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    Stop playing cowboys and Indians
    U. S. policies in the Persian Gulf

December 1996
The Iranian

Since the Persian Gulf War of 1991, U. S. policies toward that strategic region of the world have been characterized by a policy of dual containment, aiming at isolating and restraining Iran and Iraq. That policy has shown some successes but also many failures. It succeeded in putting together a broad coalition against Saddam Hussein's aggression against Kuwait leading to his withdrawal. But it failed at removing him from power. Bush and Thatcher are long gone; Saddam still sits on his throne in Baghdad.

That policy succeeded in exposing the Iranian regime's human rights violations against its own citizens and others such as Salman Rushdie, but it has failed in persuading the Europeans and Asians to join the U. S. economic sanctions against Iran. In the latest round of brinkmanship between Saddam and Clinton, the Western coalition is showing serious signs of breaking up. It is time, therefore, to rethink U. S. gulf policies.

The term containment itself is a relic of the Cold War years. The term was coined by George Kennan, who in an article in Foreign Affairs (1945), argued that Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe and Asia should be actively contained by the United States and its allies. The Containment Doctrine subsequently laid the foundations of U. S. policies until the end of the Cold War in 1989.

In the Persian Gulf region, it led to the withdrawal of Russian troops from Iranian Azarbaijan in 1946, the 1953 CIA intervention in Iran to reinstate the Shah against a popular nationalist movement, support of the Shah and the Saudi regimes as the dual gendarmes of the gulf during the 60s and 70s, encouragement of Saddam Hussein to attack revolutionary Iran thus creating a Frankenstein monster out of him during the 80s, and finally the Gulf War and its aftermath. Frequent foreign interventions in the region have reaped a bitter harvest of popular resentment and a grassroots anti-American Islamic movement in the region.

Containment policies are based on competitive rather than cooperative concepts of security. They may have been suited to the Cold War years when the U. S. was engaged in a worldwide struggle against the Soviet Union. In this struggle, security was conceived of as a zero-sum game. More security for the United States and its Western allies meant less security for the Sino-Soviet bloc, and vice versa. However, with the appearance of the Sino-Soviet dispute in the 60s and Gorbachev's glasnost and dtente policies in the 80s, containment policies had already lost much of their raison d'être.

In the post-Cold War era, containment is a counter-productive policy. However, politicians like the generals often seem to fight the last war. Circumstances have changed, yet strategic thinking has not. As a result of the fall of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of the United States as the only superpower, albeit with a reduced freedom to act unilaterally around the world, the time has come to think of national and international security primarily as a cooperative enterprise. This means that security must be conceived of a positive-sum game in which adversaries stand to gain from an arrangement in which their vital security interests are mutually guaranteed.

In the Persian Gulf region, all contending parties share in two vital interests: 1) to maintain the long-term security of supply and price stability of oil exports, and 2) to safeguard the current international borders against external aggression. As a region with two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves, the Persian Gulf is vital to both oil exporters and importers.

As a region whose current borders were primarily drawn by its past European colonial masters, the gulf is also vulnerable to temptations by ambitious potentates such as Saddam to conquer their neighbors. But the common interests of the people of the region as well as oil importers is to arrive at a security arrangement that does not invite outside interventions and bloody international wars.

A Persian Gulf Peace Conference, bringing all of the gulf states and the major oil importing countries together to work out such a security arrangement, would be the surest path to the region's long-term stability. The conference agenda should include international guarantees for the current borders with some possible mutually-agreed upon minor adjustments, price stability and security of oil supplies commensurate with world inflationary pressures, regional disarmament and cooperation for economic and social development.

Instead of playing cowboys against Indians and goodies against baddies, the post-Cold War years call for statesmanship, visions of cooperative rather than competitive security, and strategic rather than tactical thinking.

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