Securing the Persian Gulf: Washington Must Manage Both External Aggression and Internal Instability

By Pollack, Kenneth M. | Brookings Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Securing the Persian Gulf: Washington Must Manage Both External Aggression and Internal Instability


Pollack, Kenneth M., Brookings Review


Over the past three decades. Washington has tried a variety of approaches to ensuring the stability and of the strategically vital Persian Gulf region. That none has been effective is evident from the fact that the United States has had to intervene directly three times in the past 16 years against regional threats--Iran in 1987-88 and Iraq in 1991 and this past spring. With the U.S. and British military success in Operation Iraqi Freedom, a broad rethinking of U.S. strategy toward the region is in order--though establishing a durable framework for Persian Gulf security is likely to be more challenging than ever. Past threats posed by Iran and Iraq were straightforward military problems amenable to solution by the vast preponderance of U.S. power. Future threats are unlikely to be as simple or discrete.

It's the Oil, Stupid

America's primary interest in the Persian Gulf is ensuring the free and stable flow of the region's oil to the world at large. The issue is not whether Americans pay $2 or $3 a gallon for gas at the pump or whether Exxon gets contracts instead of Lukoil or even how much oil the United States imports from the Persian Gulf. The global economy built over the past 50 years rests on a foundation of inexpensive, plentiful oil. If that foundation were removed, the global economy would collapse.

Roughly 25 percent of the world's oil production comes from the Persian Gulf, with Saudi Arabia alone responsible for about 15 percent. The Persian Gulf has as much as two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves, and its oil is absurdly economical to produce. Saudi Arabia has a majority of the world's excess production capacity, and it increases or decreases production to stabilize and control prices. The sudden loss of the Saudi oil network would send the price of oil through the ceiling, probably causing a global downturn at least as devastating as the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Washington's aim is not simply to keep oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf, but also to prevent any potentially hostile state from gaining control over the region's resources. The United States also wants to maintain military access to this geostrategically critical region to preserve its influence on events in the Middle East, Central Asia, eastern Africa, and South Asia. Finally, the United States has an interest in stamping out the terrorist groups that flourish in the region.

Triple Threat

The three main problems likely to bedevil Persian Gulf security over the next several years will be Iraq's security dilemma, Iran's nuclear weapons program, and potential internal unrest in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These problems offer no easy answers separately, let alone together. Difficult trade-offs will have to be made.

The paradox of Iraqi power can be put simply: any Iraq that is strong enough to balance and contain Iran will be capable of overrunning Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The recent American victory over Saddam will do little to affect this basic dynamic, which stems less from the nature of Iraq's leadership than from simple geopolitics. Like postwar Germany and Japan, post-Saddam Iraq will almost certainly be forbidden to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But it will still have to protect itself from a real, albeit distant, threat from Iran, either through a credible external security guarantee or by maintaining substantial--and threatening--conventional military capabilities.

As for Iran, according to the latest estimates of U.S. intelligence and even of the International Atomic Energy Agency, its nuclear program has gone into overdrive and unless stopped--from inside or outside--is likely to produce one or more nuclear weapons within a decade. The preemptive intervention that was an option for the United States in Iraq is not an option here. Iran's population and landmass are far larger than Iraq's; its terrain would make military operations a logistical nightmare; and its people have generally rallied around the regime in the face of foreign threats. …

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