Iran’s relations with its Arab neighbors do not take place in a hermetically sealed regional environment. Both Iran and the Arab states balance one another by leveraging relationships with nation-states from outside the Gulf. This chapter puts the Gulf into a wider context by exploring a variety of nation-states that influence policies and security calculations in the region. It traces the evolution of American policy in the Gulf, Europe’s dwindling security influence, Russia’s reinvigorated security involvement, China’s increasing profile in the region, as well as Israel’s shared security anxieties with the Arab Gulf states about Iran. All of these security agendas are mixing with the intensifying Iranian and Arab security competition in the Gulf in which Tehran and Riyadh are increasingly seen as the protectors of Shia and Sunni Islam, respectively. 1

The chapter concludes with policy recommendations for the US. Washington needs to keep a watchful eye on the growing influence of outside powers in the strategically important Gulf. Trends and developments are fast taking shape and could threaten to displace the unparalleled American role as the balancing power in the Middle East. Washington should pay more attention to maintaining the Gulf balance of power than to democracy promotion, a policy prerogative that alienates Arab security partners and opens windows of opportunity for Russian and Chinese rivals. The Iranians, the Arabs, and the Israelis all will be mindful of American policy in the region as the European influence slides, the Russians reawaken, and the Chinese emerge as larger players in Gulf security.

American Drift from Realpolitik to Democracy Promotion

American power in the Gulf filled the vacuum created by the decline of the British Empire after World War II. The British exhausted from war could no longer maintain their network of military arrangements in the Middle East. As British military power in the region receded, the profile of American military power grew larger. President Franklin Roosevelt and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia laid the foundation for a long-standing and mutually beneficial relationship. President Harry Truman later recognized Israel as a state, and Washington under President John Kennedy supported self-determination for the region’s nation-states. 2

President Richard Nixon aimed at matching American security means and ends with the “Nixon Doctrine” that called global security partners to carry lion’s share of the burden for their securities with the US lending security assistance instead of fighting wars for them. Parenthetically, this same philosophy more recently has governed the American military drawdowns in both Iraq and Afghanistan although no one publicly connects it to the “Nixon Doctrine.” The US lent a heavy security hand to Iran to enable Tehran to act as a security surrogate and geopolitical counterweight to the neighboring Soviet Union. 3 Many observers feared during the Cold War that the Soviets would make a direct military push to gain access via Iran to the Middle East and warm water ports.

President Jimmy Carter was blindsided by regional crises in 1979 with the Iranian revolution and American embassy hostage taking coupled with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the State of the Union address in January 1980, Carter announced the “Carter Doctrine” in which he warned that “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the US. It will be repelled by use of any means necessary, including military force.” 4 Not only was the Carter Doctrine a declaration to the Soviet Union that the US was prepared to wage war to stop potential Soviet military moves toward the Gulf, it was a thinly veiled threat to resort to nuclear weapons because the US lacked conventional military forces to project into a regional military contingency.

To redress that strategic weakness, President Carter wisely formed the Rapid Deployment Force that evolved into the US Central Command with the mission and responsibilities for Middle East contingencies. 5 The US developed the headquarters for the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Manama, Bahrain, provided huge amounts of modern weapons sales annually to the region and made agreements with nation-states to use naval and air facilities for regional contingencies and conflicts. 6 The US leveraged these security arrangements to protect Gulf shipping during the Iraq-Iran war from 1980–1988 under President Ronald Reagan, to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces in 1991 under President George H. W. Bush, to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi coercion and intimidation during the 1990s under President Bill Clinton, and to oust Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 under President George W. Bush.

The American military posture in the Gulf during both Republican and Democratic administrations reassured Arab states against Iran’s revolutionary ambitions. All the while, the region has been pitted with endless violence the likes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iranian-sponsored attacks against Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s, Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia in 1996 and the equipping and training of Iraqi to Shia militiamen to kill American soldiers in Iraq after 2003. 7

Oil is a key, but not exclusive, interest for American policy in the Middle East. As John Duffield nicely summed-up long-standing American interest, Washington wants to “ensure that oil continues to flow dependably and in sufficient quantities to the United States and its economic and security partners as to maintain oil prices at reasonable levels and to prevent market shocks.” 8 But to exclusively focus on oil would be narrow-minded. Oil translates into wealth, power, and armaments to make maintaining the regional balance of power the American strategic imperative for the region. As distinguished historian and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger ably described balance of power statecraft, “When working properly, it was meant to limit both the ability of states to dominate others and the scope of conflicts. Its goal was not peace so much as stability and moderation.” 9

What is most important from balance of power perspective is how regimes behave in international relations, not whether or not they are democracies. Balance of power strategists, moreover, recognize that the US ability to maintain the international status quo is inherently greater than its ability to change the internal nature of regional regimes born as they are of a combination of historical, economic, military, societal, and religious experiences most of which lay beyond the influence of American statecraft.

The US under the George W. Bush administration turned away from classical American balance of power calculations undergirding security policy in the Middle East. President Bush emphatically rejected classical realist tenets and launched into a new and ambitious idealism. He declared in the emotional aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that no longer could the US ignore the nature of the regimes in its security partners and that the US would use the promotion of democracy as the loadstar for American security policy. Bush articulated his approach in a November 2003 address in which he declared: “As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.” And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo. Therefore, the US has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. 10

President Barack Obama, by all intents and purposes, has carried on the promotion of democracy as a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Obama’s democracy promotion agenda, for example, propelled American military intervention in Libya. 11 And Obama remains wedded to democracy experiments in Afghanistan and Iraq even though the rump Shia government in Baghdad—remaining after the Islamic State rampage through Sunni areas of Iraq—is heavily influenced by Iran to tip the regional balance of power toward Tehran to the consternation of the Arab Gulf states and Israel.

The upshot of the American focus on democracy promotion in the Middle East has been the alienation of friends and traditional security partners while increasing the influence of competitors in the region. The Europeans ideologically support American emphasis on democracy promotion, but their security footprints in the region are dwindling. The Arab Gulf states were incensed that the US in 2011 walked away from President Hosni Mubarak in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood street rabble. The Arab Gulf states now worry about how secure American security backing would be for them in similar future scenarios. Egypt and the Arab Gulf states now are more receptive to security cooperation with Russia, operating under Vladimir Putin’s reinvigorated foreign policy, as well as with China. Unlike Washington, neither Moscow not Beijing, has any qualms about doing business with authoritarian states. Meanwhile, Israel looks on aghast as it sees its staunchest security partner operating naively in an increasing intense and unstable Middle East.

European States Sinking in the Gulf

The US would welcome genuine security partners from politically supportive European states to bolster Gulf security. Unfortunately, NATO allies are long on talk and political posturing, but gravely short on force projection capabilities. To be sure, Europeans played auxiliary roles in the American-led war with Iraq in 1991, they shouldered burdens in Afghanistan, and the British were steadfast allies with the US in the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath. NATO at its June 2004 summit in Istanbul announced an initiative focusing on the Gulf Cooperation Council member states offering training and collaboration on a range of issues to include counterterrorism and transparency in defense budgeting and decision-making. 12 The “Istanbul Initiative” followed similar lines of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue—focused on Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia—which has lingered for more than a decade without many concrete results. 13

Nevertheless, GCC state linkages to NATO remain institutionally weak. As Bilal Saab perceptively observes, the UAE, for example, does not pursue ties with NATO for the sake of its bureaucracy; rather to deepen bilateral ties with the US, UK, and France on which Abu Dhabi has strong bilateral security ties. 14 And NATO members have only modest bilateral military presences in the region. The French opened a military facility in the UAE; Paris’ first military post in the Gulf where it has no colonial ties. 15 Qatar also agreed to open a French military school in Doha in 2011 to train both Qatari officers and other Gulf Arab officers. 16

Arab Gulf states recognize that the Europeans have limited capabilities to dispatch armed forces to the region in a military contingency. Most of NATO’s militaries are configured, trained, and equipped for territorial defense in Europe, not for expeditionary missions abroad. European states, moreover, backed out of plans for NATO to create a Rapid Response Force of some 25,000 soldiers to be ready for military contingencies because of lack of money, troops, equipment such as attack helicopters and heavy airlift, and above all, political will. 17 Even in the face of renewed war in Europe with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and today’s “lip service” to the need for rapid reaction forces, Europe’s NATO members have shown little resolve to reverse their dangerous declines in defense spending. 18

The profound military shortcomings of NATO’s European members were exposed in more than a decade of war in Afghanistan. NATO members consistently and persistently failed to muster the armed forces that they had promised to combat the resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda forces threatening the Kabul government. 19 European governments, moreover, put severe limits on what the meager forces they did manage to dredge-up for Afghanistan could do in Afghanistan. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, told President Bush in November 2007 that changing the noncombat role of German soldiers in Afghanistan was not domestically sustainable for her conservative government. 20 European forces also were abysmally prepared for irregular warfare in Afghanistan, which now is a mainstay in the entire international security landscape. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in early 2008 publicly lamented of NATO forces in Afghanistan that “I’m worried we’re deploying [military advisors] that are not properly trained and I’m worried we have some military forces that don’t know how to do counterinsurgency operations.” 21

Moving from an operational to a strategic perspective, European capitals and publics perceive less threats coming from the Middle East than their American counterparts. Robert Kagan characterized well the European culture that produces little strategic interest and meager military means to influence the Middle East today: “the emphasis on negotiation, diplomacy, and commercial ties, on international law over the use of force, on seduction over coercion, on multilateralism over unilateralism.” 22

Russia Rejuvenating in the Gulf

The Soviet Union during the Cold War nurtured formidable security ties in the Middle East. Moscow worked tirelessly to establish security client states to challenge American interests in the region. The Arab states opposed to Israel turned to the Soviet Union for military assistance, and the militaries of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were largely equipped and trained by Soviet military advisers. Egypt eventually turned its Soviet patron away to sign the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and established a security relationship with the US. The Russian presence and involvement in the Middle East receded after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Moscow’s diplomatic failure to stop the American military campaign against Iraq to liberate Kuwait.

Today, Russia is rejuvenating its security profile in the Middle East. Russia scholar Eugene Rumer notes that “The theme of Russia as a gravitational pole in world affairs, a full member of the community of major powers, a voice to be heard and a presence to be reckoned with, permeates [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin’s foreign-policy statements.” 23 This renewed Russia ambition in world affairs is welcomed by some who are nostalgic about the Cold War. While the West was outraged at Russia’s summer 2008 invasion of Georgia, some Arab leaders applauded the Russian aggression. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a visit to Moscow seeking Russian weapons endorsed Moscow’s moves against Georgia in 2008 while Libyan leader Moammar Qahdafi’s son opined, “What happened in Georgia is a good sign, one that means America is no longer the sole world power setting the rules of the game.” 24

Russia has tenaciously defended—diplomatically and militarily—Syria in the aftermath of the so-called Arab spring. The Russians just before the Syrian civil war had been planning to sell Syria MiG-31 combat aircraft to shore up Damascus’s air force that had performed miserably against Israel’s air power in past wars. 25 The Russians today are flying and shipping Syria significant quantities of military supplies to include armored vehicles, drones, bombs, surveillance equipment, and spare parts. 26 The Russians are staunchly supporting Syria, in part, to maintain their naval base on the Mediterranean Sea at Tartus, Syria. The Russia military assistance augments military aid to Damascus coming from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran. 27

Iran is another thrust of the rejuvenating Russia security involvement in the Middle East. As the old adage has it, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” applies well to evolving Moscow-Tehran security ties. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei in January 2007 proposed a “strategic alliance” with Russia. Although the details of the offer are not public, scholar Mark Katz suggests that it might be based on the worldview that holds that the US is becoming weaker in the Middle East, which gives Moscow and Tehran an opportunity to divide the Middle East and Central Asia region into spheres of influence to avoid competition between Iranians and Russians. 28

The Russians have been deeply involved in Iran’s nuclear program. As Professor Katz recounts, Putin significantly improved Russian-Iranian relations in October 2000 when he unilaterally abrogated the secret 1995 Gore-Chernomyrdin accord in which Moscow agreed to limit its nuclear energy and military assistance to Iran. 29 Moscow filled the vacuum when German suppliers were prohibited from finishing the construction of Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr. The Russians finished construction and provided enriched uranium to fuel the plant. 30 The Russians have shown little worry about the potential threat to regional security posed by an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.

The Russians also are working to modernize the Iranian military. The international community since the Iranian revolution in 1979 has refrained from selling Tehran major weapons. But the Russians broke out of these restraints and have sold the Iranians a multi-billion dollar modern air defense system. Iran in January 2007 received 29 Tor-M-1 surface-to-air missiles, which is an anti-aircraft system against low-flying targets and is now one of Iran’s most advanced air defense weapons. 31 The Iranians also have been negotiating with the Russians since 2001 for the purchase of S-300 surface-to-air missiles, which would give the Iranians the capability to target both aircraft and missiles flying at high and low altitudes in a heavily jammed environment. 32 Moscow is eroding the international taboo on arms sales to Iran, in part, by arguing that its deals are only for “defensive” purposes.

The Russians could follow up with combat and transport aircraft sales to the Iran because Tehran’s inventories are aged and in desperate need of modernization. The repair and maintenance of Iranian aircraft purchased from the US before the revolution is so bad that Tehran relies on clandestine black market purchases for spare parts. 33 Iran periodically suffers from horrific aircraft accidents due to the poor conditions of its military aircraft. The Russians would be eager to sell its capable fighter aircraft, transport aircraft, and helicopters to Iran to keep Russian military production lines going. Moscow also would welcome foreign currency from the Iranians, as international sanctions on Russia deepen while they lessen on Tehran as a reward for Iran’s participation in international nuclear negotiations.

Security cooperation with Russia today and in the future will be more appealing to Iran and Arab states given their strong resentment of the American policy of democracy promotion. Working with Russia is more attractive these days because, as Paul Saunders points out, “Russia’s leaders see massive political transformations as risky experiments rather than inevitable linear progress of ‘the end of history’—and believe that the historical record has validated their point of view in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and elsewhere—they find it hard to accept noble-sounding US and European statements of intent at face value.” 34

Russia’s quick provision of ground attack fighters to Iraq to combat the Islamic State’s push on Baghdad—while the US stalled similar help—no doubt won Moscow admiration in Iraq as well as in Iran. 35 That admiration could help Moscow to build on its recent arms sales to the region. Russia has signed deals worth more than $10 billion to sell combat aircraft to Egypt and Iraq, while Moscow is looking for arms sales to the Arab Gulf states the likes of past sales of armored personnel carriers to Kuwait and UAE. 36 Moscow’s staunch support of the Assad regime detested by the Gulf Arab states because of the Damascus-Tehran alliance, however, will dampen Gulf state outright embrace of Russian military cooperation. 37

The Russians today do not have a large military presence in the Middle East beyond Tartus, Syria, but that could change in short order. During the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union never made major combat troop deployments into a Middle East conflict. To be sure, Soviets directly intervened and invaded Afghanistan in 1979, but in the Middle East they limited themselves to large military advisory presences, perhaps to reduce the chances of Soviet and American forces coming into direct blows. It would be entirely within the realm of possibility that Moscow under Putin’s leadership could one day dispatch of combat troops to a Middle East state, especially Iran or Syria, in an effort to deter Western military intervention. Just because the Soviet Union never made such a deployment during the Cold War does not mean that Russia would never take that risk or opportunity in the future.

China Sailing into the Gulf

China’s security presence in the Gulf receives scant public attention or discussion, but Beijing is quietly laying the foundation for playing a much greater role in the region. Both the Chinese and the Arabs are discrete in maintaining their security relationships and neither wants to tout them publicly to incur American protests. Only hints of the relationships are given in public. The Chinese “foot in the door” in the Gulf is in Saudi Arabia. China’s President Hu Jintao visited Saudi Arabia in April 2006 and signed a “security agreement and a contract on defence [sic] systems, but no details were given.” 38

The Chinese made a bold “Nixon-like” move in the Gulf with the 1980s sale of CSS-2 ballistic missiles from its nuclear forces inventory to Saudi Arabia. Both the Saudis and the Chinese claim that the missiles delivered to the kingdom were armed with conventional warheads, but American requests under the Reagan administration to verify these claims were rebuffed. The CSS-2s today are very old and are ready for replacement by more modern, solid-fueled and more mobile ballistic missile systems. 39 Indeed, as weapons proliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis perceptively observers, the Saudis in the past several years have been more publicly mentioning their ballistic missiles, no doubt to compete with Iran’s growing ballistic missile capabilities, and some credible public reports suggest that Saudi Arabia in 2007 bought medium-range DF-21 ballistic missiles from China. 40

The Chinese, like the Russians, are increasing their security ties to both sides of the intensifying Arab-Iranian competition. The Chinese in the 1980s and 1990s sold Iran a wide variety of military arms and equipment to include cruise missiles, which threaten American warships in the Gulf, until Beijing promised arms sales restraint under American diplomatic pressure. 41 Iran no doubt will be looking to China for more modern weapons and cruise missile technologies to keep steps ahead of American countermeasures against Iran’s military capabilities along the Strait of Hormuz and in Gulf waters.

The Chinese have never deployed substantial combat forces in and around the Middle East, but they are inching toward these capabilities without attracting much public attention. The Chinese quietly dispatched a peacekeeping force for the first time to the Middle East to contribute to United Nations’ efforts to bolster the buffer between Lebanon and Israel after the 2006 war. China had avoided contributing to United Nations peacekeeping missions, but has dispatched more than 8000 soldiers abroad since 1990, with 1648 serving in peacekeeping missions in 2007 to include in Lebanon. 42 The Chinese, moreover, dispatched combat aircraft to Turkey in October 2010 for military exercises, marking the first time that Chinese military forces exercised with a NATO member. 43

China’s rapidly modernizing navy also is learning how to sail into the Middle East, no doubt to increase its capabilities to protect China’s sea lanes of communication to Gulf oil. Gulf oil in 2006 accounted for about 45 % of China’s oil imports. 44 Astute strategists at the US Naval War College have been impressed by the pace of Chinese naval modernization and argue: “China is fast becoming an outward-looking maritime state. At a time when the U.S. Navy continues to shrink in numbers if not relative capability, while the traditional naval powers of Europe are in sharp decline, this is a development that deserves careful consideration by students of contemporary global affairs.” 45 China in March 2010 dispatched two warships to the Gulf, which docked in Abu Dhabi to mark the first time that the modern Chinese navy made a port call in the Middle East. 46 The Chinese navy—a destroyer and frigate—conducted in September 2014 a joint exercise with Iran to mark another Chinese first. 47

Israel “Siding” with Gulf Arab States

The Israelis cast a shadow over the strategic calculations of Iran and the Arab Gulf states. Iran had close security ties with Israel to balance the Arab states before the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Iranian regime since then has waged a bloody proxy war by nurturing, aiding, and abetting Hezbollah attacks against Israel from Lebanon. 48 While the Arab states remain to varying degrees hostile to Israel, these days Israel and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states increasingly share strategic perspectives as Iran strengthens its strongholds in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The Arabs and the Israelis, moreover, share fears of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons in the Middle East’s future.

The mood today in Israel is that Iran is no imaginary threat. To the contrary, as Ephraim Kam, a level-headed and insightful Israeli national security analyst observes, “Many Israeli leaders regard the Iranian threat as the gravest strategic threat facing Israel, and some regard it as liable to endanger Israel’s very existence in the future.” Kam peering into the future adds that “Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons is of major significance to Israel: a new situation would arise whereby for the first time since Israel’s establishment an enemy state has the capability of fatally wounding it.” 49

The Israelis, moreover, are gravely concerned that their capabilities to deter regional adversaries are fraying. Israel’s formidable conventional military capabilities have not secured a peace with Palestinian Hamas-controlled Gaza strip or a peace in the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank. Israeli confidence in its military forces to secure Israeli security on its northern border was seriously threatened by Hezbollah rockets fired from Lebanon during the summer 2006 war. The Israelis worry that should Iran get nuclear weapons, Tehran would have license to escalate future cross border surrogate guerrilla operations against Israel. Tehran would no longer fear Israeli military retaliation, which the Iranians could deter with their nuclear weapons.

Israel and Saudi Arabia are seething that President Barak Obama reneged on his threat to use military force against Syria after it crossed Obama’s “red line” and repeatedly used chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Israelis and Saudis alike, Obama fails to grasp the power politics of the Middle East. If a leader threatens the use of force and does not follow-through, he suffers a “loss of face” and a severe deterioration in his prestige or reputation for power, which is the coin of the realm in Middle East politics.

The Israelis and Saudis judge that the US failure to use military power against Damascus sent the wrong message to Syria’s staunch security backers in Tehran. The mullahs now know that if President Obama was not willing to “pull the trigger” on Syria, he does not have any appetite to do it against Iran’s nuclear weapons program either. Both Jerusalem and Riyadh see Tehran’s aggressive military support to Syria’s embattle regime as part and parcel of its determination to maintain its geopolitical land bridge from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus and into the realm of Arab-Israeli politics in Lebanon. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia fear Iran’s support of its Hezbollah proxy in sub rosa war against them. Saudi Arabia especially sees itself as the vanguard of Sunni opposition to Iran’s leadership of the Shia Muslim community. The Sunni and Shia are now pitted in sectarian battles throughout the Middle East.

The six-month interim agreement with Tehran to freeze its nuclear program does nothing to relieve shared threat perceptions in Jerusalem and Riyadh of Iranian ambitions to dominate the Middle East from behind a nuclear weapons security umbrella in the future. The Israelis and the Saudis see the interim agreement as little more than buying Iran diplomatic time and protection from American military strikes. They anticipate that the Iranians will parlay the interim agreement into endless negotiations to buy more diplomatic time, political legitimacy, and economic sanctions relief. While Israel and Saudi Arabia see an acute Iranian threat, both countries are exceedingly frustrated that Washington sees Iran’s nuclear program more as a nuisance. 50

The Israelis—unlike the Americans—have on numerous occasions enforced their “red lines” in the region. They have made good on their “Begin doctrine” never to allow another state in the Middle East to harbor nuclear weapons. They have mounted preempt military strikes against both Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 to bludgeon Saddam’s and Bashar’s nuclear programs, respectively. Iran’s nuclear program, however, is much more robust, diversified, and farther away from Israel than the past Iraqi and Syrian programs making for a much more formidable and demanding military problem. The Israelis would much prefer that the US do the job for them because they lack the wherewithal needed for a sustained campaign against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that the Americans have. Hence, the seething anger in Israel today that for all intents and purposes the American military option against Iran’s nuclear program is off the table as the West exclusively pursues negotiations with Iran.

Might the Israelis now look to Saudi Arabia for assistance in mounting a military campaign against Iran? The Israelis sure could use access to Saudi airbases for refueling, rearming and generating faster sorties against Iran for a more intense and robust campaign given Saudi Arabia’s closer proximity to Iranian airspace. While hosting Israeli aircraft on Saudi airbases would make tactical and operational sense when viewed entirely through a military prism, it would be an extraordinarily dangerous move for Saudi royal family when viewed through a political lens. And, as Clausewitz reminds us, the political always trumps strictly military considerations. The Saudis could not be confident that Israeli operations from their air bases could be kept secret. They would have to worry that word would eventually leak out from Washington because that city leaks like a sieve these days. The public exposure of such close military cooperation with Israel would risk shaking the political foundations of the Saudi regime. The Wahhabi religious establishment might violently protest against the royal family for allowing Zionists into the land of Mecca and Medina. They could take to the streets and shake the political legitimacy of the regime in an echo of the 1979 Mecca uprisings. 51 The Saudi royal family is especially on nervous guard for political discontent on the heels of the “Arab spring.”

On top of that, the public exposure of Israeli-Saudi military cooperation in an air campaign against Iran would be a huge windfall for Iranian as well as Islamic State propaganda. Tehran would argue that the Saudi regime had lost its legitimacy as an Islamic state and as host of Islam’s holy sites. The Iranians would be gifted a powerful critique of Saudi Arabia as the land of Arab tribes held together by an old and invalid royal family that was so weak it could not use its modern Western-purchased military hardware against Persian civilization itself. Instead, the Saudis had to go and beg the Israeli Zionists to attack Iran from Islamic sands. The Islamic States, moreover, would use Saudi collaboration with Israel as further evidence that Islam’s caliph is in Mosul and not in the kingdom.

Some observers may argue that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” phenomenon is so potent that the Saudis would firmly align with the Israelis to strike out at Iran’s nuclear program. More specifically, they may argue that the Saudi Sunnis hate the Iranian Shia more than they do the Israelis, so they would be have no qualms about aligning with a lesser evil to erode the power of a greater evil. Maybe so, but the Saudi political sphere simply could not run the risks of hosting an Israeli military campaign from Saudi airbases which might last weeks, and potentially evolve into a prolonged war of attrition lasting years reminiscent of the 1980–1988 war between Iran and Iraq. To do so, would be the Saudis cutting off their political heads—not just their noses—despite their faces.

In short, small-scale clandestine Israeli-Saudi intelligence cooperation is doable—and plausibly denied, if uncovered—but hosting the Israel Air Force for a war against Iran would be politically unsustainable for the Saudi regime. The best the Israelis could hope for would be for the Saudis to turn a blind-eye to Israeli penetrations of Saudi airspace in route to bomb Iran as well as for air-to-air refueling, which too would have plausible deniability.

Then again, might the Arab Gulf states undertake military action against Iran’s nuclear program absent Israeli or American action? The Saudis, as well as all the other Arab states, are fond of their narrative that the US has a “double standard” between them and Israel. They argue that the US has relentlessly provided security assistance to Israel. Lost in the narrative is that while the US has given Israel about $1.5 billion in annual security assistance, it has nearly matched that with about one billion dollars per year in security assistance to Egypt to secure the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. The US, moreover, has never had to dispatch American soldiers to fight shoulder-to-shoulder and to die with Israeli troops in battle. But it had to do so with Arab forces in the 1990–1991 war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces. American Marines also were put in harm’s way to ensure that Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian forces were allowed to depart Beirut for Tunis in the wake of Israel’s invasion in the 1980s of Lebanon.

The US and Western allies have increasingly made available top-shelve military hardware to Arab Gulf states making them some of the best-equipped military forces in the world. According to the Military Balance, the Saudis can boast of an impressive air order-of-battle that includes more than 150 F-15s fighter aircraft, 70 Tornado fighters and five E-5 Sentry command and control aircraft that could be harnessed for an air campaign against Iran. The UAE, which also views Iran as a grave threat, could add 70 F-16 fighter aircraft and 44 Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft into an air campaign pot. 52

The Arab Gulf states probably are gaining some confidence in their force projection capabilities. The Saudis and the Emirates cooperated closely and effectively in marshaling Gulf forces to quell domestic unrest in Bahrain in 2011. The Arab Gulf states have assigned aircraft to multinational campaigns the likes of the 1990–1991 Gulf war and symbolically with the NATO-led campaign against Libya. They also set a significant precedent for air operations with the UAE’s deployment of combat aircraft to Egypt to fly bombing sorties against Libyan militia forces. 53 Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar are all reported to have flown combat operations recently against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to gain invaluable experience for mounting their own operations in the future outside of a US-led coalition. 54

Nevertheless, preemptively attacking Iran’s nuclear program would be a daunting task for Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states. The Gulf Arab states have never waged an integrated, joint air campaign by themselves. Nor have the Arab Gulf states ever launched an air campaign to take down an adversary’s air defense system and air forces as a prelude to air strikes against strategic facilities the likes of Iran’s nuclear program. The Arab Gulf states too would have to worry that Washington would not be eager to come to their defenses should they strike Iran on the their own and incur Iranian retaliation in the likely form of ballistic missiles strikes.

For all the Arab Gulf state narratives that accuse the US of a double standard with Israel and berate Israel for “reckless” behavior in international security, they are no doubt secretly hoping that the Israelis will unilaterally do the dirty deed and preemptively strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Arab Gulf states want to see the Israelis act unilaterally, much as they did in Lebanon in the 1980s without an American “green light,” and to suffer the consequent international opprobrium. The Arab Gulf states then could publicly denounce Israel for yet another example of “reckless” international action, diplomatically reassure Iran to stay out of the regional military fray, and resume admiring their impressive military inventories, which are more used to ensure domestic and international prestige than to wage war against a hostile neighbor.

Washington’s Need to Guard the Gulf Balance of Power

American power and influence in the Middle East looms large today, but the realities of international politics are always in flux. Washington would be well advised to place more emphasis in American statecraft on maintaining the Gulf balance of power and less on the promotion of democracy that alienates security partners and abets Russian and Chinese rivals. While the power and influence of European states in the region is declining, the resurgent Russia and the emerging China are bound to develop deeper and broader security cooperation with Gulf states.

The Arab Gulf states might threaten in the years ahead to turn to Russia and China for substantial more security assistance if only to coerce the US. It is illustrative to recall that after the Kuwaitis in the 1980s asked the Soviet Union to fly its flag on Kuwait tankers to deter Iranian attacks against its shipping, the US jumped to offer its flags to deny the opportunity to the Soviets. 55 In the future, similar Arab tactics of turning to the Russians and the Chinese could be used to generate leverage against Washington. Arab states in the future, for instance, could extend invitations to host Russian and Chinese forces in the Gulf as a way to lessen dependence on American security backing. It would not be fanciful to suggest that in the future the Russian and Chinese militaries could enjoy basing and access privileges in the Gulf much as the US does today.

The Arab Gulf states in order to counter Iran’s growing threat to the Gulf might demand more sophisticated weaponry than Washington might be willing to sell them given the long-standing American commitment to ensure that Israel always maintains a qualitative military edge over Arab states. Russia and China will be especially attractive suppliers of ballistic missiles for the Gulf states to counterbalance Iran’s increasing ballistic missile inventories. 56

While Washington and Tel Aviv might not view any of the Arab Gulf states as militarily hostile to Israel today, they have to hedge that Middle East political instabilities could one day change virtually overnight a moderate Arab Gulf state or two into a militant Islamist regime reminiscent of the 1979 Iran revolution. Saudi Arabia is an especially acute concern in this regard given its wealth and power in the region and its internal societal challenges. 57 Moscow and Beijing, in sharp contrast, would not have these considerations hampering their arms sales to, and their security profiles in, the future Gulf.


  1. 1.

    For an excellent history of the Shia-Sunni rivalry and its relevance to contemporary politics, see Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007).

  2. 2.

    Warren Bass, Support Any Friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 53.

  3. 3.

    George Lenczowski, American Presidents and the Middle East (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 117–118.

  4. 4.

    George Lenczowski, American Presidents and the Middle East (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 206.

  5. 5.

    George Lenczowski, American Presidents and the Middle East (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 207.

  6. 6.

    For an impressively comprehensive and expert history of American military involvement in the Middle East, see Lawrence Freedman, A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East (New York: PublicAffairs, 2008). Also see, Kenneth M. Pollack, A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East (New York: Random House, 2008).

  7. 7.

    For a balanced treatment of the diplomatic frustrations in finding an Israeli-Palestinian peace, see Aaron David Miller, The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace (New York: Bantam Books, 2008). For an excellent history of Iranian warfare against the US, see David Crist, The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran (New York: Penguin Books, 2012). For another treatment more sympathetic to the Iranian narrative, see Barbara Slavin, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007).

  8. 8.

    John S. Duffield, Over a Barrel: The Costs of U.S. Foreign Oil Dependence (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 96.

  9. 9.

    Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1994), 21.

  10. 10.

    George W. Bush, “Freedom in Iraq and Middle East,” Remarks at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy (Washington, DC: 6 November 2003).

  11. 11.

    Julie Mason, “Qahdafi’s Death ‘Momentous Day,’ Says Barack Obama,” Politico, 20 October 2011.

  12. 12.

    Matteo Legrenzi, “NATO in the Gulf: Who is Doing Whom a Favor?” Middle East Policy 14, no. 1 (Spring 2007), 69.

  13. 13.

    Matteo Legrenzi, “NATO in the Gulf: Who is Doing Whom a Favor?” Middle East Policy 14, no. 1 (Spring 2007), 72.

  14. 14.

    Bilal Y. Saab, “Friends with Benefits: What the UAE Really Wants from NATO,” Foreign Affairs, 14 August 2014.

  15. 15.

    “French Defence Policy: En Garde,” The Economist, 19 January 2008, 52.

  16. 16.

    Tariq Khaitous, Arab Reactions to a Nuclear-Armed Iran, Policy Focus #94 (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 2009), 7.

  17. 17.

    Judy Dempsey, “NATO Backs Off Plan for a Rapid-Response Force,” Boston Globe, 21 September 2007.

  18. 18.

    Christopher P. Cavas, “Russians Have Other Nations Wary, But No Defense Increases—Yet,” Defense News, 26 October 2014.

  19. 19.

    Karen DeYoung, “Allies Feel Strain of Afghan War,” Washington Post, 15 January 2008, A1.

  20. 20.

    Karen DeYoung, “Allies Feel Strain of Afghan War,” Washington Post, 15 January 2008, A1.

  21. 21.

    Peter Spiegel, “Gates Faults NATO Force in Southern Afghanistan,” Los Angeles Times, 16 January 2008, 1.

  22. 22.

    Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 55.

  23. 23.

    Eugene B. Rumer, Russian Foreign Policy Beyond Putin, Adelphi Paper 390 (New York: Routledge for International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007), 24.

  24. 24.

    Ellen Knickmeyer, “Russian Attack Praised in Mideast,” Washington Post, 30 August 2008.

  25. 25.

    Yaakov Katz, “Barak Urges Russia to Stop Selling Arms to Iran, Syria,” Jerusalem Post, 17 June 2009.

  26. 26.

    “Russia Stepping Up Military Aid to Syria’s Assad,” Reuters, 17 January 2014.

  27. 27.

    Kate Brannen, “Tehran’s Boots on the Ground,” Foreign Policy, 10 September 2014.

  28. 28.

    Mark Katz, “Russian-Iranian Relations in the Ahmadinejad Era,” Middle East Journal 62, no. 2 (Spring 2008), 206–207.

  29. 29.

    Mark N. Katz, “Putin, Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Nuclear Crisis,” Middle East Policy 13, no. 4 (Winter 2006), 125.

  30. 30.

    “Russia Ships Nuclear Fuel to Iran,” BBC News, 17 December 2007.

  31. 31.

    Anthony H. Cordesman and Martin Kleiber, Iran’s Military Forces and Warfighting Capabilities: The Threat to the Northern Gulf (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2007), 63.

  32. 32.

    Anthony H. Cordesman and Martin Kleiber, Iran’s Military Forces and Warfighting Capabilities: The Threat to the Northern Gulf (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2007), 63.

  33. 33.

    Nick Childs, “Iran Sanctions Cripple Ageing Military,” BBC News, 28 July 2010.

  34. 34.

    Paul J. Saunders, “Putin Feels Vindicated by Russian Approach to Mideast,” Al Monitor, 23 May 2014.

  35. 35.

    For background, see Paul J. Saunders, “Moscow Sees Opportunity in Iraq Instability,” Al Monitor, 8 August 2014.

  36. 36.

    Awad Mustafa, “Russia Making Major Push into Mideast Market,” Defense News, 18 October 2014.

  37. 37.

    For a discussion of how the Syrian war complicates Russia’s reinvigorated activity in the Gulf see, Mahmoud Salem, “Egypt Caught Between Russia, Saudi Arabia,” Al Monitor, 10 March 2014.

  38. 38.

    Kim Ghattas, “Chinese Leader Ends Saudi Visit,” BBC News, 25 April 2006.

  39. 39.

    For more on Chinese-Saudi military cooperation, see Richard L. Russell, Weapons Proliferation and War in the Greater Middle East: Strategic Contest (New York: Routledge, 2005), 113–118 and 126–128.

  40. 40.

    Jeffrey Lewis, “Why Did Saudi Arabia Buy Chinese Missiles?” Foreign Policy, 30 January 2014.

  41. 41.

    Bates Gill, “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: The Dynamics of Chinese Nonproliferation and Arms Control Policy-Making in an Era of Reform,” Chapter 9 in David M. Lampton (ed.), The Making of Chinese Foreign Policy and Security Policy in the Era of Reform, 1978–2000 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 268–269.

  42. 42.

    Edward Cody, “In China, a Display of Resolve on Darfur,” Washington Post, 16 September 2007, A16.

  43. 43.

    Jim Wolf, “China Mounts Air Exercise with Turkey,” Reuters, 8 October 2010.

  44. 44.

    “Chinese Foreign Policy: A Quintet, Anyone?” The Economist, 13 January 2007, 37.

  45. 45.

    Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and Carnes Lord, “China Sets Sail,” The American Interest (May/June 2010). For a treatment of Chinese naval power projection relevant to the Gulf, see Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (New York: Random House, 2010), 277–293.

  46. 46.

    Edward Wong, “Chinese Military Seeks to Extend Its Naval Power,” New York Times, 23 April 2010.

  47. 47.

    Mustafa Salama, “Navy Exercises Bring Iran, China Closer,” Al Monitor, 19 October 2014.

  48. 48.

    For an excellent study of Hezbollah’s rise, see Augustus Richard Norton, Hezbollah: A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

  49. 49.

    Ephraim Kam, “Curbing the Iranian Nuclear Threat: The Military Option,” Strategic Assessment 7, no 3 (Tel Aviv, Israel: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, December 2004), 3.

  50. 50.

    For hints of warming Israeli-Saudi relations in the face of Iran’s nuclear program, see Yoel Guzansky and Sigurd Neubauer, “Israel and Saudi Arabia: A Changing Region, a Possible Partnership?” The National Interest, 24 July 2014.

  51. 51.

    For a fascinating history of that watershed crisis in Saudi history, see Yaroslav Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al Qaeda (New York: Doubleday, 2007).

  52. 52.

    International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance (New York: Routledge, 2012), 347 and 353.

  53. 53.

    “Libya Crisis: US ‘Caught Off-Guard’ by Air Strikes,” BBC News, 26 August 2014.

  54. 54.

    Justine Drennan, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition against the Islamic State?” Foreign Policy, 22 October 2014.

  55. 55.

    Steven R. War, Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Forces (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009), 283.

  56. 56.

    See Greg Bruno, “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program,” Backgrounder (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 23 July 2012). Available at

  57. 57.

    For discussions of Saudi Arabia’s stability challenges, see Christopher M. Davidson, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 212. Also see, Robert Lacey, Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia (New York: Penguin Books, 2009) and Karen Elliot House, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).