Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2016

Several weeks ago I asked a university-sponsored OLLI class how they would expect the Obama administration to respond if hard-line Islamist elements in Iran were allowed to increase pressure on Persian Gulf states, and interfere with commercial shipping in that strategic watrerway.

The class, made up of twenty-five adults in the Charlottesville community, worked in teams on a speculative scenario and were tasked with deciding whether Iran's actions warranted only diplomatic warnings to Tehran, or a nore forceful response, including a military show of force. Here is the scenario:

"Iran's security forces have stepped up pressure in the Persian Gulf against Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Bahrain (where tbe U.S. Fifth Fleet is based), and Iraq, by encouraging Shiite radical groups to campaign against government controls. In addition, Iranian patrol boats continue to monitor and periodically harass U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf. One Iranian commander recently threatened to block entry to the Persian Gulf if U.S. ships infringe on Iran's territorial waters. Saudi Arabia's new leadership warns that while Iran is stirring up trouble among its Shiite population living along the Persian Gulf, Tehran also arms Shiite rebels in neighboring Yemen's civil war against a Saudi-backed government. In Iraq, an Iranian-backed Shiite cleric recently stirred up radicals to occupy the parliament building in Baghdad, demanding political reforms. Saudi Arabia's leadership opposed the US-supported nuclear-agreement with Iran and now hints at the possibility of building its own nuclear enrichment facility, if Washington fails to contain Iran's ambitions in the Persian Gulf. There is growing evidence that Saudi leaders expect the U.S. to gradually reduce its presence in the Persian Gulf and pursue a nationalist-protectionist policy toward the entire Middle East."

The consensus in the class was that diplomacy should be the primary U.S. policy, but that any serious provocation by Iranian forces against U.S. ships would require some level of military response. A minority view held that the United States no longer has vital interests in the Persian Gulf area and that it should begin a gradual withdrawal. A lively debate ensued.

Two major questions emerged from this discussion: Does the Persian Gulf area remain a vital U.S. national interest? If not, what policies should the U.S. pursue with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Kuwait, and Iraq, all of them currently dependent on America to defend them against political and military pressures from an ambitious Iranian Revolutionary regime?

U.S. political and military power in the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf, commenced with the onset of the Cold War with the Soviet Union in 1949-1950. It was enlarged in the 1980s after Iran's staunch ally, Shah Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown by a radical Islamic regime that headed by an anti-American cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini. A few months later, a radical band of radicals stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took fifty-one American diplomatic personnel hostage, holding them for fourteen months. President Carter then ended diplomatic relations with Tehran and Washington thereafter viewed Iran an enemy state.

Last year, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated a nuclear agreement with Iran that freezes its nuclear weapons program for up to fifteen years and opens the door to possible accommodation that reduces tensions in the Persian Gulf area. Critics charge that the agreement will not prevent Iran from trying to undermine the governments of neighboring states and expand its power elsewhere in the Middle East, notably Syria and Yemen.

The crucial question for the United States is whether the time has come to reduce its military presence in the Persian Gulf area and how to relate to allies like Saudi Arabia that have depended on U.S. power for sixty years. A similar question applies to Israel whose government strongly opposed the U.S. conclusion of a nuclear agreement with Iran and fears that its American protective umbrella is now in question.

In my view, the United States should reduce, not withdraw, its massive military presence in the Gulf in return for an international treaty that guarantees freedom of commercial traffic, and is supported by an international naval presence to enforce it. That should provide reassurance to states in the region that their oil will flow freely to international markets.

File last modified on Friday, 27-MAY-2015 1:52 PM EST

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