(October 16, 2019 / BESA Center)
Notwithstanding Gulf suspicions that the United States is gradually withdrawing from the Middle East, the possible relocation to the United States of some command and control operations that have been based in the Gulf for almost 40 years does not necessarily signal a reduced U.S. commitment to the defense of the strategic energy-rich region.
Nonetheless, the move, officially intended to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. military assets to a potential Iranian strike without decreasing U.S. operational capability, is bolstering a rethink in capitals across Eurasia, including Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, New Delhi, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh about possible alternative, more collective, multilateral security arrangements in the Gulf.
The arrangements would involve the Gulf states, Russia, China, the United States, the European Union and India, as well as other stakeholders—a likely reference to Iran. By necessity, it would require a lowering of tensions in the region and a degree of accommodation between Riyadh and Tehran.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi urged the Gulf states “to establish a platform for dialogue and consultation in which countries from outside the region would play a role in maintaining security in the region.”
Wang was speaking days after Iranian president Hassan Rouhani proposed a security arrangement that would be limited to countries in the region.
In a variation on the theme, Narayanappa Janardhan, a prominent Indian Gulf researcher at the UAE’s Emirates Diplomatic Academy, suggested that a new regional security architecture should be Asian-led.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s transactional approach to foreign and defense policies, in which countries are expected to shoulder their fair burden and pay for U.S. defense services, coupled with his longstanding assertion that China and others dependent on energy supplies from the Gulf are free-riding beneficiaries of the U.S. defense umbrella—as well as his withdrawal early in his presidency from the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional trade pact—has sparked doubts across Asia about the wisdom of depending on the United States for energy security.
In a sense, the Gulf and Asian nations are in a bind. The United States may no longer be reliable, but despite the calls for a new security arrangement, few see a realistic alternative.
“Having just spent three days in Moscow, I’m convinced the Russians haven’t the faintest clue how to operate any architecture in the Gulf ... let alone a security architecture,” tweeted Gulf scholar Michael Stephens.
Concern that military retaliation for last month’s attacks on two key Saudi oil facilities would spark a regional war have sparked a flurry of diplomatic activity and a search for non-military responses as the United States and Saudi Arabia point the finger of responsibility at Iran.
Iran has warned that military retaliation by the United States and/or Saudi Arabia would spark a war that would spread to the Gulf, with Iran targeting installations in the region.
Trump’s cautious reaction to the attacks, coupled with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s stated preference for a non-military response, constitute the latest developments in recent months that have opened the door to the Chinese-backed Russian proposal for a collective security arrangement that would reduce U.S. influence in the region.
Saudi and Iranian leaders, in the faint hope that the two countries may be inching toward one another, expressed an interest in resolving issues politically rather than militarily.
“The political and peaceful solution is much better than the military one,” Prince Mohammad told CBS News when asked about a possible military response to the attacks on the kingdom’s oil assets.
Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani responded, saying: “The doors of Iran are open. A Saudi-Iranian dialogue can solve many of the region’s security and political problems.”
In a further hopeful development, Saudi Arabia was reported to be considering a partial ceasefire in Yemen. Earlier, the Houthis declared a unilateral halt to the fighting. Larijani said that Iran was advising the Houthis to accept whatever ceasefire was on offer.
“The Saudis have conditions before the negotiation process starts, and the same with the Iranians. We have liaised these conditions to each side. It is not an easy task to get together two opposite sides in terms of their ideology, sect and alliances in the region,” said Abbas al-Hasnawi, an official in the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
“Saudi Arabia’s conditions are that Iran minimize its role in Yemen and Syria and stop supporting armed groups such as the Houthis. It also asks the Syrian regime to solve its problems with the Syrian opposition groups, and to write a constitution for Syria with all parties agreeing on it,” the official said.
“If there will be a potential deal in the region that includes Yemen, Syria and Iraq, the Americans have no problem with that,” added Hasnawi.
While there is every reason to be skeptical that Saudi Arabia and Iran are anywhere near resolving their differences, talk of dialogue and calls for a Yemen ceasefire suggest that Iran’s strategy of strategic escalation may be producing results.
Earlier this year, Iran moved away from its initial strategic patience response to the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement curbing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. It shifted to a strategy of gradual escalation.
Escalation tactics include a step-by-step breaching of the agreement and a more aggressive, asymmetric military posture involving the seizing of a British vessel (that was released last week), alleged attacks on tankers off the coast of the UAE and the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities.
Said Eldar Mamedov, an adviser to the Social Democrats in the European parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee: The “sequence of events shows that, thus far, the Iranian strategy of calculated counter-escalation is working … By escalating on its own, Iran forced a number of key players to change their cost-benefit calculus.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident senior associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.
This article first appeared on the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies website.
JNS works around the clock to provide high-quality, pro-Israel content. We’ve taken numerous steps to improve the quality, quantity, and distribution of our content for even greater impact. We intend to keep on growing, and to do that we need your help.
Please help us take pro-Israel journalism to the next level with a tax-deductible sponsorship, either on a one-time or recurring monthly basis. Jewish News Syndicate is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization.