Policy Analysis No. 46

The United States and the Persian Gulf

By Sheldon L. Richman
January 10, 1985

Executive Summary

The four-year war between Iran and Iraq once again raises the question of whether the United States should be the guardian of the Persian Gulf. For many people, including President Reagan and Walter Mondale, it goes without saying that should the war jeopardize oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the gulf and the Arabian Sea, the United States would be primarily responsible for keeping the strait open.

During the 1984 presidential campaign, no candidate ruled out using military force in the gulf. Even Gary Hart’s earlier opposition to military action there gave way to a promise to use air and sea support to keep the gulf open. Protection of the gulf is presumed to be part of the role the United States took on after World War II, a role in which the country was cast as protector of the free world.

The Middle East for decades has been a key region for the West because of its vast oil reserves. Keeping the Strait of Hormuz open, therefore, has been seen as an essential element in the defense of the Western world. Although Great Britain and, to a lesser extent, France were accorded the status of custodians of the Middle East immediately after World War II, U.S. policymakers soon began to assert that the United States had responsibilities in the region. U.S. aid to Greece in 1947, for example, was justified in part by its value in stopping communist expansion into the Middle East. By the mid-1950s the United States had gained major concessions in the Middle East for its oil companies at the expense of British interests. In 1956 it opposed what was to be Britain and France’s final assertion of power in the area: their attack, with Israel, on Egypt in the Suez crisis.

With respect to the Middle East, the economic, strategic, and ideological threat to the West is said to have two sources, one internal, the other external. The prime internal threat is said to come from the Muslim fundamentalism epitomized by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Other internal threats are attributed to such ambitious rulers as Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad. The external threat is said to come from the Soviet Union.

Which of these is the greater threat to the United States? As a congressional report put it in 1977, “The most serious threats may emanate from internal changes in the gulf states.”[1] Consequently, although the Soviet threat is often portrayed as the major concern, there is reason to believe that since World War II the primary target of U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf has been internal upheaval jeopardizing U.S. influence in this highly coveted area. The gulf has long been seen as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”[2]

The two perceived threats, of course, are linked. It is often held that the ultimate winner in any gulf upheaval will be the Soviet Union. Thus the Soviets are believed to encourage many of the internal problems in the region. According to one analyst, “Moscow so far has pursued an indirect strategy in the gulf to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States… . Moscow seeks to ‘subvert the center by radicalizing the periphery.”’[3] In this view, U.S. measures designed to stanch indigenous change would also help to counter Soviet moves, although additional measures may be needed to deter outright Soviet aggression.

The measures for countering the dual threat include, first, the U.S. Central Command (formerly called the “Rapid Deployment Force”), created by President Carter after the Soviets sent troops into Afghanistan. A second measure is U.S. support for friendly regimes in the region, including those of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and, until the shah was overthrown by Khomeini’s supporters in 1979, Iran. The degree of dependence on these methods is a matter of debate both within and without the Reagan administration. Analyst James A. Phillips, for instance, would have the United States rely more on local governments, teaching them “techniques for reducing the success of coups.” But he also proposes a “fast reacting American commando force for keeping U.S. friends in power.”[4]

These concerns have come to a head with the Iran-Iraq war and the threat it poses to the gulf. In September 1980 a long feud between Iran and Iraq finally broke out into open warfare. When the Iranian revolution occurred in 1979, the radical Shi’ite Muslims who ousted the shah vowed to spread their revolution throughout the gulf area. Iraq saw opportunities for influence by becoming the protector of the Arab gulf states, reclaiming sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab river and recovering disputed islands held by Iran but claimed by the Arabs. When Iran attempted to stir up the Iraqi Shi’ite majority, Iraq responded by trying to incite the Arabs in Iran’s Khuzistan province (called “Arabistan” by the Iraqis), long an area of contention between the two nations. Harsh words turned into border skirmishes, and then Iraq invaded. After Iraq’s early successes it called for a ceasefire, which was (and continues to be) rejected by Iran.[5]

The war has been fought with all of the fierceness of the “holy war” that it is. Horror stories abound of Iran’s religious leaders urging youngsters to hurl themselves in a human wave at Iraqi troops, promising that dying in a jihad—holy war—will bring immediate ascent to heaven. Iraq has responded with poison gas and attacks on Iran’s oil-exporting facilities. Blood and madness currently frame the Middle East, as they so often have.

That this is a classic fight between two undesirables has not stopped the United States from finding a way to get involved. It has openly tilted toward Iraq, despite that country’s brutal socialism and friendship with the Soviet Union. (The Soviets, after some wavering, have also favored Iraq.) The United States has led a worldwide arms embargo against Iran and has helped Iraq with nearly $1 billion in commodity credits and almost $500 million in Export-Import Bank guarantees for an oil pipeline. Moreover, the United States supported a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned Iran for attacks on ships in the gulf but did not name Iraq, which has acknowledged responsibility for most of the attacks.[6]

Read the Full Policy Analysis

Sheldon L. Richman has written widely about U.S. Middle East policy.