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Searching for Stable Peace in the Persian Gulf

Authored by Dr. Kenneth Katzman. Edited by Dr. Stephen C. Pelletiere.

February 2, 1998

35 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Congressional Research Staffer Kenneth Katzman reviews the history of dual containment, and shows how adherence to the policy has eroded. He suggests it is time for Washington to change course in the Gulf, and lays out a course of action the United States should follow to maintain its leadership role in this vital region. Dr. Katzman's monograph deals thoughtfully with this controversial issue.


The Persian Gulf region continues to be plagued by instability, and is subject to erupt in crisis on short notice. Iraq sees itself as the guardian of the Arab world's eastern flank, and Iran sees itself as a well-developed civilization with a long Gulf coastline, entitled to police the region. Regimes now in power in both countries have staked their legitimacies on ensuring their independence from great power influence, even though this goal has brought extraordinary costs to both.

The current U.S. policy of “dual containment” of both Iran and Iraq is temporarily useful, to the extent that it rejects the past policy of alternately promoting Iran or Iraq as U.S. surrogates in the Gulf. That strategy contributed to the Shah's unpopularity within Iran and ultimate downfall. Later, the policy may have emboldened Saddam Hussein to believe that seizing Kuwait would not incur significant U.S. opposition, or that he might even receive U.S. approval. These outcomes, and others like them, are an almost inevitable outgrowth of the inherently competitive system the United States has relied on in the Gulf.

Although dual containment does not, as previous U.S. policy did, depend on natural animosity between Iran and Iraq, it does assume hostility between the United States and the regimes in power in those two countries. Because the task of containing Iran and Iraq falls squarely on the shoulders of the United States, the dual containment strategy comes with high costs and high risks to the United States and the Persian Gulf allies on which the strategy depends.

Rather than making adjustments to what remains an essentially competitive Gulf security system, some thought should be given to a completely new paradigm that promotes peaceful cooperation among the Persian Gulf parties. Although it is difficult to envision a cooperative system while the current regimes are still in power in Iran and Iraq, a comprehensive diplomatic vision for the region could seek to modify the ambitions of Baghdad and Tehran for regional hegemony, and reduce the size of the U.S. presence needed in the Gulf, as well as the need for comprehensive economic sanctions on these rogue states. Over the longer term, creating a cooperative system in the Gulf could eventually produce less ambitious regimes in Iran and Iraq. A new approach could begin with U.S.-led multilateral talks—covering all outstanding issues— among the United States, the Gulf monarchies, and Iran and Iraq.

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