Washington's abrupt decision to beef up its own and its Gulf allies' defense assets against Iran points to two critical questions: Has Barack Obama reverted to America's old ambition to act as the region's policeman? And, if so, would not the US have a vested interest in keeping Iran on track for a nuclear weapon and the region's perennial bad boy?
An official heavyweight hand was clearly behind the complementary reports carried by two leading US newspapers on Jan. 30. Both signaled a radical turnaround in White House Middle East-Gulf policy.
The New York Times and the Washington Post reported that the US was quietly working with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies to speed up arms sales and rapidly upgrade the defenses of their oil terminals and infrastructure against Iranian attack. The US Navy was also increasing ships armed with missile defense systems around the Mediterranean and keeping Aegis-guided missile cruisers on round-the-clock alert.
The Washington Post offered an additional piece of information: “Administration initiatives would include a U.S.-backed plan to triple the size of a 10,000- man protection force in Saudi Arabia, which are part of a broader push that includes unprecedented coordination of air defenses and expanded joint exercises between the U.S. and Arab militaries, officials said. All appear to be aimed at increasing pressure on Tehran.”
The identity of the 10,000-man protection force, whether American, Saudi or US-Saudi, was not clear from this report. This is a point that touches on the oil kingdom's abiding sensitivity to the presence of foreign military on its soil.
A history of Saudi opposition to US troop presence
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly military and Washington sources, the bulk of this "protection force" will be Saudi but its trebling will bring several thousand imported American military instructors to train those troops and lick them into shape.
The plan would bring US servicemen back to the oil kingdom for the first time since August 26, 2003, when the 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing was politely asked to leave the Prince Sultan Air Base north-east of Riyadh.
This is a supremely important US-Saudi geopolitical move on the Middle East chessboard. It has the effect of drawing the perimeters of US security dominance of the region in the face of Iran's hegemonic pretensions.
The message to Tehran is that, even armed with a nuclear weapon, the Islamic Republic cannot aspire to be top dog of the region, because those shoes are now filled by American feet. The United States is back on the beat as the policeman of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf, discreetly cheered on from Riyadh and riding in on the Gulf Arabs' pressing need for security against al Qaeda, Iran and Tehran-sponsored terror.
This move takes on epic significance when slotted into Arabian Gulf regional history.
Up until the 1970's, Great Britain was the dominant power in the Gulf and held the key to its security. When the Gulf principalities gained independence, Britain moved out and the Shah of Iran took its place.
"Over the Horizon" worked for a time
The 1979 Islamic Revolution reshuffled the regional power balance. The Gulf Arabs with their large Shiite minorities viewed Tehran and its practice of "exporting" the Islamic revolution as a menace rather than a defender. But they were also firmly resistant to US security assistance hinging on an American military presence within the region.
That impasse was overcome when President Ronald Reagan, accepting that Saudi discomfort with non-Muslim US troops on their soil, agreed to "reflag" the Gulf with an "over the horizon" doctrine. The Gulf princes led by Saudi Arabia were prevailed upon to accept US military support in their defense, so long as it remained invisible from their capitals except in the case of immediate danger.
Next came the problematic Dual Containment policy for of Iran and Iraq. It was designed to contain the two perceived threats to US Middle East interests by pitting them against each other. Iran was its real focus with the aim of modifying its extremist policies. The Gulf therefore funded Iraq in its bloody 1980s war on Iran, a conflict that bitterly attritioned both belligerents, Iran most of all.
But both these doctrines were swept aside by Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It was then that Saudi King Fahd invited the US to defend his realm lest the Iraqi dictator decided to march in from Kuwait. He consented for the first time to the deployment of US forces on Saudi soil – though not for long.
Back to the basics of a Gulf needing a protector
After the First Gulf War liberated Kuwait, Riyadh made it clear to Washington that the US military had "overstayed its welcome," even though the demise of the Dual Containment policy left Gulf security exposed. UN Security Council sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s went part way toward substituting for the failed policy. But that too was blown away by America's 2003 invasion of Iraq and ouster of the Saddam regime in Baghdad.
From that time on, de facto responsibility for Gulf security passed back to the United States, which increasingly immersed itself in the effort to stabilize Iraq and introduce democratic governance.
That's how matters stood in January 2009, when Barack Obama declared at his swearing-in ceremony as US president that he intended to withdraw all US forces from Iraq by August 2010 and so end America's policing role in the Persian Gulf.
Just a year later, Obama has gone into sharp reverse and again picked up the reins as Arabian Gulf defender, a step which virtually nullifies the effect of the phased US withdrawal from Iraq.
Can America make it this time round? The past leaves much room for doubt. Various interested parties in the region will continue to oppose an American military presence in the region and certainly object to its formal recognition. The survival of local regimes may even be imperiled by domestic forces accusing them of opening the door to the United States and so betraying their trust.
For domestic consumption, Gulf rulers will continue to deny and disparage the US role as champion of their security. The Saudi monarchy will lead this chorus although, in fact, the Saudi throne has leaned on US protection since World War II. Riyadh has never forgone the continuous US commitment to its territorial integrity and wellbeing, eliciting reaffirmation from one American president after another, culminating now with President Obama. Nonetheless, Saudi royals have never agreed to sign formal defense cooperation pacts with Washington.
Formal recognition will have to wait
The old dilemmas continue to bedevil US interests in this key world region.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources and experts believe that the most obvious short-term solution for sidestepping these dilemmas and giving America a legitimate role as policeman of the Gulf is to have Iran stay on track for a nuclear weapon. Even if Tehran contents itself with reaching the threshold of weaponization without crossing it, the Gulf rulers will continue to live in fear of the ayatollahs' quest for regional dominance.
This fear should be grist to the mill of expanding US-Gulf military cooperation.
Washington therefore has a vested interest in Iran staying on its nuclear course, hoping ideally that Tehran will claim the status of a nuclear power on a par with Israel without following through to the final step of assembling a weapon.
Even so, the United States cannot expect to have its role as regional protector formally accepted by the nations it protects without further turns in the wheel of fortune.