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Differentiated Containment

U.S. Policy Toward Iran and Iraq

Director: Richard W. Murphy

Differentiated Containment - differentiated-containment
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Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press

Release Date July 1997

Price $5.00 paper

146 pages
ISBN 0876092024
Task Force Report No. 14



Since World War II, the United States has identified the security and stability of the Gulf region as a vital national interest. This publication presents two documents. The first, Differentiated Containment: U.S. Policy Toward Iran and Iraq, is the report of the Co-Chairs of an Independent Task Force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. The report, by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, serves as the Statement of the Task Force and also appeared in the May/June 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs. The second document, Gulf Stability and Security and Its Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy, contains the Statement and Recommendations of an Independent Study Group also sponsored by the Council. As defined in these two documents, the Gulf region includes Iran, Iraq, and the members states of the Gulf Cooperation Council--Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

The Task Force met four times in 1996-97. Its Co-Chairs traveled to the region in March 1997 to make their first-hand review of the situation. The Study Group met seven times in 1996, and its deliberations were summarized in a report drafted by Dr. Shibley Telhami of Cornell University. Neither group achieved a full consensus on how the United States might better assist in maintaining Gulf security and stability, and some significant dissenting opinions have been noted. The groups' reports provide a number of recommendations for Washington's consideration that we hope will receive serious attention.

For those interested in examining the context of current U.S. policy toward the Gulf, the Background Materials section of this publication provides a variety of primary sources. They include official documents and statements of the U.N. Security Council and the U.S. government; a Foreign Affairs article by Anthony Lake, assistant to the president for national security affairs from 1993 to 1997; an article on Iran by an Israeli defense analyst; a press interview with the German foreign minister concerning the German court verdict in the so-called Mykonos case; excerpts from the March 1997 communiqu, of the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council; and a summary of a recent conference on Gulf security held in Abu Dhabi.

As Project Director of the Independent Task Force and Chair of the earlier Independent Study Group, I wish to thank all participants for the time and thought they devoted to those proceedings. I particularly thank Nomi Colton-Max, the Program Associate for the Middle East at the Council, for the work she performed as rapporteur and editor of the Study Group report.

Richard W. Murphy

Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for the Middle East

Differentiated Containment: U.S. Policy Toward Iran and Iraq


The Persian Gulf is one of the few regions whose importance to the United States is obvious. The flow of Gulf oil will continue to be crucial to the economic well-being of the industrialized world for the foreseeable future; developments in the Gulf will have a critical impact on issues ranging from Arab-Israeli relations and religious extremism to terrorism and nuclear nonproliferation. Every president since Richard Nixon has recognized that ensuring Persian Gulf security and stability is a vital U.S. interest.

The Clinton administration's strategy for achieving this goal during the president's first term was its attempted "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran. This is more a slogan than a strategy, however, and the policy may not be sustainable for much longer. In trying to isolate both of the Gulf's regional powers, the policy lacks strategic viability and carries a high financial and diplomatic cost. Saddam Hussein is still in power six years after his defeat at the hands of a multinational coalition, and the international consensus on continuing the containment of Iraq is fraying. The strident U.S. campaign to isolate Iran, in turn, drives Iran and Russia together and the United States and its Group of Seven allies apart. Finally, the imposing U.S. military presence that helps protect the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) from external threats is being exploited by hostile elements to take advantage of internal social, political, and economic problems. The advent of the Clinton administration's second term, together with the imminent inauguration of a new administration in Iran following this May's elections, provides an opportunity to review U.S. policies toward the Gulf and consider whether midcourse corrections could improve the situation.

The first step in such a reevaluation is to view the problems in the Gulf clearly and objectively. In Iraq, the United States confronts a police state led by an erratic tyrant whose limited but potentially serious capacity for regional action is currently subject to constraint. In Iran, the United States confronts a country with potentially considerable military and economic capabilities and an imperial tradition, which occupies a crucial position both for the Gulf and for future relations between the West and Central Asia. If Iraq poses a clear and relatively simple immediate threat, Iran represents a geopolitical challenge of far greater magnitude and complexity.

Consultation with leaders of some Persian Gulf countries has made it plain to us that they do not share an identical view of the threat posed by Iraq and Iran. Hence no U.S. Gulf policy will satisfy everyone in every respect. That makes it all the more essential that any adjustment in U.S. policy toward Iraq and Iran be preceded by extensive consultations with friendly Gulf leaders. Inadequate dialogue and unilateral action have caused some insecurity in the region and weakened trust in U.S. steadfastness.


When the British withdrew from the Persian Gulf in 1971, the United States became the principal foreign power in the region. For almost three decades it has pursued the goal of preserving regional stability, using a variety of means to that end, particularly regarding the northern Gulf powers of Iraq and Iran.

At first the United States relied on Iran as its chief regional proxy, supporting the shah's regime in the hope that it would be a source of stability. This policy collapsed in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution, when Iran switched from staunch ally to implacable foe. During the 1980s, the United States strove to maintain a de facto balance of power between Iraq and Iran so that neither would be able to achieve a regional hegemony that might threaten American interests. The United States provided some help to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, moved in other ways to counter the spread of Iranian-backed Islamic militancy, and provided--with Israeli encouragement--some help to Iran, chiefly in the context of seeking the release of American hostages. This era ended with Iraq invading Kuwait in 1990 and the United States leading an international coalition to war to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty and defeat Iraq's bid for dominance.

The Clinton administration came into office in 1993 facing the challenge of ensuring Gulf stability in a new international and regional environment. The disappearance of the Soviet Union gave the United States unprecedented freedom of action, while the Madrid Conference, sponsored by the Bush administration, inaugurated a fundamentally new phase of the Middle East peace process, offering hope that the Arab-Israeli conflict might eventually prove solvable. The Clinton team's initial Middle East policy had two aspects: continued support for the peace process and dual containment of Iraq and Iran. These strands were seen as reinforcing each other: keeping both Iraq and Iran on the sidelines of regional politics, the administration argued, would protect Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf monarchies and enable Israel and the moderate Arab states to move toward peace, while the burgeoning Arab-Israeli detente would demonstrate that the attitudes of the "rejectionist front" were costly and obsolete.

Dual containment was envisaged not as a long-term solution to the problems of Gulf stability but as a way of temporarily isolating the two chief opponents of the American-sponsored regional order. Regarding Iraq, the policy involved maintaining the full-scale international economic sanctions and military containment the administration had inherited, including a no-fly zone in southern Iraq and a protected Kurdish enclave in the north. The Clinton administration stated that it merely sought Iraqi compliance with the post-Gulf War U.N. Security Council resolutions, particularly those mandating the termination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs. In practice, the administration made it clear that it had no intention of dealing with Saddam Hussein's regime, and seemed content, for lack of a better alternative, to let Iraq stew indefinitely. The administration responded to Iraqi provocations, but saw little opportunity to oust Saddam except at great cost in blood and treasure.

The dual containment policy initially involved mobilizing international political opposition against Iran, together with limited unilateral economic sanctions. The Clinton administration asserted that it was not trying to change the Iranian regime per se but rather its behavior, particularly its quest for nuclear weapons, its support for terrorism and subversion in the region, and its opposition to the peace process. By early 1995, however, the U.S. attitude toward Iran began to harden. The Iranian behavior at issue had continued. But the real impetus for a shift seems to have come out of American domestic politics, in particular the administration's desire to head off a challenge on Iran policy mounted by an increasingly bellicose Republican Congress.

Congressional initiatives were designed to increase pressure on so-called rogue states such as Iran and Libya, to the point of erecting secondary boycotts against all parties doing business with them, including American allies. Hoping to deflate support for such action, in spring 1995 President Clinton announced (with an eye on domestic politics at the World Jewish Congress) that he was instituting a complete economic embargo against Iran. The move achieved its intended domestic effects in the United States, but only temporarily. Late in 1995 pressure from Congressional Republicans, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), called for covert action against the Iranian regime, and last year Congress passed the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, which the president signed. This legislation mandates U.S. sanctions against any foreign firm that invests more than $40 million in a given year in the development of energy resources in Iran or Libya. Not surprisingly, it has been strenuously opposed by America's allies as an unjustifiable attempt to coerce them into following a hard-line policy.

At the start of President Clinton's second term, therefore, U.S. Persian Gulf policy is at an impasse. Saddam Hussein remains in power in Iraq and has even regained some control over the Kurdish areas of the north, while the Gulf War coalition that defeated him is eroding. Toughened U.S. sanctions against Iran, although doing some damage to the Iranian economy, have produced no major achievements and increasingly isolate America rather than their target. The continued willingness and ability of some members of the GCC and others to help implement these policies is open to question. What, then, is to be done?


The continued rule of Saddam Hussein poses a danger to the stability and security of the region. He has threatened his neighbors while doing everything possible to acquire weapons of mass destruction in direct violation of international law, even during the last several years, when subject to the most restrictive supervision in the history of international arms control. Although there are real costs involved in maintaining Iraq's pariah status, it is difficult to see how any policy in the military sphere other than continued containment can be adopted so long as Saddam remains in power. The United States should be prepared to maintain Iraq's military containment unilaterally should the will of others falter. Similarly, while there are costs to keeping Iraq's oil off the world market, retaining the economic embargo in general is necessary, because with unrestricted access to large profits Saddam would likely embark on further military development.

The United States may, however, need to consider a revised approach to the political and economic aspects of Iraq's containment, because not all of them can be implemented unilaterally. Furthermore, they have unfortunate consequences on the humanitarian situation in Iraq, which especially concerns some members of the GCC. While America's basic goal should continue to be keeping Saddam's Iraq in a straitjacket, the United States may need to adjust the fit to ensure the straitjacket holds. There should thus be five corollaries to the basic containment policy, not all of which the Clinton administration has adequately stressed.

First, the international community must credibly demonstrate its concern for the Iraqi people even if their own ruler does not. Sanctions against Iraq continue to be necessary, but the United States and others should try to mitigate the sanctions' effects on ordinary Iraqis. The offer to permit Iraq to sell some oil and use the proceeds to alleviate its humanitarian problems has been on the table since the end of the Gulf War and remains a good idea. Saddam's recent willingness to accept stringent conditions on the disbursement of the funds from such oil sales has led to the deal enshrined in U.N. Security Council Resolution 986, which was designed to address this problem. If it becomes necessary or appropriate to ease Iraq's economic containment, the sanctions should be suspended rather than lifted completely, so that the international community can easily reimpose them should unacceptable Iraqi behavior resume.1

Second, the United States should reassure Iraqis and their neighbors that while America continues to seek political relief for the Iraqi people, it is committed to the integrity of the Iraqi state. The ultimate goal of U.S. policy should be an Iraq that retains its existing borders and that at some point after Saddam has left the scene can take its rightful place as a legitimate member of the international community. Any doubts about this should be dispelled.

Third, the United States should consult more closely with Turkey on areas of common interest. Turkey's continued support for U.S. policy in northern Iraq is crucial, and to secure it Washington should confer on how best to stabilize the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan. If the Turks are not comfortable with the status quo, including the arrangements for Operation Northern Watch, the United States should discuss with them what might be done to address their concerns.

Fourth, the United States should send a clear signal that it is prepared to work with a post-Saddam Iraqi regime. That such a regime be benign and democratic is desirable but unlikely, so these factors should not be prerequisites for Iraq's reintegration into regional politics. American officials should state that they would be prepared to deal with any Iraqi regime--including one that emerged from within the military or the Baath Party--that is ready to fulfill Iraq's basic international obligations. To start relations from as clean a slate as possible, the United States should consult with interested parties about whether a post-Saddam regime should be offered relief from Iraq's enormous debts or Gulf War reparations. Such a gesture would be a sensible way to deal with the problems of Iraqi reconstruction, and it might even help induce aspiring successors to step forward.

Fifth, if and when Saddam's regime crosses clearly drawn lines of appropriate behavior, particularly with regard to its weapons of mass destruction programs and its threats to other countries, the United States should punish it severely and effectively. For several years the United States has responded to Iraqi provocations with more bluster than action; the precedent of Operation Desert Storm shows the reverse is a better strategy. With his behavior incurring militarily insignificant penalties, Saddam may have concluded that he can continue to maneuver with relative impunity to heighten the contradictions in the allied coalition. This cat-and-mouse game should stop. There must be no doubt in anyone's mind that should Saddam try to break his containment through force, he will be punished. Accompanying such resolve must be a serious diplomatic effort to nurse the Gulf War coalition of European and Arab countries and Japan back to robust health. Forceful American action can and should build on multilateral consultation and a sense of purpose and necessity; it should not be conditioned on allied approval, but neither should the United States be perceived as ignoring allies' concerns or taking their support for granted.


Iran's geopolitical importance is greater than Iraq's, and the challenge it represents is more complex. Given the American military presence, Iran does not currently pose a threat of military aggression, but its long-term policies could destabilize the region.

Several areas of Iran's behavior are frequently cited as sources of concern: its conventional military buildup, its opposition to the peace process, its promotion of Islamic militancy, its support of terrorism and subversion, and its quest for nuclear weapons. Terrorism and nuclear weapons, especially the latter, directly threaten U.S. national interests. Both issues, however, can be addressed by specific policy instruments, rather than the current crude and counterproductive attempt to cordon off the entire country. A more nuanced approach could yield greater benefits at lower cost.

Concerned about traditional military threats to regional security, some observers have worried about increases in Iran's conventional military capabilities. So far, there is little reason to believe that Iran's conventional military buildup will pose a direct challenge to U.S. regional supremacy. And for years to come, the United States will retain the capability to rebuff any such challenge.

Continued progress in the Middle East peace process is indeed an important American interest. Still, opposition to that process by another country should not be grounds for international excommunication. Israel itself has found it useful to have dealings with Iran on various occasions, most recently with the help of German mediation, and the United States should not feel constrained from doing the same when its interests so dictate.

Although Iran has often used religion as a cloak for subversion and terrorism, the United States must be careful not to demonize Islam, worrying simplistically about a "green menace" comparable to the old red one. The Iranian regime, unable to govern effectively, has lost appeal both at home and abroad. Sectarian, ethnic, and geographic cleavages within the Islamic world militate against the rise of a unified, Iranian-led threat.

Iran's support of violence and subversion abroad should, however, concern the United States. Iran has provided backing for terrorists and fomented unrest in other countries, and the international community should continue to harshly criticize Iran for these acts.2Direct attacks on American citizens would constitute a special provocation and call for clear retaliatory measures. As a response to terrorism in general, however, containment is not a solution.

The single most worrisome aspect of Iran's behavior is its apparent quest for a nuclear weapons capability. The United States should respond by pushing the controls and inspection provisions of the existing nuclear nonproliferation regime to their limits and continuing to make counter-proliferation efforts a top priority. It should focus more narrowly on the nuclear threat as opposed to other issues, which might strengthen its case for controls and achieve greater success in stemming the flow of support for the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Finally, it should explore the notion of using carrots in addition to sticks in getting Iran to shift course.

There seems little justification for the treatment the United States currently accords Iran because of its nuclear program. Instead of simply punishing the country, the United States should consider whether a tradeoff might be feasible in return for Iran's acceptance of restrictions on its civilian nuclear program or intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency of its nuclear facilities. Since the economic rationale for nuclear power has diminished in recent years, it may be possible to get Iran to limit its civilian nuclear energy program enough to give outsiders reasonable confidence that further military progress is not being made. Such an outcome, possibly arranged with Chinese or Russian support, would leave both the United States and Iran better off and significantly ease tensions in the region.

The policy of unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran has been ineffectual, and the attempt to coerce others into following America's lead has been a mistake. Extraterritorial bullying has generated needless friction between the United States and its chief allies and threatened the international free trade order that America has promoted for so many decades. To repair the damage and avoid further self-inflicted wounds, the United States should sit down with the Europeans, the Japanese, and its Gulf allies and hash out what each other's interests are, what policies make sense in trying to protect those interests, and how policy disagreements should be handled. Only such high-level consultation can yield multilateral policies toward Iran that stand a good chance of achieving their goals and being sustainable over the long term.

One negative consequence of current policy is the damage inflicted on America's interest in gaining greater access to the energy sources of Central Asia. An independent and economically accessible Central Asia is in the interests of both the United States and Iran. The United States should do nothing to preclude Central Asia's eventual emergence, nor stand in the way of deals that might facilitate it. The United States should therefore refrain from automatically opposing the construction of gas and oil pipelines across Iran. Here, as with policy toward Iraq, the United States must consult more often with its Turkish ally and fashion a regional policy that makes sense on the ground.

Another area of common interest is the resuscitation of U.S.-Iranian commercial relations. To this end, Washington should be open-minded regarding the resumption of activity by American oil companies in Iran. In 1995, for example, the U.S. government forced the cancellation of a $1 billion deal between Iran and Conoco; this served no one's interests except those of the French firm Total. Future commercial deals should be evaluated on an individual basis and permitted unless they contribute specifically to Iranian behavior the United States opposes.


However one judges its achievements to date, dual containment cannot provide a sustainable basis for U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. A more nuanced and differentiated approach to the region is in order, one in tune with America's longer-term interests. This new policy would keep Saddam boxed in, but would supplement such resolve with policy modifications to keep the Gulf War coalition united. The new policy would start with the recognition that the United States' current attempt at unilateral isolation of Iran is costly and ineffective and that its implementation, in the words of one recent study, "lacks the support of U.S. allies and is a leaky sieve." The United States should instead consider the possibilities of creative tradeoffs, such as the relaxation of opposition to the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for rigid and comprehensive inspection and control procedures.

This new course would not involve a dramatic policy reversal and is not likely to yield vast benefits in the immediate future. What it would do is enable the United States to sustain its policy and keep options open for the long term. America may have to consider modifying certain aspects of Iraq's economic containment to keep its military straitjacket securely fastened. On the other hand, flexibility would facilitate diplomatic contacts, presuming an Iranian interest in better relations. Absent such statesmanship, it is all too likely that U.S. policy in the Gulf will continue to be driven by domestic political imperatives rather than national interests, with the hard line of recent years making long-term goals increasingly difficult to achieve.

The foundation of America's policy in the Persian Gulf should continue to be a commitment to ensuring the security of its allies and protecting the flow of oil. Few doubt that the United States has the power to sustain this commitment, but some question whether it has the will. In such circumstances, a recommitment by President Clinton to the principles of the Carter Doctrine--a renewal of U.S. vows to the Gulf--might be both welcome and appropriate. It is imperative that all parties understand an important strategic reality: the United States is in the Persian Gulf to stay. The security and independence of the region is a vital U.S. interest. Any accommodation with a post-Saddam regime in Iraq or with a less hostile government in Iran must be based on that fact.

This Statement was published under the byline of the two Co-Chairs, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, and the Project Director, Richard Murphy, in the May/June 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs. The Task Force members are signatories to this Statement. This Statement reflects the general policy thrust and judgments reached by the Task Force, although not all members of the group necessarily subscribe to every finding and recommendation. Additional views of members of the Task Force appear in the footnotes.

1Phebe A. Marr and Robin Wright do not think that sanctions have to be suspended to be eased. They maintain that U.N. Resolution 986 provides an appropriate vehicle for increasing future oil revenues for Iraq while maintaining controls on Saddam.

2On April 10, 1997, a German court ruled that a committee that included Iran's highest government leaders gave orders to carry out the slaying of three Kurdish dissidents at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin in 1992. Wright comments that the outcome of the Mykonos trial presents both the justification and opening for joint action with our European allies in a number of ways.


ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Co-Chair of the Task Force, is Counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Dr. Brzezinski was the National Security Advisor to President Carter.

BRENT SCOWCROFT, Co-Chair of the Task Force, is President of the Scowcroft Group and the Founder and President of the Forum for International Policy. He was the National Security Advisor to Presidents Ford and Bush.

JOSEPH P. HOAR is President of J.P. Hoar and Associates and was the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Central Command. He is also the Chairman of the Middle East Forum of the Council on Foreign Relations.

PHEBE A. MARR (is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. She is a scholar of the modern history of Iraq and Gulf politics.

RICHARD W. MURPHY is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs from 1983 to 1989.

WILLIAM B. QUANDT is the Byrd Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. He served on the National Security Council staff in the Nixon and Carter administrations with responsibility for the Middle East.

JAMES SCHLESINGER is Counselor, Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has served as Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Energy, and Director of Central Intelligence.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI is Associate Professor of Government and Director of the Program for Contemporary Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. He is also a Non- Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

ROBIN WRIGHT+ is the author of two books on Iran and is a former Mideast correspondent for The Sunday Times of London. She now covers global trends for The Los Angeles Times.


NOMI COLTON-MAX is Program Associate for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. She received an M.A. in international relations and economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

DENNIS HEJLIK is a Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a Battalion Commander with the Second Marine Division and is a veteran of Desert Storm.

GIDEON ROSE is a Fellow for National Security Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as Associate Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council staff from 1994 to 1995.

+Individual largely concurs with the Statement but has endorsed one or more footnotes.

Note: Institutional affiliations are for identification purposes only.



U.S. policy toward the states of the Persian Gulf is at an impasse. Maintenance of the policy known as dual containment concerning Iraq and Iran is producing uneven results, not all of them positive from the point of view of either U.S. interests or those of our friends among the Gulf states.

While Iraq is weakened militarily and poses no immediate threat to the region, Saddam Hussein remains in power in Baghdad. Some argue he is stronger today for having eliminated many real and suspected domestic challengers during the six years since Operation Desert Storm. Some even charge that the United States and certain of its close Arab partners are responsible for inflicting unnecessary suffering on the Iraqi people. But there is no sound basis for predicting how long Saddam Hussein will continue to maintain control.

Iran stridently opposes the Arab-Israeli peace process, which remains a major U.S. policy interest. In Washington's view, Tehran continues to sponsor international terrorism and to pursue a nuclear weapons program.1Iran's internal political situation has created no openings for a meaningful political dialogue with the American administration, and Washington has shown no interest in establishing such a dialogue.

American efforts to develop the defensive capabilities of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (the member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC) continue. These states have bought substantial quantities of sophisticated equipment, primarily from the United States and European allies. But the GCC states have yet to build an effective defense system that would replace or significantly shrink the need for America to defend them against external aggression.2

Thus far the American public has accepted the administration's policy of dual containment of Iraq and Iran. This reflects widespread resentment of Iran's behavior since its 1979 revolution and deep distrust of Saddam Hussein since his invasion of Kuwait and his post-war attempts to evade U.N. controls on his weapons of mass destruction (WMD). There has been virtually no domestic challenge to maintenance of the present force levels and financial costs of the American investment in the policy of dual containment, and the administration has successfully argued that its military engagement in the Gulf serves to defend vital U.S. interests.

This could change. While the U.S. commitment to provide external security for the states of the GCC against Iraqi and Iranian aggression is firm, it may be too expensive to keep up indefinitely. Equally important, the U.S. military presence in the Gulf, which is intended to maintain security and stability, risks making the regimes the United States seeks to support a target for their domestic critics. Beyond a doubt the United States can defend the area against external aggression, but it cannot deal with domestic challenges to regimes' legitimacy.3The United States must explore alternatives that will better sustain American interests. Friends in the region face new challenges in the decade ahead posed by the population explosion and constraints on their economic and social programs, particularly given the prediction of only a slow rise in their oil revenues.

To consider these problems, the Council on Foreign Relations asked a group of distinguished American experts in Gulf affairs to study current U.S. policies and recommend possible modifications that, in close consultation with U.S. allies, would allow the United States to pursue its objectives of Gulf security and stability more effectively.

This Statement and the accompanying Report are the result.


The Study Group recommends that the U.S. government reassess its policy in the following nine areas:

1. General U.S. Gulf Policy

The Gulf region requires a focus distinct from the Arab-Israeli peace process. While peace process issues and Gulf policies are linked in many ways, any review of or modification to current Gulf policy should not be hostage to the achievement of a comprehensive peace between Israel and its front-line neighbors.

2. Iraq

While U.S. policy has kept Saddam Hussein's government weak and Iraq's program for WMD under tight control, the continued effectiveness of this policy is under challenge. Dual containment was never meant to be a long-term solution. Humanitarian concerns, the disintegration of Iraqi society, and continued division within the Kurdish movements in northern Iraq trouble U.S. allies and may undermine support for U.S. strategy in the United States as well as the Gulf. A more humane alternative would involve continuing provision of humanitarian relief under U.N. Security Council Resolution 986 combined with more focused military pressure on targets of value to Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, America's expectations of Iraq must become more specific, and the United States should consider whether economic sanctions should be narrowed, to maintain U.S. cooperation with key members of the international coalition in the Gulf, particularly Britain, France, and Turkey. In the meantime, the United States should maintain its capability to defend Kuwait and sustain no-fly and no-air-defense zones in southern Iraq. However, the United States must take into account that some American Gulf allies are more concerned with the growing strength of neighboring Iran and worry less about what Saddam Hussein will do if he remains in power. Accordingly:

a) The United States should restate its commitment to the territorial integrity of Iraq and the human rights of all Iraqis, while continuing to oppose Saddam Hussein's leadership.

b) If the collapse of the regime in Iraq is the only acceptable outcome for the United States, then the United States should openly assert that it will not under any circumstances deal with the regime of Saddam Hussein. Such a statement might provide an additional incentive for internal change in Iraq. As a corollary, Washington must accept that change will most likely come from the inner circles of the military or the Ba'ath party. The United States should declare ahead of time its willingness to deal with any new Iraqi government that accepts U.N. resolutions and international norms, including ones on respecting Kuwaiti independence and on negotiated settlements of the problem of Kuwaiti prisoners of war. If any new government accedes to these conditions, the United States should be prepared to move quickly to deal with this leadership, likely weaker than the current government which has had a quarter-century to entrench itself in power. The possibility of relief from claims of war reparations as a reward for new leadership should also be discussed with countries holding claims. Current U.S. signals may give the impression that if a new government in Iraq comes from within the existing power structure, it would be treated the same way the government of Saddam Hussein is being treated--thereby reducing potential opponents' incentives to act.4

c) The unpleasant reality may be however, that Saddam remains in power indefinitely. The United States needs to formulate and articulate a coherent policy toward Iraq for this eventuality. The United States must also do what it can to lessen the fragmentation of Iraqi society. A healthy society will be needed to make a post-Saddam Iraq viable and will also encourage opposition forces against Saddam Hussein.

3. Iran

America lacks a clear end game, seems unconcerned with Iranian energy exports, and is experiencing policy tensions with its allies. Washington acknowledges it has not changed Iranian behavior on the issues of terrorism, acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, or opposition to Arab-Israeli peace.5The Study Group affirms that military containment of Iran must continue. In addition, it suggests that the U.S. government should consider tests to Iran's adherence to international norms and offer incentives to achieve these changes.6The United States should begin with modest steps:

a) Reduce the intensity of the rhetorical war, which gives Iran the impression that the United States seeks nothing less than the demise of its government. In turn, state that Washington expects a reciprocal toning down of Iranian rhetoric vis-a-vis the United States and its allies.

b) Reduce the economic embargo to a narrow range of specific items such as WMD components, missiles, and dual-use technology.7

c) Encourage the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to carry out a more aggressive program of inspections.8

d) Explore the potential of dialogue through track-two channels to Iran.

4. Force Restructuring

So long as tensions with Iran and Iraq remain, some American forces will be needed in the region. American forces are an effective deterrent against conventional threats and their presence helps GCC leaders face down criticisms from Baghdad and Tehran about their support for the Arab-Israeli peace. However, the troops' presence also feeds domestic dissent.

While American forces will remain in the region for the foreseeable future, current levels of U.S. forces and their configuration should be reexamined. It may be possible to reduce the visible aspects of the U.S. presence without reducing U.S. ability to project substantial military power in the Gulf.9Even before devising a more sustainable and affordable long-term strategy, the United States should reduce the forces to the minimum necessary and lessen their attraction as a target by:

a) Carrying out an internal reassessment of the future of the forces in northern Saudi Arabia used to enforce the no-fly zone. Even if these forces might play a role in defending against an Iraqi invasion of GCC states, we must question whether the present configuration is essential.

b) Making publicly clear that most of the U.S. Air Force presence in Saudi Arabia is temporary and aimed at enforcing the no-fly zone in southern Iraq,10and linking this to an American intention to reduce these forces after the emergence of a government in Iraq that accepts and implements U.N. resolutions.

c) Although conventional military threats to oil market stability require a strategic response, including a U.S. military presence, long-term U.S. strategy must include maintaining some balance of power between Iran and Iraq. There is no other state or combination of states in the Gulf capable of matching Iran's and Iraq's power.11

5. Arab-Israeli Peace

The United States must continue its intensive efforts to achieve a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. A strong relationship exists between progress on that front and area-wide cooperation with the United States.

6. Burden Sharing

The United States should devise and implement a long-term strategy that relies less on the military budget and maintains public support for the U.S. deployment. Thus it should:

a) Negotiate larger financial contributions to support the U.S. military presence in the Gulf from the European countries and Japan.12

b) Educate Congress and the American public as to why the U.S. role as security guarantor in the Gulf will continue to be necessary.

7. Consultation

The United States must consult with both the GCC states and Israel on matters of policy toward the Gulf. We believe that Washington has not been sufficiently attentive to the need of pursuing close and frequent consultation about its Gulf policies with members of the GCC. To the extent that internal threats to security exist in GCC states and are not identical within each state, and to the extent that the states' attitudes differ even on issues of external security, it is essential that the United States consult with each state individually, and regularly, over the implementation of its policy in the Gulf.13Moreover, since developments in the Gulf, especially developing Iranian and Iraqi capabilities in weapons of mass destruction, affect Israeli security, the United States must regularly consult with Israel on matters of Gulf policy.

8. Promotion of Long-Term U.S. Commercial and Energy Interests

Given that Iran and a post-Saddam Iraq are major states that will eventually be re-integrated into the international community, it is important for long-term U.S. economic and strategic interests that American business not be kept at a significant disadvantage in international competition. The United States should follow the example of some European countries in allowing U.S. companies to negotiate deals with Iran and a post-Saddam Iraq, on the understanding that these cannot be implemented until after the sanctions are removed.14

9. Political Participation

The United States has enjoyed close and mutually beneficial relations with the states of the GCC and their leadership for many years. It should do nothing even to imply a distancing from its security responsibilities as these leaders cope with the challenges of a new generation's expectations and a changed economic environment.

Internal economic and political challenges will confront the leadership of the GCC states with choices, either in the direction of further limiting political participation or that of more economic and political liberalization. Long-term American interests are better served by encouraging the latter. The United States must proceed with sensitivity and respect for these long-term friends and allies, and acknowledge that it cannot devise specific reform strategies but can still encourage reform through modest steps:

a) Encourage gradual political reform through the enhancement of the role of consultative councils in the GCC states and the parliament in Kuwait to address structural economic and political issues. The councils are consultative, not legislative, and members tend to be chosen by the rulers. The current structure of these councils makes them more useful for addressing personal grievances than broader political and economic problems.

b) Emphasize the need for economic reform, especially privatization of the economy. In particular, encourage GCC states to foster a climate that attracts more foreign investment-an essential step for economic growth. Foreign investors will, in turn, demand an environment of transparency and accountability.

c) Elevate the issues of political and economic reform on the agenda of discussions with Gulf leaders, emphasizing the mutuality of long-term interest on these issues. The United States must stress that the economic future of the region will be difficult if current population trends remain unchecked.

Members of the Study Group endorse the Statement and Recommendations except where their differing views are indicated in footnotes. Background information is provided in the Background Report that follows.

1The Study Group Statement, Recommendations, and Background Report were completed before the judgment of the German court in the Mykonos assassination trial. On April 10, 1997, the court ruled that Iran's highest government leaders gave orders to carry out the killing of three Kurdish dissidents at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin in 1992. The ruling provided-and the impending conclusion of an investigation of the June 25, 1996, Al-Khobar bombing in Saudi Arabia may provide-powerful evidence of the direct involvement of the most senior Iranian leadership in international terrorism.

2Anthony H. Cordesman asserts that the use of GCC as short-hand for individual southern Gulf states implies that these states can be dealt with as a bloc and that the GCC is an effective enough organization to be dealt with as if it were the equivalent of NATO. He adds, "One of the key challenges the U.S. faces in the southern Gulf is that there are strong rivalries and differences in strategic interests between the individual southern Gulf states, and that the GCC is almost totally ineffective in achieving regional cooperation and is likely to remain so. U.S. relations with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E. must be tailored to different national needs, and conducted largely on a bilateral basis."

3John Duke Anthony opines that the same can be said of having been true as a result of U.S. forces in NATO countries (e.g., Greece, Italy, Spain, Turkey, et al.), and over a far longer period, with substantially greater overall numbers than the United States has deployed inside the GCC countries. Yet the criticism was never so great as to cause the United States to cut and run, nor did it (as in Libya) result in any premature eviction or drawdown of the forces employed.

4Secretary of State Madeleine Albright moved the American position closer to this recommendation in her remarks "Preserving Principle and Safeguarding Stability: U.S.

Policy Toward Iraq," at Georgetown University, March 26, 1997. But she stopped short of explicitly stating that the United States will never deal with Saddam Hussein.

5Cordesman disagrees. U.S. pressure and sanctions have confronted Iran with very serious problems in importing arms and dual-use technology for its weapons of mass destruction. Iran's military build-up and arms imports are a fraction of the level Iran planned in the early 1990s, and Iran is experiencing continuing problems in obtaining technology and material for biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. U.S. policy has restricted Iran's freedom of action in its use of terrorism and has had a considerable impact in leading Europe to be cautious in its relations with Iran and in pushing our allies to maintain the "critical" in critical dialogue.

6James A. Placke believes that the outcome of the Mykonos trial presents both the justification and opportunity to attract the support of America's principal allies for more intensive isolation of the present Iranian regime. Robin Wright posits that the trial presents the justification and opening for joint action with our European allies in a number of ways.

7Gary G. Sick observes: "The lifting of some existing sanctions could serve as a positive inducement to secure improved Iranian cooperation in the WMD area." He also states that while the United States should maintain pressure on Iran in certain areas, it should be prepared to acknowledge and encourage moderate Iranian policies in other areas, such as Central Asia and Afghanistan. The United States should also be prepared to consult, directly or indirectly, on issues such as Iraq, where Iran has legitimate security interests and concerns.

8Cordesman points out that the "IAEA can only inspect declared nuclear facilities, and its normal method of inspection is limited largely to nuclear fuel cycle activities. The Study Group does not address the core issue of nuclear proliferation unless Iran agrees to vastly increase the scope of IAEA freedom of action, the IAEA organizes to conduct the same kind of intrusive surprise inspection it might use in Iraq, and/or Iran moves far enough along in the fuel cycle for reactor inspection to provide reliable results (assuming that the reactor design does not include a concealed irradiation chamber). There is a serious risk, in fact, that the IAEA inspections will simply appear to 'clear' Iran and legitimate its nuclear programs as 'peaceful.' Further, Iran has extensive chemical weapons, and the cia reports that it has begun to deploy biological weapons. Iran must now be approaching a level of biotechnology where such weapons can be as lethal as tactical weapons. Accordingly, the Study Group recommendation may do more harm than good."

9Dov S. Zakheim adds that many of the Study Group's concerns about American presence (other than the problem of long deployments) could be ameliorated by a more

maritime-oriented presence. Carrier-based tactical aviation, coupled with a maritime presence, could maintain both a credible deterrent and sustain the no-fly zones, at least in southern Iraq.

10Cordesman states that the reality is that close cooperation between the United States and Saudi air forces is critical to our war fighting capability in dealing with both Iraq and Iran, and that some form of U.S. air presence will be required indefinitely into the future. There should be no "cut and run" approach that will create more problems than it will solve, will encourage further attacks on U.S. forces throughout the Gulf, and will seriously undermine U.S. national interests.

11Cordesman finds that "there is no present need for a U.S. strategy to maintain a balance of power between Iran and Iraq. Iran and Iraq will have sufficient military strength to counterbalance each other indefinitely without U.S. intervention, and the need for intervention in the long-term balance will be highly dependent on the character of each regime and the specific military conditions at the time. The United States does have a strategic interest in strengthening the military forces of the southern Gulf states relative to both Iran and Iraq."

12Cordesman thinks that "there is little real-world prospect that our European allies and Japan will assume added burden sharing to maintain day-to-day U.S. capabilities, nor should they. This recommendation ignores the fact that U.S. defense spending will soon be roughly the same burden as a percent of our total GDP (2.7 percent) and federal budget (14 percent) as during the isolationist era at the end of the Great Depression. It costs money to be a superpower. There may be a case for trying to negotiate additional contributions in the case of a major build-up or significant regional conflict."

13Michael H.Van Dusen qualifies his support for this point. Consultation on security issues with GCC states is extensive. Because the United States has a large military presence and many military assets in the region, visits to the area by U.S. military leaders are numerous. What is needed is more high-level U.S. diplomatic and political attention to complement what is done on the military side.

14According to Cordesman, the Study Group should have specifically addressed Iranian and Iraqi energy production and exports, and the gap between a U.S. policy of sanctions and dual containment and U.S. Department of Energy projections of massive increases in Iranian and Iraqi oil production. Iran has some 67-90 billion barrels of oil reserves (roughly 10 percent of total world reserves) and 620-741 trillion cubic feet of gas. This inevitably makes it increasingly critical to the world's oil supplies. Furthermore, the difference between energy security issues and military security issues should be addressed by U.S. policymakers. It may be possible to specify kinds of investment that do not provide Iran with sudden increases in cash flow which could affect its military spending, and to allow investment in Iraq under the same kinds of constraints enforced by U.N. Security Council Resolution 986. On the same point, Sick notes that increasing global demand for supplies of oil and gas in the 21st century will require additional production capacity in the Gulf and elsewhere. U.S. policy should promote, not obstruct, normal development of non-nuclear energy resources.


RICHARD W. MURPHY, Chair of the Study Group, is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs from 1983 to 1989.

JOHN DUKE ANTHONY+ is President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. For more than two decades, he has been a consultant to the Departments of Defense and State on the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf States.

BEN L. BONK* is the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia.

ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN+ is Co-Director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Director of the Gulf Net Assessment Project.

MICHELE DUROCHER DUNNE* is a member of the Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State. She has served on the National Intelligence Council and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and at the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem.

CHARLES W. FREEMAN, JR., is Chairman of Projects International, Inc. He was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War.

RICHARD K. HERRMANN is Associate Professor of Political Science and Associate Director of the Mershon Center for International Security at Ohio State University.

JOSEPH P. HOAR is President of J.P. Hoar and Associates and was the Commander in Chief of the U. S. Central Command. He is also Chairman of the Middle East Forum of the Council on Foreign Relations.

JUDITH KIPPER is Director of the Middle East Forum of the Council on Foreign Relations and Co-Director of the Middle East Studies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She is also a consultant for ABC News.

ELLEN LAIPSON* is Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. She worked on Gulf issues at the National Security Council from 1993 to 1995.

ROBERT LITWAK is Director of International Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He served as Director for Nonproliferation and Export Controls at the National Security Council.

PHEBE A. MARR is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. She is a scholar of the modern history of Iraq and Gulf politics.

THOMAS L. MCNAUGHER is Associate Director of the Arroyo Center at the RAND Corporation. He is the author of Arms and Oil: U.S. Military Strategy and the Persian Gulf (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Insitution, 1985).

GEORGE CRANWELL MONTGOMERY is a partner in the Washington office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman & Caldwell. He was Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman and served as Counsel to the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate.

JAMES A. PLACKE+ is Director for Middle East Research at Cambridge Energy Research Associates. He previously served at a number of U.S. embassies in the Middle East and North Africa and as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

GARY G. SICK+ is a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University and the Executive Director of the Gulf 2000 research project. He was a member of the National Security Council from 1976 to 1981 with special responsibility for Persian Gulf affairs.

HENRY SIEGMAN is Senior Fellow on the Middle East and Director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was formerly National Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI is Associate Professor of Government and Director of the Program for Contemporary Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. He is also a Non- Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

MICHAEL H. VAN DUSEN+ is the Democratic Chief of Staff on the Committee on International Relations of the U.S. House of Representatives. He has served with the Committee for over 25 years.

ROBIN WRIGHT+ is the author of two books on Iran and is a former Mideast correspondent for The Sunday Times of London. She now covers global trends for The Los Angeles Times.

MONA YACOUBIAN* is a Middle East analyst at the State Department. In 1995-96, she was an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

DOV S. ZAKHEIM+ is Chief Executive Officer of SPC International Corporation of Arlington, Virginia. He is a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Planning and Resources.

VAHAN ZANOYAN is the President and CEO of the Petroleum Finance Company. He has served as a consultant on the commercial and strategic aspects of the global oil and gas business to private and governmental organizations worldwide.


NOMI COLTON-MAX is Program Associate for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. She received an M.A. in international relations and economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

*Individual participated in the Study Group discussions but was not asked to endorse the Statement or Recommendations because of his or her official capacity.

+Individual largely concurs with the Statement and Recommendations but has endorsed one or more footnotes.

Note: Institutional affiliations listed for identification purposes only.


Access to Gulf oil at reasonable prices was identified as a vital U.S. interest in the Nixon administration, but American concern for security and stability in the Persian Gulf region has steadily increased since World War II. The United States now views assuring security and stability in the area as its global duty. Some American observers assume that the United States has no choice in the Gulf and that it will be able to play its present role indefinitely. The Study Group challenges this assumption and explains why a careful reassessment of current policy and the means available to secure American interests in the Gulf are necessary.

Washington formally succeeded London as the primary guarantor of Gulf security in 1971 but was not called on for military action until 1987. In the 1970s, the United States relied primarily on the shah's Iran to balance power in the region. With the overthrow of the shah in 1979, Washington was forced to rethink its strategy. During the Iran-Iraq war that started one year later, the United States shifted its support back and forth between the two, while continuing to strengthen Saudi Arabia. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 once again brought an end to this type of thinking. Under the Clinton administration's policy of dual containment, Washington has worked to isolate Iraq and Iran, to block their acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, and prevent them from engaging in terrorism and subversion. This policy of isolation, while a reasonable stopgap in the wake of the Gulf War, does not provide an adequate basis for long-term security and stability in the region.


The United States has maintained a naval command in Bahrain for the past half-century and a military training mission in Saudi Arabia for almost as long, and has offered training opportunities to the other Arab Gulf states as well. It sold these states increasingly sophisticated military equipment. The six Arab Gulf states-Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman-established the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981 to improve coordination and better assure mutual security.

The Clinton administration, like every administration since Nixon, has publicly restated the position that the United States has vital interests in the Gulf. U.S. military strategy since the Pentagon's "Bottom-Up Review" of September 1993, which assessed U.S. defense needs in the post-Cold War era, has focused on maintaining the capability to fight two simultaneous regional wars, one them in the Gulf.1Military planning, weapons procurement, and training are influenced by the possibility that the United States will fight a major war in the Persian Gulf.

Since the invasion of Kuwait, U.S. policy in the Gulf has focused on four objectives: assuring access to oil at reasonable prices, supporting GCC states against regional threats emanating from Iraq and Iran, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and minimizing the threat of terrorism. The United States has been committed to the implementation of U.N. resolutions on Iraq. It has also asserted that a less authoritarian and more representative Iraqi government is an important American interest. Finally, the United States has continued to see the goal of attaining a just, durable, and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace to be of central importance to American policy, and has sought to isolate states opposed to that peace.

In recent years the central instrument of American policy in the Gulf has been its military forces, present today in several GCC states and afloat in the Gulf. These forces are organized to support friendly states, deter potential adversaries, and, if necessary, fight to win against an aggressor. The enforcement of applicable U.N. Security Council resolutions and of the "no-fly zone" in southern Iraq, along with the deterrence of Iranian aggression are the primary goals. Forces for these tasks are largely naval, except for the air force wing stationed in Saudi Arabia. An extensive joint exercise program deploys units stationed in the United States to the region for limited periods.

U.S. military strategy has been successful in deterring Iraqi and Iranian conventional threats, although it has been unable to deter Saddam Hussein from using his forces against his own people in Iraq. GCC fears stemming from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, combined with early U.S. successes in engineering progress in Arab-Israeli peace, eased GCC acceptance of the deployment of U.S. forces in the region. The deployment has greatly increased Washington's ability to deter hostile acts and quickly mobilize forces and equipment in the region as needed. Since the war, the United States has enhanced its naval presence in the region, positioned equipment for elements of two armed brigades in Kuwait and Qatar, and maintained a wing of combat aircraft in Saudi Arabia to enforce the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. The United States has also benefited from Turkey's permission to temporarily station additional American forces on its soil to carry out "Operation Provide Comfort" in northern Iraq. In addition, the United States is currently expanding American capabilities by establishing a division base set in the Gulf region. These deployments have helped deter Iraqi and Iranian conventional threats, and enabled the United States to respond rapidly as in October 1994 when Iraqi troop movements again threatened Kuwait. However, the events in northern Iraq in August 1996, when Saddam Hussein helped one Kurdish leader against another, showed that the Iraqi leader still has the military capability to seriously embarrass American policymakers.

Although labeling both Iraq and Iran "rogue regimes," the United States has, in principle, differentiated between them. The U.S. government has found it impossible to reconcile itself to the existing Iraqi government and has tacitly sou

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