Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Amin Howeidi

Gainful associations

Amin Howeidi muses at how political and economic interests have always dictated the rise and fall of global alliances

In the days of the shah, they called it the "Persian Gulf". In the days of the Ayatollahs, it was still named the "Persian Gulf." Even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad clung to this tradition in his speech to the conference of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which was recently held in Doha and attended by Arab heads of states who, for the first time, had extended an invitation to Tehran to attend their meeting. Nor, in fact, did the Iranian president make so much as an oblique reference to the three islands in the Gulf -- Abu Moussa, greater Tanab Major and lesser Tanab -- which Iran occupied soon after its Islamic revolution.

We Arabs, of course, call it the "Arab Gulf". And rightfully so, I believe, since it is bordered by Arab countries from its northern-most tip, through the strategic Bab Al-Mandab, or "Straits of Tears" as pirates used to call it, to the Straits of Hormoz in the south. Even so, when the dispute over the identity of the Arab Gulf grew tense, as it inevitably would have, since it ultimately touches upon the question of sovereignty, some Arab rulers offered a compromise: "The Gulf", with no modifiers whatsoever. Still, as significant as names may be, the enormous changes that have swept the Gulf and its major players seem more deserving of our attention.

The most salient change is Washington's 180 degree turn from friendship with Iran in the days of the shah, when Iran played policeman of the region on behalf of US interests, to vehement antagonism towards a chief member of the "axis of evil", who has the audacity to defy the "Great Satan" and is ostensibly still bent on producing a nuclear bomb, regardless of what the reports of American intelligence agencies might say. These reports confirm that Iran suspended its nuclear programme for military purposes in 2004 and has not resumed it since. But the fox in the White House, with considerable coaxing from Israel, remains crouched to pounce on Iran on the grounds that it purportedly possesses, or has the future ability to possess, WMD, in a repeat of the scenario of the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, after which the WMD claim proved a total hoax.

Another major development in the international scene had a direct impact on the Gulf. With the break up of the Soviet Union and the peaceful end to the Cold War, Western powers adopted a new strategy towards this vastly oil-rich region, which turns the engines of the industrialised world. In order to forestall a possible Soviet threat to the region, the US applied the so-called "Carter principle", which brought into being the Rapid Deployment Force later renamed Central Command. The point of the principle was for American forces, even in small numbers, to be the first to arrive at a regional hotspot, thereby pre-empting the arrival of a Soviet force, which would then refrain from intervening for fear of triggering a nuclear confrontation. The new strategy put an end to the need for a continual heavy concentration of forces on the ground, since it would now be possible for the Rapid Deployment Force to undertake the necessary short-term defence and stalling operations until the major body of forces arrived.

However, the solution proved administratively burdensome and financially costly. For example, it takes three weeks for the airborne division to arrive and be deployed in a theatre of operations in the Gulf. It takes five weeks to transport any other division by sea, to which a week has to be added at the ports at both ends for loading and unloading equipment. If the ports at either end are not properly prepared or equipped to accommodate these vessels and the freighting processes, it could take even longer. Consider, too, that two divisions of 23,000 soldiers require 2,100 tonnes of food supplies, which, in turn, require 100 20-tonne capacity C-130 planes a day to transport these supplies. Fuelling aircraft is also a complex and costly problem. It takes 10 million gallons of gas to keep an F-15 in the air for 30 days. The numbers of tankers needed to transport that quantity of fuel would consume more in their journeys than they could carry on board. In addition, their journey to the new air bases would take from 24 to 36 days.

Such statistics are sufficient to appreciate the considerable time gap between the occurrence of a threat and the arrival of the Rapid Deployment force. In the days of the shah, Iran filled the gap, as did Israel, for which reason the US promoted a policy of cooperation between the two countries. Today, following the latest agreement between Washington and the government in Baghdad, it appears that the US has solved the time-gap problem. It also appears that it has shifted back from the rapid deployment strategy to the concept of a sustained and heavy military presence on the ground. To do this, of course, it needs the approval of the people there.

To give a fuller picture of how the US's military situation in the region has improved, we should note that US forces have the support of several bases vital to operations for protecting the navigation routes in the Gulf. In Turkey, there are the Van and Incerlik airbases from which American F-16s can cover the area from the Caspian Sea to Kuwait and F-15s can patrol Pakistan's Western border with Iran and half the Gulf up to Bahrain. In Saudi Arabia, there is the Dahran base, which enables F-16s to cover the Straits of Hormoz and most of Iran and F-15s to cover parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, all of Iran, the southern shores of the Caspian Sea and eastern Turkey. Then of course there is Israel, from where F-16s can take off towards Iraq, parts of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey, while F-15s can soar towards the western half of Iran, the northern portion of the Gulf and the whole area between the Caspian and Black Seas.

The US has not restricted the scope of its military strategic vision in the region to the defence of the Gulf. It also seeks to contain any potential plans on the part of Russia and the former Soviet nations. After all, in politics, friendships are very fickle. Thus, from the base in Kuwait, F-15s can also cover the area from southern Russia to the Black Sea, Afghanistan and Iran.

Perspectives on the security needs and demands of the region vary. The security of the Gulf as an international waterway is a universal priority in view of its importance to international trade, which is why freedom of navigation in this maritime route is governed by international law and protected by the presence of a military deterrent. Secondly, there are the security concerns of all the countries bordering the Gulf. Thirdly, there are the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council whose security agreements and instruments we hope will succeed in fulfilling their desired objectives, which must strike a balance between regional and international demands. Finally, there are the broader Arab concerns for the security of the Gulf, because the Gulf and the Red Sea form a single strategic region. After all, if the Gulf is the source of petroleum, the Suez Canal is the vital maritime link between the source and the West and it is therefore possible to jeopardise the flow from the source by tampering with the link. Moreover, this linkage has acquired even greater strategic importance since the construction of the Tapline that extends from eastern Saudi Arabia to the port of Yambaa on the Red Sea and the construction of the Iraqi Ipsa oil line that also has its outlet on the Red Sea.

As the foregoing demonstrates, countries change their strategies in light of changes in the balances of power. Today's friend can turn out to be tomorrow's enemy and the benevolent power of yesterday can become today's "Great Satan". The question remains as to how we stand with regard to the changes around us. Where do our interests lie? It would be wise for us to identify these interests and then work to protect them. As the saying goes, "the best guards of a fortress are its owners." Another saying reminds, "fortresses fall from within."

The writer is former defence minister and chief of General Intelligence.

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