Security Dilemma and Threat Perception in the Persian Gulf:
A View from inside the Region
Ali-Asghar Kazemi *
Keywords: Persian Gulf, Security arrangement, threat perception, arms race, regional balance of power, Iran’s regional strategy, United States global strategy, regional integration, security community, limited bipolarity, regional multi-polar system…
The main questions addressed in this paper are the followings:
· What are the sources of threats perceived to endanger the security and stability of the Persian Gulf in the new strategic environment, particularly in the post-Saddam period?
· What is the optimum policy alternative in order to preserve peace and stability in this strategic region?
It will be argued that the best option is a policy based on the following premises:
· There is no consensus on the threats endangering the stability of the Persian Gulf among regional and non-regional actors;
· The security business of the Persian Gulf should be left solely to initiative of coastal States;
· Any forced security and defense arrangement under the patronage and tutorship of an outside power would tend to be counterproductive and may further stir-up insecurity in the region;
· The best alternative would be the creation of a “ security community,” based on political, economic, commercial, environmental, and cultural cooperative interaction of the coastal States, in such a way that all would benefit from it and none of them would feel threaten by the others.
Unlike the period of the cold war and the bipolar era, today, after the second American military intervention in Iraq, there is no consensus among the Persian Gulf States that the security of this important strategic region is threatened by any major regional or extra-regional hostile power. Furthermore, the global threat of terrorism seems not be deterred by conventional security arrangements. Therefore, the need for a regional defense pact and security deal, especially under the patronage and tutorship of any outside power, especially the United States, is not widely felt or appreciated by the interested States of this strategic region.
With the victory of president Bush for a second term in office, there seems to be a firm commitment by the U.S. administration to continue on the achievement of American strategy in the greater Middle East, including the Persian Gulf. However, with the current U.S. entanglement in Iraq, and the fear of traditional states of the region on the one hand and the rising threat of radicalism on the other, to reach a security arrangement for the Persian Gulf region in order to satisfy all interested parties, appears quite complex. Perhaps, with the passing away of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the prospects for peace in the Middle East are more promising. But, this would not be necessarily the case elsewhere in the region, namely the Persian Gulf. Since, at the outset, in order to devise an adequate security arrangement, it should be determined: first what is the threat and who needs a security and defense arrangement in the Persian Gulf for what purpose? and second, what is the best alternative to maintain the stability and order in this region?
It will be argued here that: it seems only the United States of America perceives its self-proclaimed vital interests and its worldwide superpower position are challenged and threatened in this strategic region. Furthermore, it is suggested that the main threat to the security and stability come from within the nations of the region and therefore the best alternative for the present day Persian Gulf is to build a “security community” based on economic, commercial, cultural, and environmental cooperation among coastal States that could ease the path to friendly relations and gradual process of “democratization.” Otherwise, any forced security arrangement, oriented toward defense matters like: military build-up, “balance of power,” leading to arms race, particularly when it is initiated from outside the region, will be susceptible to become an unwanted source of instability.
Changing Security Perception after September 11
Security is a multifaceted relative concept that can have different meanings for different people and in different contexts. It is perceptual and therefore, depending on whose view we observe it, can lead to diverse implication. When we speak of national, regional, or global security, we usually have in mind some sort of threat or risk that could endanger the established order and status quo.
During the cold war, international and regional security had a more or less concrete meaning. The United States of America and the defunct Soviet Union, as two opposing superpowers, representing two divergent ideologies, were at the forefront of a worldwide conflict and competition, with enormous capability of annihilating each other from the surface of the earth. They were in permanent state of alert about any move from the other side, which could threaten the balance, security and interests of the rival camp. Thus, came about various paradigms and theories conceptualizing such strategies and doctrines as: balance of power, deterrence, balance of terror, Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), institutional paranoia… and a number of other stratagems devised to contain one of the opponenat from expanding its influence in the sphere of the other.
The results of such permanent conflicts and competitions were a number of security arrangements by the West, which included a virtual security belt by the United States around the Soviet territory, starting from NATO in Europe, linking to CENTO in the Middle East, and SEATO further to the East, ending up to ANZUS. On the other hand, the Warsaw Pact, including almost all ex-Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, was considered as a major rival to the NATO.
With the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the main ideological and military rival of the United States, many of the security arrangements and defense pacts had become useless. Since, one side of the power balance and supposedly the main source of threat to the free world had totally disappeared. Expectations of a world free of tensions and crises after the cold war, led to the belief that following the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact, its rival in the West (i.e. the NATO) would have to experience the same happy ending. But unfortunately, this anticipation proved to be wrong in the new world strategic configuration and with the emergence of quite new sources of threats, namely “terrorism,” as non-state actor in international relations.
September 11 experience has undoubtedly changed the conventional security perceptions, not only in the United States of America, which was the direct victim of an unprecedented terrorist attack, but also throughout the world, including the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Today it is crystal clear that conventional wisdom and rational strategic thinking about enemy, threats, security, force structure, balance of power, deterrence, and a host of other terms and theories have been drastically affected by new events.
In the new world power configuration, though the United States became the sole superpower, with a host of functions and responsibilities to be fulfilled throughout the world, only after the September 11 this opportunity was legitimately put into action. The events were indeed a tremendous occurrence for the US to plan its world security policy and strategy in that direction. Meanwhile however, there emerged a major division of opinion among Americans in the field of international relations and politics between those who felt that US national strategy in the post-cold war era should be limited to its continental interests. The argument was that a single nation- no matter how powerful- should not relate its national interests to the requirements of collective (global) or selective (regional) security.
The proponents of this latter view justify their position by saying that the US should not extend its security perimeter to regions far beyond its territory, merely on abstract and ambiguous principles, such as coping with terrorism, maintaining global security, forceful democratization, etc. To them, a regional security arrangement that does not genuinely serve the interests of states of a region, such as the Persian Gulf, is not likely to survive or to be effective in the long run. This is the case of many regional military alliances, like the CENTO, which ceased to exist after the revolution in Iran.
Problem of Security in the Persian Gulf Region
Historically, the Russians aspirations and interests in the general area of the straits and the Persian Gulf were the primordial source of preoccupation for the West. After World War II, the United States took an increasingly keen interest in the area. Since 1950’s the Americans concentrated on organizing the defense of the region against communist oriented destabilizing forces. As mentioned above, American efforts in the past (from 1945 on) to organize the defense of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf were rationalized by reference to aggressive strategy of the ex-Soviet during the cold war. However, the justification is no longer valid now, unless, it is proved by hard evidence that any of the local or regional States are becoming a source of threat.
The end of bi-polar era and the cold war was a break time for strategic planners and policy makers who were so much anxious with the perennial problem of security interests in the Persian Gulf. Yet, they had no time to revise their plan, when the new phenomenon of religious radicalism emerged as a very serious challenge to the peace and order of the region. This time, the antagonizing forces directly targeted US interests and military presence in the region.
Interestingly, these radical forces mainly come from the heart of American allies in the region, namely Saudi Arabia, as one of long time US friends. Many observers believe that American military presence in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region was an incontestable factor, which led to the rise of anti-American sentiments in this Moslem country. As we well know by now, almost all the planners and those who actually executed the 9/11 attacks were Saudi nationals. Therefore, US security interests, as viewed and pursued by American policy makers, are primarily threatened by unconventional low-level violence directed by radical Moslem zealous scattered around the region. They have not necessarily any national identity or any headquarters or even any identifiable leader. They are omnipresent and ready to die for the cause they believe just and legitimate. Indeed, it is quite difficult to face such a bizarre enemy and to cope him with conventional means.
To this situation we should add the new emerging conditions in Iraq, which is susceptible to threaten the overall regional security in the Middle East. As we are observing these days, Iraq is becoming a fertile ground for such a seemingly irrational behavior of those who were once subjugated by Saddam Hussein and then cherished his downfall by American forces, but now fiercely fight their saviors. Perhaps Moslem people, disregard of their religious schisms, are unique in this respect; and indeed this makes it difficult for an outsider to fully understand and realize such characteristics. Those who perform such savage and outrageous acts as beheading the innocent hostages in Iraq cannot be judged by conventional standards of human rights or any religious principles. One must go deep into their heart and inner-self in order to comprehend their hatred and revulsion with regard to American and foreign forces in their land.
Elsewhere in the region the situation is not better. The lives of all foreign contractors in littoral Arab States of the Persian Gulf are exposed to permanent daily threats. Nobody can feel safe in these countries and nobody is immune from the danger of being kidnapped or terrorized by radical groups. Though the number of these zealous radicals might be very small, but the impacts of their deeds are widespread and very frightening for those foreigners who live and work in these territories. Sooner or later this will have negative impacts on the economy and internal stability of these countries, paving the way either for further despotism or total collapse of the incumbent regimes.
Besides the threat of terrorism, as non-state actor, performing by unconventional means and tactics, there seems to be no other state directly threatening the security of the region. In the past two decades all fingers were pointed to Iran and Iraq, as two revolutionary antagonistic regimes, with the capacity of threatening the stability of the Middle East. Now that Iraq’s regime was overthrown by US military intervention, the only remaining state on the chess game, potentially capable of challenging the US presence in the Persian Gulf, seems to be Iran. But the question is whether and in what circumstances Iran might be a source of threat to the stability of a region upon which itself is very much dependent? In fact, as we well know, Iran’s economy and its very survival is very much dependent on the oil revenues for which the Persian Gulf is a real artery. Therefore, a common sense approach to the question may not easily support the argument.
Iran and the Security of the Persian Gulf
Since the British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf in late 1960’s, a number of speculations have been made by defense analysts about Iran’s role in filling the power vacuum created in this strategic region. Shah’s strategy supported by the West was to build a viable maritime power in order to supplant the vacuity hence produced. Iranian naval build-up, along with other forces from various sources, especially the United States, throughout the mid 1970’s was a good indication of Iran’s assertion to replace the British void. But, with the advent of the revolution, the dream did not come through and the new regime canceled all defense contracts, merely out of revolutionary fervor. But, soon after the war with Iraq in 1980, the need for a strong navy was felt.
Nonetheless, the Iranian Navy was able to dominate the Persian Gulf and to deny the enemy from any access to the sea, even during the first stages of the war, thanks to the advanced ships and well-trained Navy personnel. It was during this period that the coastal States of the Persian Gulf formed a coalition (the GCC) with the help and support of extra-regional powers, in order to contain the belligerent States (Iran and Iraq) from threatening their security. The global strategy then was that none of the antagonistic powers should be victor in the all-out war. Since, the would-be-winner might endanger the stability and order of the region upon the conclusion of the hostilities. Nevertheless, Iraq invaded Kuwait soon after the termination of active hostilities and establishment of cease-fire with Iran in 1988.
The first US military intervention in Iraq in 1990 forced this country out of Kuwait, but left the so-called butcher of Baghdad and the Baath regime to remain in power, fearing that the revolutionary Iran might take advantage from the occasion to expand its supremacy over region. Now, upon the second US military intervention in Iraq, and the downfall of Saddam and the collapse of Baath regime, we are again at the first square. The downfall of Saddam Hussein and the Baath regime was indeed a miraculous blessing for Iranian religious leaders and average Iranians combatants who fought so zealously to liberate the sacred Shiite holy shrines in Iraq. In fact, the United States has fulfilled the long dream of overthrowing the atrocious regime of Saddam, for which about half a million of Iranians had sacrificed their life during the 8-year war.
With the fall of Iraq’s regime, Iran has become naturally the sole regional power, with more or less strong military capacity and war experience, supposedly capable of threatening the stability of the region. Iran’s quest to acquire nuclear technology has added a new dimension to the belief, which in the view of the United States, is susceptible to become a nuclear actor. Iranians leaders, while denying their hostile intention in acquiring nuclear technology, just the same, do not conceal their objective of securing the Persian Gulf from outside interventions. Since, they claim, they have legitimate interests not only in the Persian Gulf, but also all around the land territories, where the US forces are stationed, namely in Afghanistan and Iraq. In other words, Iran perceives real threat from the US military presence in the region, and will eventually use any means and leverage to contain such hostile posture near its territory.
Iran has always followed the dictum, both during the Shah’s regime and after the revolution, that the Persian Gulf should be secure for all or for nobody. This means that any security arrangement that guards vis a vis Iran’s genuine interests in the region, may find its way to total disillusionment.
Iran, like other States, with extended coasts, territorial waters and offshore resources, with a population well beyond those of all Arab States of the Persian Gulf, claims to be pursuing its legitimate interests in the region. Despite the fact that Iran may have divergent views with its neighbors, nonetheless, it has many common interests with them as far as the American presence in the region is concerned. To be explicit, almost all Arab States of the Persian Gulf, while cherished the downfall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Talibans in Afghanistan, now perceive a real threat from the American policy of democratization of the greater Middle East. This feeling, which sometimes is concealed under the surface and is not expressed openly, makes it very difficult for the United States to embark on any collective security arrangement in the region, particularly if Iran is excluded from the equation.
On the other hand, Iran has a lot of common interests with the coastal States of the Persian Gulf that, if properly pursued, can lead to cooperative behavior of mutual interests. Otherwise, a competitive and aggressive conduct could create suspicion and further misunderstanding. Such situation may stir-up antagonism in the region and thus necessitating foreign powers presence and intervention.
Who Really Needs a Security Arrangement in the Persian Gulf?
The Persian Gulf, which has always been referred to as the perennial dream of Peter the Great, Russian Tsar, became the pivot point of American strategy after the second World War, especially during the cold war. But, no special security arrangement has ever been envisaged for this important strategic waterway, which still is considered as the jugular artery of the Western and far-Eastern economy. The coastal States of the region also have never been able to create an all-inclusive regional security pact together with two rival powers, Iran and Iraq, neither during the pro-West Shah nor after the revolution in Iran.
With the fresh victory of president Bush in the November 2004 U.S. elections, the chances for conservative elements to continue to assume American worldwide strategy are very high. This means that the United States will be committed to the stability and security of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. This is indeed a formidable task for which neither the U.S. on the one hand, nor the Persian Gulf States are ready to perform, particularly in the light of the fluid situation in Iraq and the wider Middle East.
As we stated above, when we speak of security arrangement in a particular region, we usually have in mind some kind of threat coming from a particular source for which individual or group of states are not prepared to face. And therefore, the need for a collective initiative to alleviate the preoccupation of the perceived threat is felt. That was the case during the cold war and bipolar system, in which the danger of communism was regarded as a major threat to the peace and security of the free world.
Iraq- Iran war in 1980 in a way expedited the Arab States of the Persian Gulf to conclude the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) pact, excluding the two hostiles countries, fearing that they might be dragged to an undesired alliance, which could threaten their very existence. But the GCC has never had the capacity of assuming any meaningful and efficient security function during tensions and crises in the region.
A number of impediments can be identified for this lack of efficiency, among which perhaps the most critical was too much reliance on outside powers, namely American forces stationed in the Persian Gulf. While, as we all know, in recent years, especially after the first US invasion of Iraq, during the Kuwait crisis in 1991, the American military buildup and presence in the region gradually became a major source of security concern in most traditional conservative States of the region. After the second American military intervention in Iraq, which ended up to the collapse of Saddam’s cruel regime, and the message of the so-called democratization plan of the greater Middle East, the apprehension of almost all States of the region became much more alarming, to the point that some now consider the United States as the primary threat to them.
Indeed, it is not a secret now that the main threats to the very existence and stability of most regimes in power in the region come from within. This is to say that if someday the democratization process somehow gets started, the first victims would be the regimes now in power. Since, they would have to adapt themselves to democratic values, as understood by the West, which undoubtedly give way to their opponents; a scenario that is considered as a disaster for the region.
Thus, realistically speaking, any security arrangement in the Persian Gulf, on the initiative of the United States, and on the assumption of fictive enemies and threat perception, would be doomed to failure. Unless the Americans explicitly declare that the objective of such a security apparatus is mainly directed to secure U.S. self-declared “vital interests,” as sometimes affirmed by policy statements in Washington, in which case the matter would be looked at quite differently inside the region. In other words, we have to define first whose security is intended to be protected against what threat in a presumed regional arrangement in the Persian Gulf?
Nevertheless, if the true intention is to prepare the ground for mutual and collective cooperation in the Persian Gulf region, with a view to promote stability and friendly relations among the coastal States; there are other schemes that can be devised without outside intervention. Such design, in which all regional and non-regional parties could benefit, will hopefully help to eradicate the roots of terrorism, emanating from hatred, revulsion and greed. “Security community” is one such scheme, which both in theory and practice, has proven to be useful in other regions of the world and can be applied in the Persian Gulf without much difficulty.
Toward a “Security Community” in the Persian Gulf
“Security community” is a regional system in which none of the neighboring states feels threatened by the others. The concept was originally identified by a number of political and international scientists belonging to the “communication school.”  This approach seeks to measure the process and the degree of regional security integration by promoting the flow of transactions in the fields of trade, tourists, and economic and cultural exchanges. This may gradually include cooperation and coordination in other domains of mutual benefits and interests such as immigration, terrorism, environmental pollution, narcotic substances, piracy, search and rescue at sea, etc.
The main characteristic of a security community in this approach is that countries involved in this system need not to conclude a formal military security arrangement in order to secure their national interests. Since presumably, there are so many mutual interests involved in such a community that individual actors are reluctant to do any thing that may change the status quo. In other words, this is a situation in which nobody would be better off by using forces in order to settle its disputes with others. NAFTA and European Community (EU) might be cited as successful examples of such communities.
Of course, the Persian Gulf shall go a long way in order to reach that stage of security integration. But this does not mean that states involved in this geo-strategic region could not embark in such direction. Given the fact that it is awfully hard to initiate a military security arrangement without preparing the ground from various point of views, especially if a non-regional power takes the lead, the establishment of a security community, which is based on gradual and incremental process of integration, seems much more accessible and useful. Because in the course of increasing interactions, states will have a chance to test each other and attract mutual confidence, and gradually go from low-politics (i.e. trade, immigration, environment, etc) to high-politics (i.e. security, terrorism, military alliance, etc).
Unlike the ordinary security arrangements in which permanent preoccupation prevails with respect to immense problems, the security community will not have to bother with such consideration as the followings:
· The tentative parties to the agreement,
· The financial and material resources to be allocated to such arrangement,
· The level of forces required for neutralizing a potential threat,
· The balance it should preserve with respect to the would-be enemy,
· The place the forces should be stationed and trained for eventual deployment,
· The command and control to be assumed for efficient use of the forces,
· The structure, combination and posture of such forces,
· The role of outside powers in the formation, organization and management of such forces,
A tentative security community can include all coastal states of the Persian Gulf as the core members, and may at a later stage enlarge its membership by inviting other interested states in the contiguous regions. It can be envisaged that the gradual success of a security community will pave the way for effective cooperation to eliminate roots of intolerance, hatred and terror in the region. Since, as many believe, religious fanaticism and radicalism seek their source in unequal distribution of wealth, undemocratic oppressive regimes, lack of civil societies, corruption, and the like, which hold back the social, economic and political development of traditional societies.
Any artificial arrangement initiated from outside the region with any real or assumed security pretext may have a number of negative impacts such as the following, which in the final account will be counter-productive to the region and the world order as a whole:
· Unnecessary waste of resources in order to form a military security coalition which would be an unjust burden to states of the region,
· Risk of rising the level of hostilities between regional states and outside powers for their meddling with the internal affairs of the region,
· Risk of setting aside a particular state from the security arrangement, and thus opening the door for new misunderstanding and animosity,
· Risk of some individual state to engage in some kind of arms-races, leading to total economic and political bankruptcy,
· Risk of inviting new forms of terrorism in the region, using unconventional means to cope with foreign presence in the Persian Gulf,
· Increase the level of internal threats against the security of undemocratic traditional states, hence causing further destabilization in the region,
· Other unknown impacts for which the Persian Gulf region cannot afford the risks.
Though it is rather risky to reach a conclusion from recent developments in the region, there seems to be no consensus among regional states on the source, magnitude and direction of threats that could give reason for American presence and endeavor for a defense and security arrangement in the Persian Gulf. While observers from outside the region might argue convincingly for a military coalition and security arrangement with the US assistance and partnership, especially in the wake of American entanglement in Iraq, a realistic view from inside the region would warn against such venture. Therefore, the main conclusions that can be derived from this short paper are as follow:
· There is no consensus on the threats endangering the stability of the Persian Gulf among regional and non-regional actors,
· The security business of the Persian Gulf should be left solely to initiative of coastal States,
· Any forced security and defense arrangement under the patronage and tutorship of an outside power would tend to be counterproductive and may further stir-up insecurity in the region,
· The United States military presence and partnerships with some parties in the Persian Gulf against specific state, such as Iran, would undermine peace and security of the region,
· The best alternative would be the creation of a “ security community,” based on political, economic, commercial, environmental, and cultural cooperative interaction of the coastal States, in such a way that all would benefit from it and none of them would feel threaten by the others.
* Dr. Kazemi is Professor of international law and Politics. He holds Ph.D. in International Law and Relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts U.S.A.; He is author of many books and articles. He is legal advisor on matters of International Law of the Sea. Currently, he is Dean of the Faculty of Law and Political Science, Islamic Azad University (Science and Research Campus). For more detail please consult Academic Site of Dr. Kazemi: http://www.akazemi.homestead.com/
 Karl W. Deutsch and his associates