By Boris Volkhonsky
As reported by The New York Times on Wednesday, the United States and its Arab allies are knitting together a regional missile defense system across the Persian Gulf to protect cities, oil refineries, pipelines and military bases from an Iranian attack.
The paper characterizes this as “an enterprise that is meant to send a pointed message to Tehran”, and it “becomes more urgent as tensions with Iran rise.”
In fact, little is new in the story. The idea of putting up a missile shield in the Persian Gulf was first raised by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about three years ago. During her recent visit to Saudi Arabia she tried to further encourage the Gulf allies to work towards a common defense system.
“Sometimes to defend one nation effectively you might need a radar system in a neighboring nation,” the paper quotes Ms. Clinton as saying.
The practical implementation of the idea has also begun. Defense cooperation between the US and its allies in the Gulf is expanding, with the US supplying modern weapons and military technology. Still, there is a sharp contrast between the US activity in the region and similar actions in Europe. While Washington’s European initiatives, undertaken within the NATO framework are widely publicized, similar interactions with the Gulf states go on largely behind the scenes. So, what is the US afraid or ashamed of?
There are several explanations to it. First, publicity surrounding the US anti-missile plans in Europe has one particular objective in mind – that is persuading everyone that the shield is not what it really is, and that it is directed against some rogue terrorist states like Iran and North Korea. It has been pointed out numerous times that a shield in Poland, Romania or Czech Republic can hardly intercept Iranian missiles (less so – North Korean). So the only real objective the shield can have is purely a demonstration of muscles to Western and Central Europe’s immediate neighbors in the East, mainly Russia.
On the contrary, the shield in the Persian Gulf is evidently pointed at Iran. Then why is the US so shy about it?
As the course of events around the so called “Iranian nuclear program” has shown, Iran’s position is mostly defensive. It is the US that uses the tool of sanctions against Iran and Iran-related companies – not vice versa. It is the US that increases its military build-up in the region and stirs up its allies to openly speak of a preventive strike, and then intervenes with a “dovish” rhetoric and poses itself as a kind of appeaser.
But what makes the case of the US cooperation with the Gulf monarchies so embarrassing for the US is the fact that in this case it cannot resort to its usual tactics of using the “human rights” issue as a pretext for “humanitarian intervention”. While portraying Iranian regime as non-democratic in the eyes of Western public (which is naturally resentful of everything Islamic) produces little difficulty, picturing the Gulf states as models of democracy is not so easy.
But the stakes are too high, and when there is one main obstacle on the way of establishing US dominance in the Great Middle East, “human rights” and “democracy” can wait.
All this leads to the only plausible explanation of the whole US strategy. Definitely, it is not the “nuclear problem” as such that bothers Washington. Its real aim is a) isolating Iran and b) instigating a regime change along the lines of the “Arab Spring” and later – replacing the countries that are presently dealing with Iran, including its nuclear sector.
But the virus of Arab Spring is rather contagious. The US is in no way willing to risk anything of the kind happening to its long-time allies, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others. Therefore, one of the side tasks of enhanced military cooperation with the Gulf monarchies is an attempt to divert a possibility of a Syrian-type insurgency.
That is not to say that the missile shield as such can be used as a tool against a possible revolution. But having invested so much in the military infrastructure of the “model democracies of the Gulf”, the US will not let all the “toil and spoil” to be lost too easily. And that means that at the first hint of an anti-government uprising, the US will be the first to react – and in a totally different way from how it reacts to processes in Libya or Syria.
Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies