Can Conservative Arab Gulf Monarchies Endure a Fourth War in the Persian Gulf?

Article excerpt

The existing regional balance of power in the Persian Gulf is likely to shift after Iran becomes a nuclear state. Conservative Arab Gulf monarchies, which emerged relatively unscathed from previous tectonic changes, are poised to mimic the Iranian program with far-reaching consequences for all concerned. Although major powers may well tolerate a nuclearized Iran, its neighbors face daunting security challenges to protect and promote preferred regional interests, including tested alliances with key Western governments. Saudi Arabia and its smaller Arab Gulf partners will need to exercise savvy policies to prevent a fourth regional war before the first decade of the 21st century is out. They may even have to address intrinsic political and socioeconomic reforms to preserve existing privileges.

Iran will probably become a nuclear power sometime within the next ten years, ushering in a permanent shift in the regional balance of power in the Persian Gulf with ominous consequences for the conservative Arab Gulf monarchies. Although the United States and Israel today publicly oppose such an outcome, they will possibly learn to live with a nuclear Iran. Small and medium size countries on the other hand will, in all likelihood, assume the heavy burden of a nuclearized neighbor, one which has never been shy of hegemonic ambitions. In fact, the Iranian desire to acquire nuclear weapons is long-standing policy, spanning two generations of successive pre- and post-revolutionary leaderships. In other words, the Iranian quest for nuclear technology, as well as a natural follow-up acquisition of nuclear weapons, cannot be solely attributed to national pride but must be understood as forming an intrinsic part of Iranian doctrine.1

Equally important, despite heated political rhetoric, both the United States and Israel perceive such a quest as being largely compatible with their respective long-term interests, as long as Tehran does not intend to destabilize the Persian Gulf region. This was also the gist of a carefully setup recent conversation between French President Jacques Chirac and leading American and French journalists. Speaking to The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, Chirac maintained that it would not in fact be dangerous for Iran to have a "bomb or perhaps a second [one] a little while later." In a Gallic moment of candor, however, the French President perceived the danger in terms of proliferation, and in the temptation "for other countries in the region that have large financial resources to say: 'Well, we too are going to do that; we're going to help others do it.' Why wouldn't Saudi Arabia do it? Why wouldn't it help Egypt to do so as well? That is the real danger."2 Although Chirac formally retracted these remarks on February 1, 2007, his official communiqué declared that "France and the international community cannot accept the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, and asked [Tehran] to respect its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." He affirmed, nevertheless, Iran's "right to civilian nuclear energy."3 Whether the prescient Frenchman intended to delay a fourth war in the Gulf, or whether he wished to caution Arab Gulf leaders on their more recent initiatives, was difficult to gauge. "I drifted," opined Chirac, "because I thought we were off the record - to say that, for example, Saudi Arabia or Egypt could be tempted to follow this example. I retract it, of course, since neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt has made the slightest declaration on these subjects, so it is not up to me to make them."4 In fact. Western governments perceived the Middle East in general, and the Gulf states in particular, as being largely unstable areas that required guidance. Towards that end, major powers provided over-the-horizon support when tensions were manageable, and intervened when such intrusions were of the "doable" variety to further maintain unique power privileges. …