“Soft Power” in the Middle East

On May 19, President Barack Obama acknowledged that a “new chapter in American diplomacy” is beginning due to the “extraordinary change taking place in the Middle East.” But, while conflicts continue, the future of the wave of nonviolent uprisings dubbed the “Arab Spring” is uncertain. In February, military rule followed the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and a bloody crackdown began in Yemen. In March, Saudi troops under GCC command had intervened in Bahrian at the behest of its king. At the same time, warfare broke out in Libya between Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and “rebels” backed by NATO airpower. On-going conflicts, such as in Gaza and Iraq, persist with American recalcitrance fundamentally unchanged.


In April, Bill Spindle and Margaret Coker wrote in the Wall Street Journal that a “cold war” is also emerging between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The United States is backing the Saudis in this struggle even though there is no hard evidence that the Iranian government is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program.


The nuclear question just won’t go away. While neoconservatives relentlessly call for war, others are more sophisticated. In 2009, Alan Kuperman at the University of Texas at Austin wrote that Tehran’s rejection of a uranium enrichment offer “could” enable it to undertake nuclear weapons research, but admitted that “knocking out…nuclear plants [with] aerial bombing might not work.” In 2010, Richard Haass, former State Department advisor to both Bushes and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, advocated regime change through a “two-track” policy that alternates between force and negotiation. In February, Nation columnist Eric Alterman welcomed rumors that Tel Aviv and Washington undermined Iran’s nuclear program with the Stuxnet computer worm. Such expressions fuel the idea that conflict at some level is inevitable, if not preferable.


It is true that the International Atomic Energy Agency has found Tehran in noncompliance with aspects of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is true that the Iranians are in clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions demanding a halt to their civilian nuclear program.


The summary of a classified 2007 National Intelligence Estimate indicates that Tehran may have discontinued nuclear weapons research in 2003. A new classified NIE apparently suggests that work may have re-commenced, but there may also be a debate over this in the Iranian government (the existence of this document was made known in February). Director of National Intelligence James Clapper gave a similar message to the Senate Intelligence Committee in February.


It is also true that there is discord in Iran over President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad’s privatization programs, crony capitalism, and the contested results of the 2009 presidential election. Nor should it be forgotten that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a close ally of Iran, is conducting a brutal campaign of repression in his own country. But these facts do not excuse Washington’s conduct in the region.


What drives Iranian conduct? James Madison University political scientist Bernd Kaussler suggests that the Islamic Republic wants closer diplomatic and economic ties with Gulf Cooperation Council countries. At the same time, it “seems convinced that one can only rely on military deterrence as means of securing territorial integrity and security.” The Iranian leadership deliberately projects an irrational image and resorts to “cold war practices.” Iranian foreign policy in the Gulf is defensive as the U.S. presence overshadows the region. U.S. methods with Iran entail diplomacy, economic sanctions in force over the past three decades, and attempts to build an anti-Iranian coalition in the region.


A New Containment Doctrine


The record of U.S. aggression against the Iranian people includes the overthrow of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, support for the Shah’s brutal dictatorship until the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and open attacks on Iranian naval vessels and a civilian airliner during the Iran-Iraq War in the late 1980s. This is not to mention “arms for hostages” dealings by the Reagan White House in the 1980s and talks between neo-conservative operatives and expatriate arms dealer Manuchar Ghorbanifar early in the Bush Jr. administration. What escapes public attention is that U.S. diplomacy with Iran is based on pressure short of general war. Nuclear holocaust may not be in the offing, but neither is sustainable peace.


Current U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf resembles containment of the Soviet Union after World War II. Albeit less unilateralist, the Obama administration is using containment against Iran much as George Bush Jr. did. President Obama’s commitment to two-track diplomacy is in the tradition of “realist” diplomacy. The Nixon administration being the most noted case in living memory, realists (or “neorealists” in academic jargon) put national power above ideology, public opinion, or ethics. Wishing to avoid undue risks, realists see war and peace as means to enhance “national interest.”


The Persian Gulf containment regime is composed of a regional military presence, overt (and perhaps covert) intervention in Iranian domestic affairs, and economic sanctions. Washington maintained “dual containment” against Tehran and Baghdad from 1979 to 2003. Even when the focus shifted to Tehran after the invasion of Iraq, and when realists gained more influence in the second Bush Jr. term, military pressure and economic sanctions remained central. A self-conscious commitment to two-track diplomacy is a hallmark of President Barack Obama’s Iran policy. The transcript of a meeting disclosed by Wikileaks between Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes, Daniel Glaser, and EU officials in April 2009 poses the issue succinctly, saying “‘engagement’ [is] an important aspect of a comprehensive strategy to dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. However, engagement alone is unlikely to succeed. Diplomacy’s best chance of success requires all elements combining pressure and incentives to work simultaneously, not sequentially. Our shared challenge is to find the right mix of measures…. The international community must urgently choose between several bad options…none of [them] is without cost.”


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized engagement as “soft power” or a “willingness to talk” backed by “the world’s strongest military, economic strength and the power of…example.” She acknowledged Tehran’s “right” to develop civilian nuclear power but warned that chances for negotiation “will not remain open indefinitely.”


In October 2009, the first high-level public meetings of Iranian and U.S. diplomats in 30 years took place in Vienna. Later, Western proposals to ship Iranian low enriched uranium to a “third country” for further enrichment before returning it have not yet come to pass. Meanwhile, the Obama administration backs international nuclear arms control agreements and civilian nuclear power programs in countries like India and the United Arab Emirates. The Administration also wishes to upgrade the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. President Obama’s much-acclaimed declaration at Cairo University in June 2009 that the United States is turning a new leaf in the Middle East must be seen in a new light.


Economic Sanctions


The 1996 Iran Libya Sanction Act was a milestone of a sanctions regime that has been in place since the fall of the Shah. This law penalized foreign companies that invested over $20 million in the Iranian petroleum industry. In pursuance of an executive order issued by George Bush Jr. in 2005, a number of federal agencies targeted key Iranian institutions. For instance, the Treasury Department bans transactions between U.S. citizens and Iranian companies that finance Tehran’s military programs.


In March 2009, Obama extended greetings to the Iranian people on the occasion of the Iranian new year. Nine days earlier, he had authorized a renewal of sanctions in line with a “national emergency” decreed by Bill Clinton in 1995. This paradox attracted little attention in the United States.


Also ignored are details about sanctions legislation passed during the 111th Congress. In effect, incorporating legislation introduced when George Bush Jr. was president—the Comprehensive Iran Sanction, Accountability and Divestment Act—penalizes American and foreign companies that import refined petroleum into Iran or refine it there. Admittedly, sanctions are compelling some multinational corporations to lessen commercial activities in Iran and are making Iranian access to European and American banks more difficult. But habitual conflicts of interest among multinational corporations weaken enforcement and the Iranians can find fuel and technology elsewhere.


Coming on the heels of President Obama’s May 19 “reset” speech, the State Department announced the easing of visa laws for Iranian students in the United States. This move fits the pattern of two-tack diplomacy. An executive order confirming U.S. commitment to sanctions enforcement issued three days later also fits this pattern. So does military aid.


The Gulf Security Dialogue


Begun under George Bush Jr., the Gulf Security Dialogue sought to tighten U.S.-GCC military ties. In 2009, Secretary of State Clinton remarked that the United States might place the GCC under a “defense umbrella” if Tehran “spark[s] an arms race in the region” by acquiring nuclear weapons. She also said that Americans “do a lot of military business and sell a lot of weapon systems to a number of countries in the Middle East and the Gulf…to beef up…defensive capabilities.”


This concern dates from World War II. To keep oil-drilling rights in the hands of Standard Oil of California, the Roosevelt administration extended Lend Lease aid to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia despite being neutral in the war. A post-war naval presence in the Gulf safeguarded a pipeline owned by Standard affiliate ARAMCO linking the Kingdom’s oil-producing Eastern Province to the Mediterranean. Military aid continued after ARAMCO’s nationalization in the 1970s. Based on official records solicited by investigative journalist Nick Turse, the Kingdom got $295 million in U.S. military aid from 1946 to 2007 and bought nearly $80 billion of military equipment and construction services from 1950 to 2006. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that Riyadh was the largest weapons importer in the region between 1990 and 2009. On average, military spending accounted for 10 percent of Saudi GDP each year between 2000 and 2008. SIPRI estimates that 57 percent of military imports went to the UAE and 10 percent to Saudi Arabia in 2005-2009.          


Most U.S. forces left the Kingdom in 2003 for bases in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. In addition to related costs, construction, garrisoning, and maintenance of bases there totaled over $22 billion in the 2001-2009 period (all countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are members of the GCC). Washington cultivates GCC chauvinism, as with the 2010 Pentagon directive that Navy personnel use the term “Arabian Gulf” instead of “Persian Gulf.” Key Pentagon commands that support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are headquartered in the Gulf.


A goal of the Gulf Security Dialogue is to create an anti-Iran partnership consisting of Israel, the GCC, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. This undertaking is hindered by social conflicts within Arab states and fears of Israeli aggression by Arab populations. Ambiguity also plays a role in Gulf states’ diplomacy. As confirmed by Wikileaks disclosures, some Gulf rulers fear Iran, but also want trade and diplomatic ties with both the Americans and the Iranians.


The Bush Jr. administration gave U.S. arms contractors a stimulus by negotiating a $63 billion arms package with America’s Middle East allies in the summer of 2007. Over 10 years, Israel’s share will total $30 billion and Egypt’s $13 billion (as documented by the Congressional Research Service, it appears this arrangement is unaffected by the official military take-over in Egypt earlier this year). The share for GCC states was originally slated at $20 billion. When the proposal was submitted to Congress for approval, as per the Arms Control Export Act, there was opposition to selling the Saudis potentially destabilizing Joint Direct Attack Munitions (also known as JDAMs, these are satellite-guided devices that turn dumb bombs into smart bombs, which could threaten Israeli military superiority). This compelled the White House to divvy up the GCC share
nation-by-nation. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE got clearance by the end of the year to purchase $11.42 billion in “defensive” equipment.


The Saudi Arms Deal


On October 20, 2010, after months of negotiation, Administration officials announced their intention to authorize over $60 billion in transactions between several U.S. arms contractors and the Kingdom to last for 15 years, pending congressional approval. Besides upgrades to F-15S fighters in the Royal Saudi Air Force, the proposal foresees approving sales of small arms, missile launchers, and detection equipment, plus the following items: 

·       84 F-15SA aircraft 

·       190 military helicopters 

·       12,667 missiles 

·       18,350 bombs 

·       1,000 JDAM kits (interestingly)


Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro said that the deal signals to “countries in the region” that the United States backs “key partners and allies” like Saudi Arabia, which must “deter and defend against threats on its borders and to its oil infrastructure.” Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow added that the sale would make Saudi forces “more interoperable” with U.S.-supplied forces in the region and it does not threaten Israeli military dominance. Except for one inquiry, no resolution opposing the sale was introduced within the 30-day legal time limit.


Requests for information through the spring from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, and Congress-person Anthony Weiner (D-NY), a noted congressional critic of Saudi Arabia, have been unsuccessful (Weiner resigned from office in June over a sex scandal). But in February, this terse email came from the office of Tim Griffin (R-AR), the author’s congressional representative: “The $60 billion Saudi deal for F-15 fighters has already cleared Congress but prospective sales of naval ships and missile-defense systems to Saudi Arabia and other regional partners have yet to be completed and could run into congressional hurdles.” Recently elected to Congress, but by no means a political newcomer, Griffin is a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.


The few public references to the arms deal are ambiguous. In early May, after admitting that policy-makers must take account of the changing “geopolitical landscape” in the Middle East, Shapiro declared at the State Department that the Administration “remain[s] committed to Gulf security, which was borne out last year when we signed the largest defense trade deal in history with Saudi Arabia.” In testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs a week later, Principle Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller said that planned transactions with Middle Eastern nations have been “put on pause, put on hold.” He offered to discuss the transactions in “closed session.”


Could this lack of transparency have anything to do with the nature of Saudi Arabia’s military activities in the region, such as the air strikes against Houthi tribal insurgents in northern Yemen in late 2009? When he was still the head of Central Command, General David Petraeus told an audience in Washington DC several weeks after the attacks that Riyadh was “understandably” alarmed by Yemen’s “social and political, economic and developmental difficulties.” What he did not mention is that the Houthis are one part of the domestic opposition to authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is closely allied with Saudi Arabia. Nor did the general refer to allegations that U.S. cruise missiles killed Yemeni civilians between late 2002 and 2010.


According to a disclosed January 2010 cable from the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Saleh offered to take responsibility for these attacks. A cable from the U.S. embassy in Riyadh embassy claims that Saudi Assistant Minister of Defense and Aviation Prince Khaled bin Sultan admitted that Saudi warplanes killed Yemeni civilians in the border raids. The New York Times claimed in early June that U.S. airstrikes have resumed in Yemen.


A Persian Gulf “Tiananmen Square


The Arab Spring is doing its part to reveal the dangers to regional democracy and peace inherent in soft power. The small island country of Bahrain is a case in point.


Situated in the Persian Gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia’s strategic Eastern Province, Bahrain is a “flash point” in the emerging conflict between U.S./GCC and Iranian interests. Bahrain is torn by a domestic conflict between an unpopular Sunni Muslim elite and a Shia Muslim majority. Bahrain’s Khalifa ruling family offers the pretext that it must weaken disloyal pawns of Shia Iran—over half of Bahrain’s official Arab population of about 530,000 (the other half of the population are mostly foreign “guest workers”).


On February 14, Shia and Sunni Bahrainis massed at Pearl Roundabout in the capital city of Manama, to protest long-standing discrimination. A month later, Saudi troops and UAE police attached to the Peninsula Shield Force entered Bahrain. Within the next two days, King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa imposed martial law and Bahraini police attacked Pearl Roundabout. A systematic crackdown was underway. 


The number of PSF troops in Bahrain is often cited in the neighborhood of 1,000. In a February interview with London-based Asharq al-Awsat, PSF commander Mutlaq Bin Salem al-Azima said that the force is “around 10 percent” of the entire PSF. According to Asharq al-Awsat and the Wall Street Journal, the PSF’s current strength is 40,000. In May, Kuwait’s ambassador to Bahrain announced that naval forces from his country were deploying to the island “to protect its borders” in support of the PSF presence.


The state of emergency officially ended on June 1, but the crackdown continues. As documented by Human Rights Watch, there have been raids on the homes of activists and lawyers in the dead of night, activists sentenced to death by a military court, and “disappearances” of medical doctors who treated wounded protestors. The Ministry of Information temporarily closed a leading opposition newspaper in April. Men in plainclothes and masks, possibly from other Arab countries, used deadly force in Shia villages. In textbook cases of ethnic cleansing, Bahraini troops destroyed Shia mosques. The parliamentary opposition is defunct. There is evidence of torture and murder in detention.


The United States has been remarkably silent in the face of these events that so flagrantly violate the same “international humanitarian law” that has lately been of concern to the White House when Libya and Syria enter the conversation.


During an April stop-over in Saudi Arabia, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he did not discuss the PSF intervention with Saudi King Abullah Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. Gates did tell reporters that Tehran wanted to “exploit the situation in Bahrain,” a charge also made by King Hamad. However, as noted in the leaked transcript of a July 2008 meeting with U.S. Ambassador Christopher Ereli and General Petraeus, King Hamad “admitted he had no definitive proof” of Iranian interference. Nor was there “convincing evidence” to back up a “theory” that Bahrainis were trained in Lebanon by pro-Iranian Hizbollah.


In fact, Gates visited Manama a few days before the PSF intervention. It is unlikely that he was unfamiliar with Bahraini affairs. As CIA Deputy Director in 1985, Gates circulated a memo in the upper echelons of the Reagan administration advocating weapons sales to Tehran. Aside from being a “major non-NATO ally” and close U.S. trade partner, Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and the naval headquarters of Qatar-based U.S. Central Command. Furthermore, the contents of diplomatic cable leaks suggest that the U.S. embassy in Manama keeps track of commercial opportunities in Bahrain for U.S.-based multinational corporations. In 2008, when Gates was Secretary of Defense in the Bush Jr. White House, King Hamad expressed interest in “several complete Patriot batteries to cover the island.” In 2009, the King asked General Petraeus for help in attracting American aircraft manufacturers to the Bahrain Air Show.


In addition to the usual blandishments about “self-determination” and “dialogue,” President Obama observed in his May 19 speech that “Bahrain is a longstanding partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law….” Although these words are ambiguous at face value, the truth behind them may slowly be emerging.


A January 2008 lease agreement between the Bush Jr. administration and the Bahraini government allowed for expansion of facilities at Naval Support Activity-Bahrain, where the Fifth Fleet is based. According to reports by Navy Times and the Congressional Research Service, construction began in May 2010 and is expected to be completed by 2015. The first phase of construction is not yet completed. Appropriations for this project, which officially totals $508 million thus far, exist in budget requests made by the Bush Jr. and Obama administrations. In July, a Bahraini newspaper reported that a Fifth Fleet spokesperson denied the claim by the London Times that the Fifth Fleet may be withdrawn from Bahrain.


In the wake of the Gulf War in 1991, the George Bush Sr. administration negotiated a ten-year security agreement with Bahrain, which was extended for another ten years by his son’s diplomats in 2001. According to a recent piece by Thomas W. Lippman in the Washington Post, the Bush Jr. administration renegotiated the pact a year after its renewal so that it would instead end in 2016, instead of October 2011. If this is true, it would go a long way to explain why the Pentagon is spending millions of dollars to expand the Navy base and why official Washington is keeping silent.


Whatever the truth is, it is a fact that since the summer of 2010, Marine Corps brass have been considering opening two new “joint task force” headquarters in the Middle East and Africa. On March 1 of this year, Marine Commandant General James F. Amos informed the House Armed Services Committee that one of these headquarters was already established in Bahrain (a few days before, the Armed Forces Press Service had reported that then-Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen visited this facility shortly after protests began at Pearl Roundabout). Perhaps the Navy is in Bahrian to stay for some time to come.


Missile Defense


Other factors are also contributed to rising tensions in the Gulf. The Pentagon has expedited deployment of Raytheon’s Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptor missile batteries in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE over the past nine years. GCC governments are also interested in Lockheed Martin’s Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system. In early 2010, General Petraeus announced that two Coalition warships in the Gulf were equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. At the end of the year, NATO endorsed missile defense in the Middle East as a matter of “Euro-Atlantic security.”


The latest Nuclear Posture Review holds that the United States will not attack states that comply with “nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” National Security Council official Gary Samore described this phrase as a “broad clause [that] we’ll interpret…in accord-ance with what we judge to be a meaningful standard.” He added that Iran is “not protected from the threat or use of U.S. nuclear weapons under current circumstances.”


This is a classic realist worldview. It is also morally bankrupt. Like its predecessors, the Obama administration considers force a legitimate tool of diplomacy. But wars, hot or cold, with Iran or any other country court disaster. No doctrine of force, whether neoconservative or neorealist, will secure a sustainable world. 


Anthony B. Newkirk is a professor of history at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. Fig. 1: President Obama at Cairo University 2009 (Getty Images). Fig 2: Funeral of Zakria Rashid al-Asherri, activist who died in police custody (EPA). Fig. 3: Saudi Forces in Bahrain (Reuters). Fig 4: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Saudi Assistant Minister of Defense, April 2011 (Getty Images).