Features | Security

Can a New ‘NATO’ Deter Iran?

Could a strong U.S. led alliance network be the answer to regional security in the Persian Gulf?

On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that it would sell 60 Patriot missiles worth $4.2 billion to Kuwait.  This move is not terribly surprising—following the 1991 Gulf War, Kuwait was an early purchaser of the PAC-3 capability, and the U.S. has sold Patriots to several other allies in dangerous neighborhoods. The United States also recently announced that Qatar will host a long-range X-band missile defense radar to bulk up early warning capabilities in the region. With the latest round of talks over the Iranian nuclear program ending with no reported progress, it seems like the United States is beginning to take precautions should diplomacy fail. The Obama administration’s policy is to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear weapons instead of learning to live with an Iranian bomb, and as such has refused to publicly discuss “containment” options.  But as this nuclear standoff has picked up steam in the last year, U.S. officials have clearly begun to probe the possibilities for beefing up Gulf security. Whether or not Iran goes nuclear, the United States and its regional partners are right to seriously consider security arrangements for the Gulf. But the form that those arrangements take is still an open question.

In March of this year, U.S. officials met with the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—marking the inaugural session of the U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum.  At that meeting, Secretary of State Clinton declared that the U.S. was “committed to defending the Gulf nations and we want it to be as effective as possible.” And this was not the first sign of increased U.S. interest in a more robust GCC. In September 2011, Secretaries Clinton and Panetta met with leaders of the six Gulf states during the UN General Assembly. In advance of the meeting, Panetta stated that the Council was “emerging as an increasingly critical partner to advancing our common interests,” and impressed upon his Gulf counterparts the importance of a stronger Gulf security architecture. Secretary Clinton and President Obama have each suggested that if Iran goes nuclear the United States may extend its security umbrella to cover Gulf partners, and several recent analyses have suggested that the GCC could be a new NATO. Is a multilateral security umbrella the U.S.’s best defense in this tumultuous region? To answer this question, we must explore what that kind of military cooperation this would entail.

Strictly speaking, extending a formal U.S. security umbrella over the Gulf would require guarantees in the form of defense pacts with GCC states, or with the GCC as a whole.  These security guarantees would have mutual or collective self-defense provisions, promising that an attack on any one member state would require a military response from them all. When a nuclear weapons state like the U.S. extends such guarantees, it implies a willingness to use its own nuclear weapons on behalf of its allies if that becomes necessary.  One goal of these guarantees is to provide for allies’ defense needs.  But a related goal is the hope that the presence of these guarantees will keep the recipients from pursuing their own nuclear weapons.  This motivation would clearly be at play in the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia is believed to be a proliferation risk if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon.

Security guarantees could be provided through a series of bilateral treaties, following the “hub-and-spokes” alliance system the U.S. currently maintains in East Asia.  A guarantee could also be provided to the GCC as a whole, resulting in a single, multilateral, defense pact. But there are at least three reasons why a multilateral approach may be inadvisable.

First, multilateral defense organizations require close integration among the members, but there may be limits to how much further the GCC states can integrate. Additionally, successful security umbrellas require major commitments from their great power patrons but conditions at home, and political realities in the region, may make it very difficult for the United States to invest in new alliance structures.  Building a defense architecture in the Gulf that even approximates NATO’s level of cohesion will therefore be extremely difficult.

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Any militarily effective defense pact would require close regional integration. The majority of the military capabilities of GCC states, however, belong to Saudi Arabia, and because many member states are wary of Saudi domination they may be reluctant to entrust their future security to a Saudi-dominated regional body.   Indeed, in 2010, Saudi Arabia alone accounted for nearly 40% of total military expenditures for the Middle East and North African region.  The Kingdom also accounts for approximately two-thirds of the population of the GCC and a similar proportion of the GCC’s total active duty military forces, along with nearly half of its combat capable aircraft.  It is no surprise, then, that some of the other Gulf states fear that any truly integrated regional defense organization will be dominated by Saudi Arabia, and have thus far resisted Riyadh’s efforts to more tightly integrate the GCC.

Furthermore, any sort of nuclear umbrella or formal regional defense pact would likely require much greater—and much more public—American involvement in regional defense decisions.  Such an arrangement would likely require significantly enhanced joint military consultations, joint training and exercises, and perhaps coordinated warplanning. Many of the U.S.’s previous security guarantees have involved the recipient country extending forward basing rights. While the U.S. currently enjoys excellent bilateral military relations with the states of the GCC, some of them may balk at the expanded military footprint that a nuclear umbrella agreement may require.  Indeed, this dynamic was at work in 2003, when the U.S. pulled most of its troops out of Saudi Arabia, where it had made use of important military facilities like the Prince Sultan Air Base for many years.  The significant U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, a vulnerability for the Saudi royal family, became too much to bear after the American invasion of Iraq earlier in the year.

Finally, domestic political and economic conditions inside the United States make deeper US commitments to the Gulf unlikely.  This is so both because of the current domestic political climate, which is weary of military engagements after a decade of war, and because the American public is unlikely to endorse increased obligations to Middle Eastern monarchies as the rest of the region appears to be democratizing.  Indeed, in 2010, after the Obama Administration proposed an unprecedented $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, 198 Members of Congress from both political parties wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates questioning the rationale for the sale.  Concerns regarding a deepening military commitment to the Gulf are likely to be even more pointed when they involve not arms sales, but rather the long-term commitment of American resources in a time when budgetary pressures are being felt around the country, and “sequestration” hangs like a Sword of Damocles over the Defense Department.

Whether or not it gets the bomb, Iran is clearly eager to upset the current regional security system that is dominated by the U.S. and its allies. The United States can and should remain close to, and intensify cooperation with, its regional partners in the face of this behavior. A formal NATO-style collective defense pact, however, is unlikely to be viable means of achieving those goals.  Instead, the U.S. should consider intensifying its bilateral ties with some individual GCC countries where appropriate, forming a “hub-and-spokes” system of defense arrangements like the one that has worked so well in East Asia.   Such a system may allow for enhanced military preparations in the form of information-sharing, training, the promotion of interoperability, and holding military exercises in a way that is feasible, but does not require more regional defense integration than GCC states are willing or able to handle.

Like many regional fora, the GCC is a good way to encourage greater cooperation among members, but it is probably not a defense panacea. If the U.S. is to shore up the Gulf’s security architecture, regional pressures as well as domestic ones suggest that less formal bilateral ties are the way to go.

Zachary K. Goldman is the Executive Director of the Center on Law and Security at NYU School of Law, and has previously worked on Middle East issues at the Treasury and Defense Departments. Mira Rapp-Hooper is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Columbia University and is writing a dissertation on nuclear umbrella alliances.