The United States and the Persian Gulf

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

During the 1984 presidential campaign, no candidate ruledout using military force in the gulf. Even Gary Hart's earlieropposition to military action there gave way to a promise touse air and sea support to keep the gulf open. Protection ofthe gulf is presumed to be part of the role the United Statestook on after World War II, a role in which the country wascast as protector of the free world.

The Middle East for decades has been a key region for theWest because of its vast oil reserves. Keeping the Strait ofHormuz open, therefore, has been seen as an essential elementin the defense of the Western world. Although Great Britainand, to a lesser extent, France were accorded the status ofcustodians of the Middle East immediately after World War II,U.S. policymakers soon began to assert that the United Stateshad responsibilities in the region. U.S. aid to Greece in 1947,for example, was justified in part by its value in stoppingcommunist expansion into the Middle East. By the mid-1950s theUnited States had gained major concessions in the Middle Eastfor its oil companies at the expense of British interests. In1956 it opposed what was to be Britain and France's final assertion of power in the area: their attack, with Israel, onEgypt 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 issaid to come from the Muslim fundamentalism epitomized by Iran'sAyatollah Khomeini. Other internal threats are attributed tosuch ambitious rulers as Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, and Syria'sHafez al-Assad. The external threat is said to come from theSoviet Union.

Which of these is the greater threat to the United States?As a congressional report put it in 1977, "The most seriousthreats may emanate from internal changes in the gulf states."[1]Consequently, although the Soviet threat is often portrayed asthe major concern, there is reason to believe that since WorldWar II the primary target of U.S. involvement in the PersianGulf has been internal upheaval jeopardizing U.S. influence inthis highly coveted area. The gulf has long been seen as "astupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatestmaterial prizes in world history."[2]

The two perceived threats, of course, are linked. It isoften held that the ultimate winner in any gulf upheaval willbe the Soviet Union. Thus the Soviets are believed to encourage many of the internal problems in the region. According toone analyst, "Moscow so far has pursued an indirect strategy inthe gulf to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States.. . . Moscow seeks to 'subvert the center by radicalizing theperiphery."'[3] In this view, U.S. measures designed to stanchindigenous 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 DeploymentForce"), created by President Carter after the Soviets senttroops into Afghanistan. A second measure is U.S. support forfriendly regimes in the region, including those of Israel, SaudiArabia, 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 Reaganadministration. Analyst James A. Phillips, for instance, wouldhave the United States rely more on local governments, teachingthem "techniques for reducing the success of coups." But healso 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 warand the threat it poses to the gulf. In September 1980 a longfeud between Iran and Iraq finally broke out into open warfare.When the Iranian revolution occurred in 1979, the radicalShi'ite Muslims who ousted the shah vowed to spread their revolution throughout the gulf area. Iraq saw opportunities forinfluence 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, Iraqresponded by trying to incite the Arabs in Iran's Khuzistanprovince (called "Arabistan" by the Iraqis), long an area ofcontention between the two nations. Harsh words turned intoborder skirmishes, and then Iraq invaded. After Iraq's earlysuccesses it called for a ceasefire, which was (and continuesto 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 humanwave at Iraqi troops, promising that dying in a jihad--holywar--will bring immediate ascent to heaven. Iraq has respondedwith poison gas and attacks on Iran's oil-exporting facilities.Blood and madness currently frame the Middle East, as they sooften have.

That this is a classic fight between two undesirables hasnot stopped the United States from finding a way to get involved.It has openly tilted toward Iraq, despite that country's brutalsocialism and friendship with the Soviet Union. (The Soviets,after some wavering, have also favored Iraq.) The United Stateshas led a worldwide arms embargo against Iran and has helpedIraq 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. SecurityCouncil resolution that condemned Iran for attacks on ships inthe gulf but did not name Iraq, which has acknowledged responsibility for most of the attacks.[6]

Sheldon L. Richman

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