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The United States and the Persian Gulf in the Twentieth Century

  • Gary Sick

Abstract

It took half a century for the United States to become the major power in the Persian Gulf, and that process was characterized by evasions, indecision, and general reluctance to get involved. Initially drawn in during World War II to protect the Allies’ supply lines to the Soviet Union, the United States then withdrew virtually all its military forces for more than a generation, content to leave commerce in the hands of the giant oil firms known as the Seven Sisters and most regional security responsibilities to the ministrations of its experienced and well-established British ally.1

Keywords

Saudi Arabia United Nations Middle East Security Council Military Force 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    The British certainly viewed the United States as a potential rival to their dominant influence in the region. This was particularly true following World War II, as the United States began to appreciate the strategic importance of oil, as the Persian Gulf emerged as a critical sector in the global doctrine of containment of the Soviet Union, and as British power began to wane. During this period, Britain maneuvered quite successfully to insure that U.S. political presence in the region did not match its growing economic and military might. The United States was somewhat frustrated with these tactics, but its profound reliance on the UK as a strategic bulwark trumped any political ambitions until well after the British withdrawal in 1971. For a close look at part of this process, see Rosemarie Said Zahlan, “Anglo-American Rivalry in Bahrain, 1918–1947,” in Bahrain Through the Ages: The History, ed. Abdullah bin Khalid al-Khalifa and Michael Rice (London: Kegan Paul International, 1993), 567–87.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    For a more detailed account of this period, see Michael A. Palmer, Guardians of the Gulf A History of America’s Expanding Role in the Persian Gulf, 1833–1992 (New York: Free Press, 1992)Google Scholar
  3. and Marc O’Reilly, Unexceptional: America’s Empire in the Persian Gulf, 1941–2007 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    A detailed account of this episode and its implications can be found in Gary Sick, All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran (New York: Random House, 1985), 13–21, quote on 14.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    For the most complete and succinct history and analysis of this event, see Mark Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne, eds., Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004).Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Israeli-Iranian relations are discussed in detail in Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 23, 53–4.Google Scholar
  7. For a more detailed discussion of the sellout of the Kurds, see James A. Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 204–8. Israel had a well-developed strategy, known as the Doctrine of the Periphery, to outflank its hostile Arab neighbors by promoting relations with non-Arab states on the fringes of the conflict. In the case of Iran, this took the form of a very close strategic relationship for more than twenty years.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Gary Sick, “Trial by Error: Reflections on the Iran-Iraq War,” Middle East Journal 43, no. 2 (1989): 230–44.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    For a detailed examination of this episode, see Theodore Draper, A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs (New York: Hill and Wang, 1991).Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    Iraq was much better equipped than Iran, and it fired 3 to 4 missiles to every Iranian missile. The only confirmed use of poison gas was by Iraq—against Iranian troop formations and some civilian sites in Kurdish territory. For a more detailed examination of this armed negotiation, see Gary Sick, “Slouching Toward Settlement: The Internationalization of the Iran-Iraq War, 1987–88,” in Neither East Nor West: Iran, the Soviet Union, and the United States, ed. Nikki Keddie and Mark Gasiorowski (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 219–46.Google Scholar
  11. 16.
    For an authoritative account of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons and the tepid international response, see Joost R. Hiltermann, “Outsiders as Enablers: Consequences and Lessons from International Silence on Iraq’s Use of Chemical Weapons during the Iran-Iraq War,” in Lawrence G. Potter and Gary G. Sick, eds., Iran, Iraq, and the Legacies of War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 151–66.Google Scholar
  12. See also Joost R. Hiltermann, A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).Google Scholar
  13. 21.
    For example, see Murray Waas and Douglas Frantz, “U.S. Gave Data to Iraq Three Months Before Invasion; Persian Gulf: Documents Show Intelligence Sharing with Baghdad Lasted Longer Than Previously Indicated,” Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1992, 1 (one of a series of investigative reports). See also “News Conference, Rep. Jack Brooks (D-TX), Rep. Charles Schumer (D-NY): Special Prosecutor Criminal Dealings with Iraq Prior to Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait,” Federal News Service, July 9, 1992.Google Scholar
  14. 25.
    According to official counts, allied deaths were 146 Americans (35 by friendly fire), 24 British (9 by American fire), 2 Frenchmen, 1 Italian, and 39 among various Arab allies. Baghdad has never given an official count of its casualties, but postwar analyses concluded that Iraq’s uniformed losses were far smaller than previously estimated, perhaps as low as 1,500 deaths. Estimates of civilian casualties were uncertain and varied greatly from one observer to another. See John G. Heidenrich, “The Gulf War: How Many Iraqis Died?,” Foreign Policy 90 (Spring 1993): 108–25. The Associated Press on March 9, 1993 provided an overview of the various estimates.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 30.
    Thomas L. Friedman, “Baker Sketches Future Gulf Role,” in New York Times, February 7, 1991, A1.Google Scholar
  16. 31.
    The analysis in this section draws extensively on the author’s article “Rethinking Dual Containment,” Survival 40, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 5–32. See also Martin Indyk, “The Clinton Administration’s Approach to the Middle East,” Keynote Address to the Soref Symposium on “Challenges to U.S. Interests in the Middle East: Obstacles and Opportunities,” Proceedings of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 18–19, 1993, 1–8. At the time of this speech Indyk had just joined the National Security Council staff. He later became the U.S. ambassador to Israel (twice), separated by an appointment as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.Google Scholar
  17. 34.
    Elaine Sciolino, “CIA Asks Congress for Money to Rein in Iraq and Iran,” New York Times, April 12, 1995, 1.Google Scholar
  18. 35.
    All of these operations were publicly confirmed after the event by former senior officials of the U.S. government. See Don Oberdorfer, “U.S. Had Covert Plan to Oust Iraq’s Saddam, Bush Adviser Asserts; Effort to Remove Leader Came ‘Pretty Close,’” Washington Post, January 20, 1993, 1; and ABC News, “Unfinished Business—the CIA and Saddam Hussein,” transcript no. 97062601-j13, June 26, 1997. There were also detailed reports in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and other media.Google Scholar
  19. 39.
    See Executive Order 12957 of March 15, 1995, and Executive Order 12959 of May 6, 1995. For a detailed analysis of the politics associated with the developments of Iranian sanctions, see Laurie Lande, “Second Thoughts,” International Economy (May–June 1997): 44–49.Google Scholar
  20. 46.
    David E. Sanger, “U.S. Ending a few of the Sanctions Imposed on Iran,” in New York Times, March 18, 2000, A1.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Lawrence G. Potter 2009

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  • Gary Sick

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