Regional and National Security Considerations

Regional and National Security Considerations

ANY THREAT TO THE STABILITY of the Persian Gulf endangering the region's oil flow greatly concerns the rest of the world. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was the opening stage in more than a decade of upheaval. The outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq in 1980, the expansion of the war to nonbelligerent shipping, and the presence of foreign naval flotillas in the gulf followed. When general hostilities eventually broke out, they arose from an unexpected quarter--Iraq's sweep into Kuwait in August 1990 and the possibility of Iraqi forces continuing down the gulf coast to seize other oil-rich Arab states. The smaller Arab regimes volunteered use of their ports and airfields as bases for the coalition of forces in Operation Desert Storm to defeat Iraq.

The overwhelming concentration of military power that enabled Iraq to swallow up Kuwait underscored the vulnerability of the territory and oil facilities of the other gulf states. To the extent that their military resources permitted, each of the Arab states participated in the coalition that defeated Iraq and drove it out of Kuwait. It was clear, nonetheless, that they played a subordinate role in the vast operation in which the United States, Britain, and France predominated, accompanied by Egypt and Syria.

After its sharp setback, Iraq in early 1993 remained a major regional power and a littoral state of the Persian Gulf, along with Iran and Saudi Arabia. None of the five other Persian Gulf littoral states--Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, or Oman--is in a position to defend its borders or territorial waters alone. In the face of their fragility, these Persian Gulf states continue to take measures to reinforce their individual and collective security. Relative to size and population, they have been among the world's most lavish spenders on the needs of their armed forces. Nevertheless, their military potential is limited by small manpower pools, ethnic divisions, limited area, and little experience in the effective use of modern weaponry.

A few months after the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, the six nonbelligerents--the five gulf states and Saudi Arabia-- in 1981 banded together in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Although the GCC had economic, social, and political aims, its main purpose was the creation of a defensive military alliance. The GCC leaders feared that a decisive Iranian military victory would fuel the drive of the radical Shia Muslims of Iran to spread their form of Islam. Concurrently, the GCC states accelerated their individual military efforts by purchasing modern aircraft, armored vehicles, air defense systems, and missile-armed naval vessels.

The GCC members are determined to construct a collective self-defense system without the direct involvement of foreign powers. For both political and practical reasons, however, the military goals of the GCC--standardization of equipment, coordination of training, integration of forces, and joint planning--have been achieved only to a limited degree. The gulf states have also been forced to restrain their military purchases as a result of declining oil revenues.

In the immediate aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, agreement was reached with the GCC to station Egyptian and Syrian troops in Kuwait to ensure the military stability of the northern gulf. By 1993, however, this plan seemed to have been abandoned. Instead, Kuwait and most other gulf states turned to cooperation with the West to develop a new security framework. The United States concluded agreements to permit pre-positioning of United States equipment for combat units, port access, and joint exercises and training. Britain and France also negotiated military cooperation arrangements. The effect was to spread a Western strategic umbrella over the region without the permanent stationing of foreign forces, although a United States and British naval presence is expected to continue.

In early 1993, more than a year after the gulf war ended, the danger of renewed violence in the region had receded, although no reconciliation among the antagonists had occurred. Iraq had not fully recovered from its humiliating defeat; nevertheless, its reduced army and air force still overshadow the combined forces of the GCC. Iran's military strength was depleted during its eight-year struggle with Iraq, and recovery is proceeding slowly. Although it appears to have shifted to more moderate policies, Iran's ambition to be a factor in regional gulf security has been treated with suspicion.

Traditional rivalries and territorial disputes among the smaller gulf states still linger but have steadily diminished as sources of tension. Subversion and terrorist incidents, often linked to Iran, have abated, as has the potential for disruption by foreign workers manipulated by external forces. The police vigilantly control internal dissent that can threaten the stability of the existing regimes. Nevertheless, resistance to democratic reforms by some members of the conservative ruling families of the gulf increases the likelihood of future destabilization and upheaval.

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