In Part I of this series, we discussed the emergence of a U.S. strategy towards the Middle East built on two pillars – Oil Security and Israel Security – and the introduction of a third pillar in support of the first two – the Peace Process. In this part, we explore the impact of regional developments and U.S. actions and/or reactions on the security of oil from a U.S. strategic interest.
Oil Security Pillar “Shaken”
The region’s single most important event of the last 20-plus years of the twentieth century was the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The overthrow of the Shah’s government by Islamic Revolutionaries in 1979 and its subsequent events, such as the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and the taking of American hostages, resulted in a total and complete breakdown in diplomatic relations between the United States and the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran.
With the loss of Iran as its main ally to ensure oil security, the United States was presented with a difficult dilemma: how to pursue oil security in the Gulf region without resorting to direct U.S. military intervention? The root cause of this dilemma was the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict; any increased direct military intervention on the part of the United States in the Gulf would almost immediately translate into increased pressure on Arab oil Gulf countries to break their “oil neutrality” vis-à-vis the United States. The only two countries in the Gulf that could possibly act as the replacement to Iran and assist the United States in safeguarding its oil security pillar were Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
The invasion of Iran in 1980 by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the eight-year war that followed made it impractical for the United States to choose Iraq as a replacement to the Shah’s Iran. On the other hand, in the absence of an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Saudi Arabia, which had been agreeable to a low profile American military presence on its territory, was not receptive to the idea of being the replacement of the Shah’s Iran for fear of being perceived by Arab and Muslim populations in the region as a “traitor” to the Arab and Palestinian cause.
Faced with this unpleasant reality, the United States chose to increase its military profile in the region by boosting its naval presence and pursuing military and security agreements with member countries of the newly established Gulf Cooperation Council (“GCC”). The “profile” increase resulting from the enhanced American direct military presence, though problematic in the long run, was an “acceptable” risk for the United States to take as long as Iraq and Iran were busy fighting each other and not destabilizing the oil region.
The abrupt end to the Iraq-Iran war brought about unilaterally by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988, however, presented the United States with a new challenge in the gulf region – an increasingly assertive Iraq. The invasion and occupation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990 led the United States to construct the biggest military buildup in history with the aim of liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation to safeguard its oil security pillar. The liberation of Kuwait by U.S. troops necessitated a huge increase in U.S. military personnel on Saudi territory, causing an “unwanted and unwelcomed” reaction in the Saudi Kingdom.
Liberation of Kuwait: A Missed Opportunity
If there is one event in the Gulf region that could be considered “the turning point” for U.S. oil security interests, it is the liberation of Kuwait. Let me explain.
With the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, reformers in Iran led by Ayatollah Rafsanjani were determined to push their political/economic agenda forward, effectively challenging the “velayat e faqih” system of government. The success of their economic reforms, however, depended heavily on foreign investment in Iran’s infrastructure and industrial base, including oil and gas, and in the absence of normalized relations with the United States, that would not be possible. As soon as Ayatollah Rafsanjani assumed the presidency in 1989, he sought seriously a dialogue with the United States aimed at normalizing relations between both countries. The United States, however, was preoccupied with an increasingly belligerent and aggressive Iraq that ended up invading Kuwait on August 2, 1990. The United States, with the full support of the United Nations and key Arab states, led a multinational force and launched Operation Desert Storm aimed at liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
With Kuwait liberated, Iranian reformers had then hoped that President George Herbert Walker Bush, when and if re-elected, would be ready and willing to engage in normalization talks. In their calculus, given Iraq’s war waging against its neighbors and the need for long-term security and stability in the Gulf region, the United States would appreciate a potentially positive role by Iran in this equation. Furthermore, Iranian reformers were very aware of the political and cultural pressures the Saudi government was being subjected to by Wahhabis and Salafis due to the heavy presence of American troops on Saudi soil and in the region. Hopes were pinned by Iranian reformers on Bush’s re-election, but William Jefferson Clinton was elected President in 1992.
The Lost Decade and the Growth of al Qaeda
The election of Bill Clinton as President of the United States was seen as a setback by Iranian reformers. In their eyes, President H.W. Bush was a realist and a pragmatist who put the U.S. national interest above special interest, such as that of Israel supporters in Washington. The Clinton Administration, on the other hand, made Israeli security a primary objective, which required a containment of Iranian influence rather than an accommodation of Iranian concerns.
Attempts in the 90s by Rafsanjani to open up to the United States went nowhere because they ran counter to the Clinton Administration’s strategy of dual containment and its regional security policy framework. As a result, the United States missed the opportunity of regaining Iran as a potential partner for its oil security pillar and had to rely instead on increasing its own military presence in the region. This increased U.S. military presence in the Arabian Peninsula put Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and the United States on a head-on collision course and provided the opportunity for al Qaeda to develop a successful strategy aimed at destabilizing the oil security pillar of the United States.
In Part III of this series, subtitled “Israel Security at Risk,” we will address the regional developments and root causes that have transformed the security environment that Israel faces today.
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