Dr. Christian Koch
Director, International Studies
Gulf Research Center
Given the horrific events in Iraq, the continued threat from terrorism, the violence in both Palestine and Lebanon, and the stalemate in the peace process, one would think that the Middle East and the Gulf region have witnessed enough conflict. Certainly, the people of the region are tired of what appears to be a never-ending cycle of violence and instability that could at any time spread regionally. But just as one thought it could not get more complicated, a potentially even more destructive confrontation between the United States and Iran looms around the corner. Current developments are not encouraging, and time short to prevent what is bound to be a catastrophe.
Recent developments, coupled with those over the past year, portend an increased period of tension. Immediately after President George W. Bush's Iraq policy speech, a flurry of statements by US administration officials point toward a more confrontationist attitude vis-a-vis Iran. In addition to sending a second aircraft carrier group to the Gulf, Patriot missiles and military supplies are being positioned in the region. Further, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is stating the need to confront Iran's "destabilizing behavior" and Vice-President Dick Cheney is referring to the growing threat that Iran represents. Not to be outdone, Iran continues to heighten the rhetoric, vowing that nothing would stop its nuclear program and warning that any future action would be seen as hostile.
Given current strategic alignments, the actions of the US and Iran are key to determining the future environment in the Gulf. But what either side apparently fails to understand is that with this position comes a clear and definite responsibility to keep the region stable and ensure that their antagonistic bilateral relationship does not have detrimental consequences for the other states in the region. This responsibility is not taken seriously. Instead, both the US and Iran appear so consumed and focused on each other that they completely disregard the concerns of the states and people in the rest of the Gulf, ignore what would happen to global oil supplies in the event of a conflict, push aside the impact of such a conflict on the further spread of terrorism, not to speak of the grim possibility of a war that could engulf the entire Middle East. Current attempts at trying to woo the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to support either of the causes are nothing more than self-serving mechanisms.
The Arab Gulf states, meanwhile, have been very clear and consistent in their concern over this deteriorating situation. To the United States, the message has been that it should finally acknowledge its failed policy in Iraq and earnestly engage to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. During the height of the Lebanon crisis in 2006, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal went to the White House and urged the US to limit Israeli aggression in exchange for Arab pressure to rein in Hezbollah. But instead of accepting Arab support, the foreign minister was rebuffed. Incidents like these have led the Arab Gulf states to lose their confidence in the US doing the right thing.
As far as Iran is concerned, the message from the region is equally clear. Instead of trying to position itself as the main power in the Middle East that is set on challenging and bringing down US dominance, Iran should truly begin to engage the region and seek broad-based solutions to the region's urgent problems. Unfortunately, Iran refuses to provide its neighbors with any sort of confidence concerning its ultimate ambitions. From the Arab Gulf perspective, Iranian actions simply look as replacing one bully with another. At a time when the Arab Gulf states are looking for reassurances, Iranian pronouncements of its military capabilities and ability to send thousands of suicide bombers to the other side of the Gulf in response to any US military campaign represents an attempt at intimidation in the least. It is little wonder then that the Arab Gulf states continue to request and depend on US protection given that "export of the revolution" represents a real threat to their existence.
The US and Iran should be sent to their rooms to cool their tempers, wake up and smell the coffee. What the US fails to understand is that its policies and statements have played directly into the hands of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government, in turn allowing him to prop up what is essentially a weak and ineffectual regime. Iran is faced with deep economic and social problems to which the present government has no answers. After all, Ahmadinejad was elected on the promise of raising living standards and distributing the oil wealth more evenly. To hide his failure, Ahmadinejad has embarked on a populist course that allows him to rally the Iranian masses around core issues on which there exists minimum consensus. These are the right of Iran to pursue a nuclear program, the right to be accepted as a regional power, and its opposition to the policies of Israel.
Within this framework, the US statements about possible military action and the need for a change in Iranian behavior are counterproductive as they strengthen an unpopular regime instead of weakening it. Why is it so difficult to understand that changes in Iranian policies cannot be expected from the Ahmadinejad government? Iran sees the US bogged down in Iraq and feels that their policies are working.
If the United States is serious about bringing a change in Iranian policies, it needs to realize that the impetus for change has to come from within. A better strategy, therefore, would be to formulate and issue messages of positive intent and content directly to the Iranian population, who will ultimately be the ones exerting the required pressure on the power holders above. About 60 percent of Iran's population is under the age of 24, with one in five between 15 and 24 years of age unemployed. If there is one thing that the current clerical regime is afraid of, it is its own population. To mobilize this population what is required is a message to rally around, i.e. a vision worth standing up for. This is what the US should provide.
Similarly, Tehran has to finally realize that if push comes to shove, if the choice is between an Iranian nuclear bomb and a US military strike, then the Arab Gulf states have no choice but to quietly support the US. Living under the shadow of Iranian nuclear bomb is unacceptable. If Iran wants to limit US influence, it should begin to engage with its GCC neighbors as true partners and provide them with necessary assurances. Iran should join the call of the December 2006 GCC summit "to live up to the international standards of security and safety" of its nuclear program and "consider the environmental aspects of this matter in cooperation with the IAEA." Iran should stop referring to the dispute with the UAE over the islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs as a "misunderstanding" and finally agree to jurisdiction by the International Court of Justice. Such steps, given the GCC's lack of trust over the Bush administration's policies, are bound to be more effective than the rhetoric of threats and negative intentions.
Allowing events to run their present course in the Gulf will have devastating consequences not only for the region but for the international community as a whole. Unless the region and key countries in Europe and Asia begin to speak out now and confront both the US and Iran over their absolutely irresponsible policies, the world will find itself being dragged into another quagmire a la Iraq. The consequences of that adventure are still being felt every day.