I wrote this analysis in early May 2014 for the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs course “U.S. Foreign Policy in the Persian Gulf.” My instructor was Gary Sick, an Iran expert who served on the staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. I’m posting this not only because it could be useful for laymen who want to get up to speed on the Persian Gulf, but also because I don’t believe in writing something without putting it out there for people to read and dissect. Also worth noting: I penned this analysis before the Islamist group ISIS made its rapid advance through northern and western Iraq.
Map courtesy Michael Izady at The Gulf/2000 Project. Click for more detailed view.
Regardless of whether American geopolitical strategists anticipate a “pivot” toward East Asia, the Persian Gulf will remain among the foremost foreign policy questions for any administration in Washington. When it comes to the United States and its counterparts in the Gulf, it is unlikely that there will ever be an end of history.
Indeed, over the past 60 years, U.S. policy has run the gamut, from Riyadh to Baghdad to Tehran and back again. As the Obama Administration attempts to broker a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran, it’s heralding in a major change in U.S. policy. After his predecessor George W. Bush turned the Persian Gulf on its head by dethroning Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Obama has made maintaining the regional status quo a priority. The White House’s strategy represents a marked shift for American involvement in the area. And it’s yet another piece of evidence pointing to the fact that real-time political developments – not long-term national interests – are the primary driving force behind U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf.
The pre-9/11 continuum theory
Of course, an argument can be made that postwar American involvement in the region has been a more continuous pursuit of certain goals – at least before Bush’s so-called “war on terrorism,” that is. As F. Gregory Gause III writes, “Until September 11, 2001, American policy was largely aimed at preserving a geopolitical status quo in which American interests in access to oil were preserved.” Securing that objective would require maintaining stability throughout the region. As the Cold War intensified, furthermore, Soviet containment also became an important objective, not only to prevent Moscow from obtaining a southern partner with access to the Indian Ocean, but also to bar it from gaining a larger share of control over regional energy interests.
The U.S. focus on oil was evident as early as 1953. The British- and American-backed coup that deposed Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh that year was prompted by the nationalization of the country’s oil industry. The overthrow, which put the Shah back in power in Tehran, “culminated a year later in an oil agreement leaving effective control of oil production and marketing and 50 percent of the profits in the hands of the world oil cartel companies,” Nikki Keddie writes. After the British relinquished their protectorate status over Gulf States and exited the region in 1971, President Richard Nixon instituted the “twin pillar” policy that entrusted oil giants Iran and Saudi Arabia with maintaining regional security. The White House provided political support for both regimes. And buoyed by skyrocketing energy revenue, both countries were able to buy massive amounts of arms from their American backers.
Via Council on Foreign Relations
The combination of the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forced the hand of President Jimmy Carter, who stepped up American involvement in the region. Despite the United States’ bolstered military presence, however, it remained relatively neutral when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. The invasion had a “surprisingly small impact” on the energy market, Gause writes, and “with plenty of oil in the market to meet falling demand, there was little need for the United States to take immediate steps to halt the fighting.” The passivity ended when the tide of war shifted against the Iraqis. American officials believed there was a real chance the Islamic Republic’s forces could take Baghdad, so they tilted political and military support toward Saddam. This was not just because of the fear of spreading Islamist ideology, though that was surely a factor. Rather, as Becoming Enemies describes, the Americans’ doomsday scenario would start and end with oil: “The Iranians would capture the oil-rich area around the southern Iraqi port of Basra,” and after taking Iraq and even additional territory, “move to close the Strait of Hormuz, the single most important passageway for getting Middle Eastern oil to the West.”
Map courtesy of Michael Izady at The Gulf/2000 Project.
Likewise, the U.S. opposition to Saddam’s 1990 annexation of Kuwait came largely due to energy interests. After the Iraqi dictator gained control of the small Gulf nation, he had at his fingertips roughly 20 percent of world oil reserves. Kuwait’s proximity to Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, put another 25 percent within striking distance. After the American-led coalition successfully ousted Saddam from the small Gulf nation, it gradually softened oil sanctions on Baghdad throughout the 1990s. And in the face of American and other international pressure that decade, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates upped their energy production, preventing a third oil crisis.
Notice where major oil and gas fields are concentrated around the Gulf. Map courtesy Michael Izady at The Gulf/2000 Project.
It’s an easy case to make – at least it might have been until 2001: The American focus on oil translated to a continuous push for regional political stability. But it’s not the most correct argument. It glosses over a number of essential hiccups and policy ad-libs over the second half of the 20th century. First, the Bush Administration’s so-called war on terror drastically altered the United States’ objectives in the region– not to mention its means to reach them. That alone casts major doubt on the theory of an uninterrupted U.S. policy. What’s more, a closer examination of preceding events shows the oftentimes-reactive nature of American decision-making, with improvisational responses to unanticipated political developments.
American foreign policy improvisation
The United States’ first major on-the-spot policy decision came when the British pulled out of the Persian Gulf in 1971. The move pushed the Nixon Administration to craft the regional blueprint that would guide most American policy decisions for the rest of the decade. Though the United Kingdom had gradually ceded power to the United States since the Second World War, its military presence and protectorate status of what was to become Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates helped keep larger regional powers in check. The departure left a security vacuum in its wake. And it came just as oil prices were set to explode, bringing new wealth and geopolitical ambition to many states in the region. The British withdrawal from the Gulf is “extremely difficult to explain” when analyzing it through the lenses of power and national interest, Gause writes. Instead, the decision was steeped in domestic politics. This left the United States in a role it had not prepared to play, especially given its continued fighting – and deteriorating prospects – in Vietnam.
With little appetite for increased military involvement in the region, the Nixon Administration formalized its twin pillar policy by the end of 1971. Iran, with its ambitious ruler, large population and shared border with the Soviet Union, would take the lead role in maintaining regional security. Saudi Arabia would play second fiddle. American arms sales facilitated the arrangement in both monarchies, where rapidly increasing oil prices made such military buildups possible.
While Iran and the Kingdom weren’t exactly friendly, they shared a mutual distrust of the fledgling Ba’athist regime in Baghdad. Iraq and the Soviet Union’s shared anti-imperialism had sparked a fledgling friendship that, as Gause argues, “emphasized the developing superpower rivalry in the region and exacerbated suspicions of Iraq held by its conservative Gulf neighbors.” Iraq was the Soviet Union’s most important Arab trading partner by 1978. And Moscow’s arrival in the region would continue to affect U.S. policy for years to come.
The United States was temporarily well served by the two new policemen of the Gulf, especially Iran. Indeed, the 1970s remain among the most stable decades in the region’s recent history. Focusing on internal regime security, regional power players had relatively modest foreign agendas. Nevertheless, American policymakers were unsuccessful at preserving U.S. strategic interests. Sure, Washington and American corporations benefited tremendously, if momentarily, by Iran’s booming oil sales, industrial expansion and military buildup. But U.S. officials failed to see the secondary effects of that combination.
American policymakers were forced to react to dramatically changing energy politics over the course of the 1970s. They did so by doubling down on the twin pillar policy. Mossadegh’s nationalization of Iranian oil companies 20 years earlier was just a taste of what was to come, as exploding global demand gave Gulf leaders newfound leverage over both Western corporations and governments. Riyadh’s 1973 embargo of U.S.-bound oil, of course, presents the most glaring example.
Previous problems had centered on an oversupply of oil, with international companies limiting production for decades. But the early 1970s saw a seller’s market. As regional governments exerted increasing control over oil production, Gause writes, “Washington refused to intervene on behalf of the companies in their Gulf negotiations, despite a number of direct entreaties to do so. The Nixon administration saw some oil price increase as inevitable.” Contrarily, the United States ramped up its arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Iran in order to capitalize as much as possible on their newfound oil wealth.
In 1974, a year after Tehran and Washington established a joint economic commission, American firms had made $11.9 billion in deals in Iran. U.S. military sales to the country averaged more than $3 billion a year between 1972 and 1977. Keddie describes the Shah’s penchant for purchasing state-of-the-art military equipment as a “virtual mania.” The combination of the newfound wealth and foreign direct investment fostered unprecedented industrial growth, urbanization and capital profits. The Iranian government, meanwhile, lavished favors on large corporations and foreign investors through preferential tariffs, tax incentives and easy credit. Together, the means and the ends produced tremendous social dislocation within Iranian society. Despite one of the highest growth rates in recent history, Keddie writes, it “did not lessen the income disparity between the rich and the poor, but the contrary.” This undoubtedly fueled the revolutionary fervor that eventually filled the streets of Tehran, not to mention anti-American vitriol.
The Iranian revolution remains among the great turning points of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. After President Carter decided to honor the deposed shah’s request for medical treatment in the United States, radicals in Tehran took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The crisis led to a rapid deterioration in the U.S.-Iranian relationship, a trend that began under Carter and accelerated with his successor, Reagan. The about-face obliterated the twin pillar strategy that had predominated American geopolitical decisions for the past eight years. Gause called the development an “unmitigated disaster for the United States.”
The revolution fomented a price shock in world oil markets, just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was underway. The confluence of factors left the United States with just one half of its regional policy – Saudi Arabia, that is – in tact. Carter’s response signaled a coming shift in American decision-making. It included the creation of a regional joint command structure and the new Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force. The president also announced at his 1980 State of the Union address that the country would use any means to stop an “outside power” from dominating the Gulf. This was an obvious nod to the Soviet Union. Though Tehran was by no means friendly with Moscow, the revolution was a net gain for the Soviets because it destroyed the U.S.-Iranian relationship.
The most prominent instance of American policymakers reacting to regional political developments came in the 1980s. Though the United States remained neutral in the early stages of the Iran-Iraq war, as the latter advanced toward Tehran, it pivoted quickly as Saddam’s battlefield fortunes soured. The sudden fear in Washington was that the Iranians would prevail and potentially project their Islamist ideology elsewhere in the Middle East. The significant Shia minorities in Iraq and smaller Gulf states only accentuated this fear. And Basra and Baghdad’s proximity to the border made one false move by Iraq potentially catastrophic. Bruce Reidel, quoted in Becoming Enemies, explains that halting the Islamic Republic’s advance became the singular focus of the Reagan Administration’s Gulf policy. Reidel continues, “Yes, the Iraqi regime was despicable, but still the feeling was that if Iran won the war, that would be the worst of everything – the Middle East as we knew it would soon be overrun by anti-Western fanatics.”
Consisting of political support, arms sales and indirect financial backing, this pro-Iraqi strategy aimed to prevent Iran’s ascension as the regional strongman. As the war entered a period of bloody stalemate on Saddam’s territory, even the United Nations Security Council paid renewed attention to the conflict. With American prodding, it passed a July 1982 resolution calling for cease-fire and immediate withdrawal of both countries’ troops from foreign territories. As Cameron Hume notes, this was “something the council had not done while Iraqi forces were inside Iran.” Such international backing, including financial support from Gulf states, propped up Baghdad in the face of Iran’s advancing forces.
The tilt toward Iraq set the table for one of the most opportunistic U.S. foreign policy decisions of the 1980s. What eventually became known as the Iran-Contra affair was a naïve attempt by the Reagan Administration in 1986 to improve the relationship between Washington and Tehran. The plan was to sell American military equipment to Iran, along with providing it battlefield intelligence, in the hope of both warming relations and making headway on freeing American hostages in Lebanon. The covert action failed in a very public way, tarnishing the United States’ rapport with Saddam. It reflected American policymakers’ inability to influence future events. Instead, they reacted to a perceived “opening” among a group of Iranian moderates whose clout was either overstated by planners or did not even exist. So by selling arms to the Islamic Republic, not only did the United States threaten to upend the balance of military power at a critical time, but it also worsened its standing with the two main power players in the Persian Gulf.
The greatest shift in U.S. regional policy, however, came after the Bush Administration began its “war on terror” in 2001. The WHite House’s changing stance toward the Gulf, especially Iraq, represented both new geopolitical objectives and different tactics to achieve them.U.S. policy since the Second World War had focused on ensuring the flow of Gulf oil. And since the U.S.- and British-backed coup in Tehran in 1953, reaching that goal meant ensuring regional political stability. But with a new wave of neoconservative policymakers making decisions in Washington, that strategy was thrown out the window.
The Bush Doctrine assumed that an aggressive foreign policy was paramount to protecting American interests from terrorist threats. In Iraq, that meant preventive war. But as Gause writes, the White House also argued that democratic transitions in Baghdad and elsewhere would “not have governments that sought to deflect their publics’ anger toward the United States. A more democratic Middle East, in short, would not produce anti-American terrorism.” This was a U-turn in American policy. Whereas former strategy sought to maintain the status quo, the Bush Doctrine aimed to blow it up. It led to the American-led invasion of Iraq, which sent about 145,000 U.S. troops toward Baghdad. The nation-building process that followed deserves its own place in the annals of failed American foreign policy. Regardless, the mere decision to go to war highlights a drastic shift in American involvement in the Persian Gulf. It was a return to the activist foreign policy that saw the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. It also was the culmination of a decades-long U.S. buildup in the region that had begun in the early 1980s. With so many American boots on the ground in 2003, the U.S. had become the greatest military power in the Persian Gulf.
U.S. military bases in the Middle East and vicinity in 2012, after a major drawdown of forces. Map courtesy Michael Izady at The Gulf/2000 Project.
The mindset that led to war reflected the administration’s inability to understand the reasons behind the 9/11 attacks. And it envisioned a Persian Gulf – even a Middle East – that was both stable and democratic. What is more, Gause writes, “The Bush administration’s post-war public relations emphasis on democratic transformation of the region clearly was, in part, a response to the political problem caused by the absence of WMD in Iraq.” The White House similarly pressured U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia to liberalize their political systems, while refusing to negotiate with non-democratic Palestinian leadership. This policy was pulled back after the gains of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2006 Palestinian and 2005 Egyptian elections, respectively. Again, this poses yet another example of American policymakers in Washington improvising in response to changing facts on the ground.
Today, the United States is witnessing yet another shift in its Persian Gulf policy. President Obama has shunned the role of democracy-building interventionist. If every action yields an equal and opposite reaction, the Obama Doctrine can be seen as a direct response to that of his predecessor. Obama has taken a decidedly more realistic approach than Bush, focusing on immediate U.S. interests as opposed to grand ideological visions. He completed the American troop withdrawal from Iraq, which has since devolved into a near civil war along sectarian to lines. He also declined to pursue a regime change in Syria. While the conflict there is not directly related to Persian Gulf policy, the Assad regime and rebel factions are clients of Iran and Arab states, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, respectively. So Obama’s decision not to take military action against Damascus– he instead chose to focus on its use of chemical weapons – sheds light on his stability-focused strategy.
What’s more, Obama displayed a very tempered response to unrest in the Gulf that was part of the so-called “Arab Spring.” In a 5,400-word speech given at the White House in May 2011, Obama didn’t even mention Saudi Arabia and made no hints that oppression in majority-Shia Bahrain would be punished. This stands in stark contrast to the administration’s response to uprisings in Libya, where it provided military support to overthrow the regime. Again, while the latter example isn’t directly related to the Persian Gulf, it’s a testament to Obama’s foreign policy realism. Amid this regional instability, meanwhile, the White House has come closer than ever to reaching an agreement to halt the Iranian nuclear program. This wouldn’t have been possible, of course, without the election of an Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who was open to such a rapprochement. This potential U.S. opening toward Tehran, coupled with Washington opting out of military action in Syria, has cooled relations with Gulf Arab states. And it is yet another example of U.S. leaders adapting to – and trying to take advantage of –changing political situations within the Gulf.
In this sense, U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf may be coming full circle. It appears that Obama is returning to a more stability-focused strategy with fewer American boots on the ground. It’s unlikely, however, that the United States would trust either of the remaining Gulf powers – Iran or Saudi Arabia – with maintaining regional security. That could change with domestic pressures to either cut military spending, pivot to East Asia or both. What is clear is that foreign policy doesn’t progress on a straight line. Like most things in life, it must dip, dive and weave its way through a changing environment. The Persian Gulf, like the rest of the world, is too complex to allow otherwise.
Gause, F. Gregory. The International Relations of the Persian Gulf. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Hume, Cameron R. The United Nations, Iran, and Iraq: How Peacemaking Changed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. Print.
Keddie, Nikki R., Yann Richard, and Nikki R. Keddie. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.