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THE WORLD : IRAN : How to Lose Friends in the Persian Gulf

June 04, 1995|Shibley Telhami | Shibley Telhami, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is on leave from Cornell University, where he is director of the Near Eastern Studies Program. He just returned from a trip to the Arabian Peninsula

WASHINGTON — Most Americans might be surprised to learn that the Clinton Administration has recently established the U.S. Navy's "Fifth Fleet" in the Arabian-Persian Gulf. Even if this fleet, mostly composed of ships already deployed in the region, does not result in the further expansion of U.S. forces, it adds a new sense of permanence to the American military presence. Coming only days after the Administration broadened its trade embargo against Iran, the move should have assured anxious Arab allies of America's commitment to defend them against Iraqi and Iranian threats. Yet, many in the Gulf are fearful--even resentful--of U.S. policy in the region. The goodwill generated by the U.S. role in the Iraq-Kuwait crisis is quickly turning into apprehension.

Many Gulf states increasingly resent Washington's failure to consult them on a policy ostensibly designed to protect them. They, like Washington, see Iran and Iraq as threats. But they are unhappy with the U.S. approach to their common foes. The policy, known as "dual containment," contends that Iran and Iraq "exhibit a chronic inability to engage constructively" and thus will not respond positively to incentives to modify their behavior. Only sustained, individually tailored pressure will yield results. Put another way, for Iran and Iraq, the carrot is withholding a bigger stick.

There are two fundamental problems with this policy. First, its envisioned payoff--the internal collapse of the regimes in Iran and Iraq--is a long way off, even according to the Administration's own intelligence assessments. Yet, few in the Middle East believe the region's status quo is long for this world. In particular, most expect a fundamental change in Iraq in the short term: either the country's horrifying economic conditions will bring down the Iraqi state or U.N. sanctions will be lifted. Either outcome would dramatically alter the power balance in the Gulf far beyond dual containment's ability to manage it.

Second, many in the Gulf, unlike Washington, do not worry about invasion. Rather, most Arabs fear subversion by outside parties and internal instability. Indeed, if the regime in Iran believes that the international community is bent on undermining it, Tehran will more eagerly play the subversive.

This at a time when Gulf states face increasing demands for political participation, declining income and rising public expenditures. Surprisingly, many complain that U.S. weapons are being "pushed upon" them for the good of the U.S. arms industry--and at the expense of their economic welfare and internal stability. Moreover, the recent U.S. veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Israel to rescind its decision to expropriate Arab land in Jerusalem has made life more difficult for governments that profess faith in U.S. foreign policy.

To be sure, many in the Gulf remain thankful for the role Washington played in liberating Kuwait. They also understand that only the United States can prevent a similar threat from arising today. But their romance with Washington, spawned by a common fear of Saddam Hussein, has been replaced by a sense of realism about conflicting as well as common interests. For example, the U.S. presence is now widely seen as principally serving Washington's interests. As such, there is an increasing reluctance in the region to carry on the economic policy of the early post-Gulf war years, which favored American businesses.

Dual containment is not only hurting U.S. relations with the Gulf's Arab states, it is also not isolating Iran. America's closest European allies have not cut trade with Iran, and Tehran has had no trouble replacing U.S. companies barred from doing business with it. Additionally, the United States failed to dissuade Russia from selling nuclear reactors to Iran.

The policy is not without its short-term costs, either. America's emphasis on dual containment--the issue was at the top of the President's agenda in his meeting with Boris N. Yeltsin--has not only produced few results but also may have diminished U.S. influence in other areas, like Chechnya and human rights in China.

When the Clinton Administration advanced its policy of dual containment, it contended that Iran and Iraq posed special threats to human rights and democracy. Yet, no one can argue that years of isolating Iraq and pressing Iran have improved the lot of their citizens. If anything, the humanitarian consequences of the economic sanctions against Iraq call for pause, because when and if the Iraqi government falls, it will not be because of sanctions. Similarly, recent reports out of Tehran indicate that worsening economic conditions are being accompanied by increasing repression.

Furthermore, U.S. bull-headedness on the propriety of dual containment weakens America's leverage in friendly Gulf states where democracy could take root. The 1989 Bush Administration campaign to encourage democracy gave way to the need to mobilize allies for Desert Storm, and efforts to promote democracy during Secretary of State Warren Christopher's first Middle East visit dissolved amid fears of rising extremism. The more Washington pressures "backlash" states, the more subversive and repressive they tend to become. Democracy and human rights suffer most.

The time has come to reassess dual containment, because a policy of all stick and no carrot will backfire. Both Iran and Iraq constitute threats to Gulf peace, but what's needed is a policy that combines containment and incentives to cooperate--and one that takes into consideration the interests of friendly states.

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