No one can deny that none of the Persian Gulf clients of the United States even smell democratic or free. Most poignantly, the family rulers of some of these countries behave as if the oil and gas belonged to them and they generously deign to share some of it with their people.
In short, corruption is rampant. The United States supports regimes whose only preoccupation is to stay in power, and it sells arms to rulers for the sake of its shortsighted business interests. At the same time, the West in general has quite purposefully failed to promote cooperation between Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Persian Gulf states. Instead, the West supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and sows divisions whenever and wherever possible to make countries feel more vulnerable to outside aggression, requiring outside support to stay in power. Division may reduce the oil monopoly power of oil exporters today and bring in business contracts but at what future cost? Disaster looms.
In sum, cross border conflicts are made more likely because of the uneven distribution of oil and gas reserves and the actions of outside powers. Internal strife is boiling because of external support of illegitimate and corrupt rulers. Things can only get worse.
Once all border security is guaranteed and regional stability is enhanced, the exploration and production of energy in the region should be encouraged. Again, let's face the facts. Most future oil and gas exports will have to emanate from the Persian Gulf. There is no other choice. The region can expand its oil and gas production by the equivalent of about 20 million barrels per day over the next decade if peace and stability are restored, foreign investment is encouraged and outside meddling is eliminated. If this is done the world will enjoy stable energy supplies at reasonable prices while alternative energy sources are developed.
In order for the Security Council to become truly practical and realistic, it must take sweeping action and even risk the accusation that it is behaving idealistically. The consequences of traditional short-term thinking have caught up with the international community-and the United States in particular. Washington and the Security Council must start looking at the long haul instead of looking out myopically for immediate interests and trying to conjure a better future through wishful thinking and rhetoric. There is no Iraq or Iran solution. There is only a Middle East solution and with a Middle East solution comes the benefit of less conflict and a medium term global energy solution.
Hossein Askari is Iran professor of International Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.