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. Ms Hunter you are beginning to see the light but you are not out of the tunnel yet!
    Since the implosion of the Soviets and mismanagement of the given euphoria by the US, this country’s power pretty much had peaked out and reached the summit and then it was put on the down spiral by Reagan in 1980’s. The US power and hegemony have been on the decline ever since. In the meantime while the US power was declining it was being challenged with the rise of China as a new economic power. As the US was losing its control over its own economic power, developing a new strategy was in order. While the strategy was being developed and since the US was NOT producing any consumers goods except arms, the US government had to consume the produced arms in order to keep its economy afloat. Thus the reason for picking on the smaller and weaker countries by acting as a bully. Well this diversion from the main strategy didn’t work and it failed miserably. At this time the main strategy of the US surfaced which was to stop China from becoming an economic superpower.
    Since China was completely dependent on the ME oil for its energy needs not only for staying in power but also to further growth of its economy, the US strategy was modified to becoming independent of the ME for its energy needs first. This US did achieve its goal of becoming independent of the oil from the ME. Now there are 2 more obstacles for the US.
    1. To prevent the EU from becoming the second to rise to power. Well Trump took care of that and the EU was pushed off the cliff. The EU decline can be seen politically and economically almost daily.
    2. The US had to do some trickery for raising the price of oil in order to take down its economic competition, China. This strategy can not be achieved without a regional war between the two power houses in the ME. For the US to achieving the adversarial conditions between Saudis and Iran, the Saudis were encouraged to kill closed to 400 Iranians while doing their religious duties as Haji in Makkah. This issue hasn’t been resolved between the 2 countries as of yet. Then the regime in Saudi had to be replaced with an aggressive and stupid regime which was also achieved when MbS was installed.
    Well so far the US strategy hasn’t achieved its final goal of increasing the oil prices to $400, $500 or $1000 per barrel. The EU is not happy with the US and its goal since the high prices of oil will adversely affect them. In the meantime China is investing in gas & oil infrastructure in Iran in order to slow down the US in achieving its goal.
    Ms Hunter,
    IMHO, the US will NOT accept an economic defeat from China and she will NOT give up its dirty tricks until there’s war between the Saudis and Iranians. The US strategy is clear to me but I hope that I’m wrong.

  2. Paul Merrell

    I think Iran and her allies have realized the same sort of situation vis a vis US as North Koreans had realized much earlier: destruction of US friends and allies in case of war. That is, Israel and Southern Persian Gulf Arabs will be destroyed in the event of war with Iran. Seyyed Nasrallah already has stated that Hezbollah will follow Khamenei as its war leader. And the Houthis have demonstrated what Iran can do in the event of a war.

    That is one thing.

    The other thing is if you look at the map of the Arabian Penninsula, you will notice that Saudis are surrounded by Oman (Ibadhi Muslims), Yemen (Zaidi Shias as well hostile Suunis), Iraq (Shia) and Jordan (former contender for power in Hejaz). Saudis are scared.

    EU states, like a laptop, kept barking at Iran, demanding further strategic restrictions on her nuclear, missile, and military activities. The Houthi attack demonstrated that Iranians are long past the point of no return on the precision and likely lethality of their missile.

    Trump not only took US out of JCPOA and betrayed Iran, but he publicly declared himself, in Saudi Arabia among the Salafid, to be the enemy of the Shia and Iran. He then proceeded to sanction Ayatollah Khamenei, Revolutionary Guards, etc. Neither him nor the United States can walk these actions back.

    Iranians, in the face of these relentless political and religious and economic assaults, are playing for keeps. There will be and cannot be any concessions to US on nuclear, missile, or military aid to Iran’s allies. That game is over.

    In my opinion, with JCPOA, the United States and EU had an opportunity to have correct and normal relations with a prickly Iran. They opted to have a very very hostile state against them in Western Asia.

    The ramifications of this shabby treatment of a great country and great people, just like the wars in Vietnam and in Iraq will be felt for many more decades.

    It did not have to be this way.

  3. The American ‘global responsibilities’!


    This author is a whore of US criminals. Ignore her and her pimp husband

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