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The Wisdom of a 'Defense Umbrella' Against Iran

Interviewee: Thomas W. Lippman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
July 27, 2009

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Thomas W. Lippman, a specialist on Persian Gulf security, says U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's warning about a U.S. "defense umbrella" to protect regional states from Iranian nuclear arms makes sense as a form of deterrence. Clinton's comment, Lippman says, was meant to warn Iran why it "would not be better off, or safer, or stronger, if it went ahead and developed or acquired nuclear weapons." Israel's initial response was negative to the idea because it implied an acceptance of an Iranian nuclear capability. But Lippman says it is prudent for the United States to have an arrangement in which "like-minded and sympathetic or even neutral countries in the region would have a set of agreed-upon responses to what we would do the day the Iranians test a nuclear device." He added: "Otherwise, you'll get ad hoc scrambling around and you'll have a potential for a nuclear arms race in the region which we'd like to head off."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made some news at the ASEAN summit meeting in Thailand last week by saying if Iran gained nuclear weapons capability, the United States would respond by creating a "defense umbrella" over the region to protect other states. What do you think she had in mind?

The †word "umbrella" is a very important code word that has a lot of meaning in the context of regional security strategies. She was suggesting all the reasons why Iran would not be better off, or safer, or stronger, if it went ahead and developed or acquired nuclear weapons. And one of the responses, she said, was that the Iranian nuclear program might trigger an American "defense umbrella" over the region. Now she didn't use the word "nuclear defense umbrella," which is what we have in NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]. But the word "defense umbrella" implies a contractual mutual defense obligation, to come to the military aid of any country attacked--a treaty obligation which we don't currently have with any country in the region. Everybody out there would be formally under U.S. protection.

The Israelis reacted very negatively to Clinton's suggestion of a "defense umbrella" because that would be acquiescing to Iran having nuclear weapons.

I don't agree with that. It's only common sense and prudent to try and have an arrangement in place in which we and like-minded and sympathetic or even neutral countries in the region would have a set of agreed-upon responses to what we would do the day the Iranians test a nuclear device, if that ever happened. Otherwise, you'll get ad hoc scrambling around and you'll have a potential for a nuclear arms race in the region which we'd like to head off. I don't see any reason why we should not be planning with the Saudis, in particular, for such a contingency and for discussing the extent to which any such umbrella arrangement would include Iraq.

The †Saudis have been usually very reluctant to get into formal [defense] treaties, haven't they?

They have. I also don't believe the U.S. Congress would sit still for extending a formal contractual defense commitment to Saudi Arabia, certainly not if it involved a nuclear commitment. That doesn't mean, though, that we couldn't reach some agreement with the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is a key member--which now has a security component, although not an effective one. The reality of a nuclear-capable Iran would simply have to change everybody's habits.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met in Jerusalem today with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In their press conference, Barak three different times said Israel would not take off the table any option against Iran, a reminder that Israel might use military force †if Iran spurned the latest entreaties by the United States to engage in a dialogue to end its uranium-enrichment program. Gates said the timeline is running out for Iran to respond positively and mentioned again an informal target date for the UN General Assembly session in September.

To a certain extent they're both talking through fog machines here. Barak, of course, was not going to take off the table the option of an Israeli strike. If the Israelis truly feel that there's an existential threat to the Israeli state, it would be folly for them to unilaterally take such a possibility off the table. And as for Gates, what he's saying reflects the administration's policy, but the internal situation in Iran is so unsettled now that the timetables originally offered by [U.S. President Barack] Obama and his team have become meaningless. Who knows what's going to happen in Iran over the next two months?

There's another thing going on. The Israelis have been floating the idea that the fear of a nuclear Iran among the Arab states of the Gulf--that particularly means Saudi Arabia--is so great that it will trump their aversion to Israel, and that they will make common cause and be seen to make common cause with Israel against Iran. That's wishful thinking at best because the Saudis are not going to be seen doing that. So the Israelis really have difficult decisions to make here but there's no doubt that they and the Americans are not on the same page about this.

Both sides try to make it appear as if the differences are slight.

Sure, because that's the way it always is between the United States and Israel. I'm not suggesting that there's going to be an open breach in which we would abandon our collective national commitment to Israel. But there's a very, very serious difference in the evaluation of how to respond to what's going on Iran.

Do† you think the Obama administration has made a mistake by being so up front about offering to talk to Iran?

It was the right thing to do right from the beginning and it reflects what you might call the spirit of †Obama's Cairo speech. But that offer was made before the Iranian election on June 12 and its subsequent fallout. If you look at the fissures that have opened up in the Iranian leadership over the past few weeks, it's really hard to say to whom you would talk to or what [you would talk] about.

If you were an optimist you might say Iran's legitimacy is questioned now because of this election. A smart move for Iran would be to get back into the international negotiating scene by being forthcoming about talking about its nuclear program.

Yes, but it's equally possible, as you see in press accounts today, that the reaction in Iran will be the opposite--[it] will close in on itself, hunker down, and crack down, and decide that if Iran doesn't have any friends, it's going to take care of itself, wherever that might lead us. Either outcome at this point is possible.

Does Saudi Arabia have a contingency plan to develop nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy, yes. In fact they signed a memorandum of understanding with President [George] Bush at the end of President Bush's administration for us to help them on that. We have a similar agreement with the United Arab Emirates that has been sitting in the Senate awaiting approval. The Saudis have a nuclear energy research institute. It is not clandestine. I've toured it. They are members of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. The Arab members of the Gulf Cooperation Council made a collective commitment to develop and to help each other develop nuclear energy so they can conserve their hydrocarbons for export.

What about nuclear weapons? Does anyone talk about that?

No. I did a long study of this for a program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies a couple of years ago and I've stayed on this. The Saudis have always taken the position that what they want is a nuclear-free Middle East. In the past that was rhetorical fodder aimed at Israel. Everybody knows the Israelis have nuclear weapons and are not about to give them up. But now the Saudis really would like to have a nuclear-free Middle East because that would apply to Iran also. There are various schools of thought about this. One school of thought says that the Saudis contribute a lot of money to the nuclear weapons program in Pakistan and could in effect get nuclear weapons from Pakistan in the event that they felt they needed them. I doubt that's the case. Some people say the Chinese wouldn't permit it, and it would infuriate the Americans.

Given the reluctance of the Saudis in the past to sign any lasting military agreement with the United States, what is the likelihood of a "defense umbrella" being welcomed?

If †you go back to a meeting King Abdul Aziz had with U.S. Ambassador J. Rives Childs in 1949, the king asked for an American defense commitment. This was mostly because he was afraid of the Hashemites in Jordan and Iraq. But he didn't want American troops, and this attitude has prevailed in Saudi Arabia ever since. The only time that they have forced themselves to take a large American military presence in country was for Desert Storm and it had a huge fallout inside the kingdom. What they might welcome is a written commitment in which we would be prepared to defend them, as we always have been, in fact--de facto and not de jure. After all we had a strategic air base in Saudi Arabia for many years. We had troops there during and after Desert Storm [1991 Gulf War]. We have a military training team over there. And the United States now has military presence in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman. So we are the guardians of Gulf security on the Arab side anyway. I don't see why the Saudis wouldn't accept a treaty commitment if they thought they could get one. The problem is there's a great negative political fallout for the Americans, because if you try to do such a thing, a commitment to defend Saudi Arabia would by definition be a commitment to defend the House of Saud. I don't know if you want to do that. Achieving a contractual umbrella should not preclude careful, cooperative, multinational planning in the region for an Iranian nuclear contingency.

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