Persian Gulf Stability Requires Realism and Compromise

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

by Shireen T. Hunter

In the aftermath of attacks on two Saudi Arabian oil installations, attributed either directly or indirectly to Iran, calls in the United States for punitive military action against Tehran have once more increased. As has often been the case in the past, those clamoring for military strikes against Iran focus mostly on the potential impact of inaction on U.S. credibility, as the patron of the Gulf Arab states, and its prestige as a great power. The other argument used is that inaction will embolden Tehran to intensify its provocations. Advocates argue that Washington’s unwillingness to retaliate militarily when Iran downed a U.S. drone in June contributed to its engineering/supporting/sanctioning these more recent incidents.

Those who argue in favor of military strikes also tend to play down the risk of escalation and the danger of any strike degenerating into a full-scale war.

A Flawed Argument

The reasoning behind the position of those asking for military retaliation is flawed. The argument that if the United States did not retaliate its credibility would suffer is incorrect. To begin with, Washington does not have any treaty obligation to any of the Persian Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. Even if such a treaty existed, it would apply only to a direct invasion of any of these countries—as was the case, for example, with Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The same objection applies to the argument that U.S. prestige would suffer. It is likely that a hasty resort to military action, with attendant consequences, would do more damage to U.S. international prestige than a show of restraint. This is especially so at a time when traditional U.S. allies in Europe and Japan are unhappy with aspects of Washington’s policy towards Iran and, because of their greater dependence on the region’s oil, would suffer more from a conflict there. This proved true with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. That war did little to enhance U.S. prestige. More seriously, any potential damage to U.S. prestige and credibility should be judged in comparison to the human and material costs of such operations.

Another flaw in the arguments made by supporters of military action is their assumption that these actions would not escalate to the level of a full-scale war, because Iran will take the punishment without retaliating. But this has for some time been wishful thinking. Several Iranian officials, notably commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have said that the United States can start the war according to its own timetable, but it cannot end it that way. It stands to reason that Iranian officials have prepared a strategy for engaging the U.S. in a protracted war. Most recently, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated that, if there is a war, it will be a “complete war” (Tamam Ayar).

The mind-set of Iran’s hardliners and the fact that they are convinced that Washington is determined to bring about regime change also would push them to escalate the confrontation and increase its cost for the U.S. In other words, they would prefer to be hung for a sheep than for a lamb. Since Iran will be defending its territory and statehood, it will fight and will take the fight to neighboring states. In fact, the smaller Gulf Arab states will pay a heavy price should a war break out. Moreover, although having suffered much, the pain threshold of Iranians is quite high, since the majority of them have never had an easy life. In short, a so-called surgical strike on sensitive targets is unlikely to subdue Tehran. To do so, the U.S. will have to embark on massive bombings and even introduce ground troops and keep them there for a long while.

Risk of Intervention by Other Powers

A war with Iran could also lead to the intervention of other powers, such as Russia and China. Iran is much closer than Syria to the Russian Federation, and Moscow is concerned about a potential surge of refugees coming from Iran, passing through the Caucasus, and ending up in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russia would also be more than happy to see Washington bogged down in Iran and therefore might be willing to help Tehran without actually becoming involved in hostilities. China, too, would feel anxious about having its oil supplies become wholly dependent on American good will. In short, should a war break out, its trajectory cannot be predicted accurately. The so-called cake walk in Iraq turned into a swamp. A surgical strike against Iran could deteriorate into a drawn out war.

A Better Alternative

A more acceptable alternative to war is diplomacy and compromise. But to succeed, it will have to meet the following requirements: 

  1. A realistic assessment of power equations and the limits of military force as instrument of policy. The United States still has a superiority of military power over other international and regional actors. However, regional actors now also have improved their military capabilities and thus are able of inflicting more damage than was the case even two decades ago. Moreover, the U.S. has global responsibilities and concerns and therefore needs to be present in different theaters. These responsibilities restrict Washington’s ability to devote a disproportionate part of its forces to a single theater. By contrast, local actors’ concerns are limited to their immediate neighborhoods.
  2. A realization that military power cannot always be translated into political dominance. Again, experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq, and even Syria, demonstrate the validity of this point. Thus even bombing Iran would not necessarily achieve America’s political goals.
  3. Understanding that global hegemony is no longer achievable. The emergence of new powers, notably China, together with traditional powers such as Russia, plus local powers, means that no single power can impose its hegemony globally and certainly not by military force.

These realities mean that regional and global stability can only be achieved through the predominance of diplomacy, compromise, and respect for international norms by all actors, big and small. Applied to the present situation in the Persian Gulf, these principles would require that international agreements, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), be applied; that Iran accept direct talks with Washington on the whole range of issues of concern to both states; and that Iran and Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, abandon desires for regional dominance, engage in dialogue, listen to each other’s concerns and fears, make necessary compromises, and ultimately agree on some form of regional security structure that could secure their basic interests. Of course, for such a dialogue to be possible, it must have the blessing of the United States, since almost all other major actors already favor such measures.

If key regional and international actors refuse to accept these realities, then stability will remain elusive and the risk of all-out conflict will increase.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. @ “The United States still has a superiority of military power over other international and regional actors.”

    That is not true in the case of Iran. People who say such things assume that U.S. enemies will obediently engage in head-on military engagements. But Iran has said it plans on responding to U.S. provocation asymmetrically. If Iran cannot ship oil, it says, then no one will.

    With its precision-guided missiles and other weaponry, Iran has the unstoppable military capability to halt the flow of oil from the Mideast. And if you believe that any U.S. Administration would survive a sudden $1,000-bbl oil market, I have a bridge for sale that you might be interested in.

    The U.S. brings no equivalent weapon to the potential battle. It has no military supremacy over Iran.

  2. The American ‘global responsibilities’!

    1-this is exactly the misleading language and interpretation that moralise the ruthless blood stained American hegemony: responsibility!?
    First, let’s recall several politicians in our political establishment who have publically admitted: had Saddam not invaded Iran shortly after the collapse of the Pahlavi regime, and especially had the war ended soon, ‘the Islamic Republic’ would not have survived long! This is a highly important statement to consider! At that time the establishment was highly unpopular because people had just realised the shocking fallacy of the pledges that had been made shortly before the Revolution. Now we are back to square one; with the surge in the epidemic corruptions and official indifferences, the decades of cruelties and injustices, as well as the inflations and prevalence of poverty, our political leaders would desperately welcome a war especially with the detested American army right inside our own borders which would highly unite the whole country behind the political establishment and would once again save the conservatives’ ruthless hold on power.

    2-As for the Americans: the US hegemony, or ‘global responsibilities’ in our region comes first – having been challenged by Iran the US feels the uneasy crack in its prestigious image as the global thug, especially before China and Russia; and the fact is too hard for the racist American politicians to swallow. And this is exactly where we need to focus, the fallacy of what repeatedly is referred to by American apologists as the American ‘global responsibilities’!

    3-And as for the regional powers, having been unpopular and shaky, do not dare challenge a regional super power like Iran without their American Godfather being closely in charge. And since ‘ignorance’, as we say it at home, ‘has no horns or tails’, the Americans can fall into a new swamp, as in Vietnam, just because they think they have the advanced weapons.

    The mystery is that with all their self-promoting publicities and their advanced weaponries as the most invincible armies, not only did they fail to intercept a handful of simple drones but haven’t even established exactly where they were launched from! This is exactly what Arabs and Israelis and Americans have in common: bragging about their powers! The Arabs cannot change because tribal cultures hardly change! In our region we are faced with cultural issues more than the military issues.

    Also, the American-Arab–English claim that just because the drones were Iranian made, then Iran is responsible, boggles the mind unless the world community also accept that anywhere anyone who is murdered by American made guns has the legal right to hold America fully responsible for the attack and add that to the American ‘global responsibilities’!

    To summarise: the US should get the hell out of our region with all its ‘global responsibilities’ and the Arabs should face the international criminal court for genocide in Yemen. Then peace shall prevail.

  3. I see that people are now coming back to their senses. Just one correction to your list of possible measures- Us should start with lifting sanctions imposed on Iran despite its adherence to the JCPOA.

    Their is an “ayat in the Quran which shows the limits of man- ” ….and if a fly takes some thing from them they cannot get it back. ”

    This is applicable to also to super powers as it is individuals and should be a lesson to all hegemons.

  4. You cannot have any peace with a regime which is on a mission to “change the world”. The Ayatollah regime is on a war footing in Iran, with human rights violations every day. They are itching to take on the US. Ignore them. Help Iranians.

  5. Throwing the U.S military weight on the important global issues only makes the matters worse.
    the U.S. credibility has been long suffering upon the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and further deteriorated with the U.S. unconditional support for the “Apartheid Regime of Israel” – condoning the annexation of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem, and certainly the U.S unilateral withdrawal from the “Iran Nuclear Agreement” along with other multilateral U.N. agreements, such as UNESCO, Paris Climate, etc – America keeps undermining the international institutions in favour of special interest groups for petty political score at home – causing wreck havoc with the world order.
    Meanwhile, the rest of the world is moving forward without the U.S; a “New World Order” has been emerging without the USA at the helm.; America is becoming an irrelevant Superpower because it’s too busy with its own petty politics at home; The U.S is no longer a world leader but a “Dependant of the Apartheid Regime of Israel” – Israel’s Zionist Agents in Washington have effectively hijacked the U.S political institutions – influencing , shaping the US foreign policy for their own tribal interests.
    Throwing the military sledge hammer on complex global issues makes the matters worse; Americans need to look inward and see what’s really happening to their beloved republic, the US must search the root causes of their political malaise at home or risk losing its high moral ground on the international scenes – even losing the U.S. leadership position which it holds since 1945.

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