Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Conflict and Cooperation in the Persian Gulf: The Interregional Order and US Policy

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Conflict and Cooperation in the Persian Gulf: The Interregional Order and US Policy

Article excerpt

For decades, the regional order in the Gulf was shaped by a triangle formed by Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. If one of them gained too much weight, the other two tried to compensate. Yet the 2003 Iraq War has created an entirely new situation since the indefinite US presence has virtually transformed the triangle into a square. Yet in reality this impression is misleading because Iraq's role has actually been usurped by the United States. This has resulted in a new, artificial triangle comprised of the US, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Strangely enough, within this new triangle, external, or at least non-Arab powers, i.e. the US and Iran, are the most powerful actors, even hinting at the emergence of a bilateral system. Nevertheless, history, tradition, and geography would suppose a renaissance of the traditional triangle. Washington would probably not object to an Iraq acting as its strategic partner in the region as imperial Iran did in the 1970s.

If a circular model of the regional order in the Gulf is imagined, the center is in fact formed by a triangle of states: Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Although the balance within this triangular system is very fragile there has been a proven method of upholding it. If one of the mentioned countries gains too much weight, the other two try to compensate. This fundamental framework for the region's balance of power has not changed basically since the end of the second World War with one minor exception, that one has to add the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - in strategic terms - to Saudi Arabia after 1981. Thus, in general, whether conflict or cooperation prevailed between certain countries was due to the actual state of the overall balance of the triangular system. By comparing the triangle's conduct in previous crises and wars with its reaction to the 2003 Iraq War, the following analysis intends to address the question of whether the latter changed this traditional system.



Arab nationalism, born in the era of anti-colonial struggle, often equated the monarchial system with colonial cronyism. Therefore, monarchies such as Iran and Saudi Arabia considered Arab nationalism an immediate danger. Iran had an additional handicap as a non-Arab state. The threat became imminent in 1958, when nationalist forces overthrew King Faysal II in neighboring Iraq, thus creating a precedent in the Gulf for toppling monarchies. Subsequently, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and the Saudi Kings Sa'ud, and especially Faysal after his seizing power in 1964, initiated a modus of frequent consultations to coordinate their regional policies. Events such as the leftist coup in South Yemen in 1967, the British declaration that they were completely retreating from the Gulf region by 1971, and the Ba'th party gaining power in Iraq in July 1968 were powerful incentives to intensify political coordination. The common interest in fighting socialist and radical-nationalist influences in the Gulf region, in ensuring a stable flow of oil and gas, and in increasing wealth through exports, united Iran and Saudi Arabia till the end of the 1970s. David Long was right when he stated that "prior to the [Iranian] revolution, the primary political confrontation in the Gulf was neither Sunni-Shii nor Arab-Persian but conservative-radical."1

A strong external momentum supported the Saudi-Iranian alliance of the late 1960s. The US government - alerted by the British proclamation of withdrawal had to ensure that the expected power vacuum in the Gulf region, important both in terms of economy and strategy, would not be filled by East bloc countries and their allies. But US capabilities were stretched to the utmost in Vietnam. This caused President Richard Nixon to declare that in the future his government would look for suitable states to assume regional leadership responsibilities in close cooperation with the US. The so-called Nixon Doctrine meant nothing more than the appointment of deputies for certain strategic areas of the world. …

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