Iran dispute solutions have not proved durable
Note: This article was originally published by
release of 15 British sailors and marines on April 4 is welcome news.
has for the moment ended propaganda warfare and potential threats of
confrontation and armed conflict in the oil-rich strategic waters of the Persian
Yet there is no reason to conclude that future disputes over the
waters of the Persian Gulf will be prevented, or that they won’t spin out of
control and lead to unwanted wars.
Nor is there any reason to believe
that future settlements will be any more durable than the ones that took place
over the centuries.
As a matter of fact, momentous economic and strategic
changes, especially over the past few decades, indicate that future disputes
will be much more difficult to settle and the danger of confrontation and war
To understand why, it is essential to examine the
historical context of Persian Gulf disputes. They have always been tackled by
means of bilateral agreements between the parties such as the one between
Britain and Iran at the moment. But they have always broken down, and have never
resulted in durable solutions.
Let us now take a bird’s-eye view of the
historical context of Persian Gulf disputes.
The Ottoman and Persian
empires battled each other for two centuries and made several bilateral boundary
settlements on land and sea after each war beginning in 1639.
None of the
bilateral agreements between the two sides ever put an end to the disputes. Nor
did the British interventions beginning in 1842 provide viable
There is no reason to believe it will be any different in the
As heirs to the Persian and Ottoman empires, the modern-day
nations of Iran and Iraq also settled boundary disputes by concluding bilateral
agreements as early as 1937.
The most contentious issue for generations
was and could still be the boundary line in the Shatt al-Arab. The 1937 treaty
provided that the frontier in the river should run along the thalweg - that is,
the median line of the main channel - although it actually favored Iraq, which
continued to claim that the entire frontier river formed an integral part of
Iraqi sovereign territory.
Decades later, in 1975, the Algiers Agreement
between the shah of Iran and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein established the thalweg
equally to the benefit of both sides. But after invading Iran in 1980, Saddam
Hussein scrapped the agreement.
As the legatee of Britain, the United
States has in recent decades played the role of the dominant power in the
Persian Gulf region. As such, American support of Saddam Hussein’s war of
aggression against Iran in 1980-1988 did little to provide a basis for a
collective security system in the Persian Gulf.
The 1989 U.N. resolution
called on the secretary-general to consult Gulf powers to that end. But the
United States failed to support that call.
Nor did the United States
create any durable new system for security in the Persian Gulf region at the end
of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Instead, it supported the Gulf Arab states
The Bush administration has equally failed to realize the
need for a new security system in the Persian Gulf region. It has occupied Iraq
for four years, it has tried to line up Sunni Arab states against Shia Iran, and
it has been flexing its military muscle in the Persian Gulf waters recently in
support of the British dispute with Iran.
Neither past bilateral
agreements nor American unilateral policies today can possibly guarantee future
security in the Persian Gulf. Instead, what is needed urgently is a
comprehensive collective security system.
In creating such a system,
however, it is essential to realize that the problems of the Persian Gulf are
intertwined with the major conflicts of the broader Middle East and beyond. Here
are the most salient reasons:
- The Palestinian-Israeli conflict affects all
Mideast issues with its volatility.
- The American occupation of Iraq has caused an
unprecedented degree of instability and insecurity in the wider Middle East.
- America’s exclusion of Iran from Gulf security
ar-rangements, such as the one established by Washington at the end of the
Persian Gulf War in 1991, achieves nothing except to unite the Iranian people
behind the regime and embolden Iran to challenge the presence of British and
American forces in and around the Gulf.
- The growing global demand for Persian Gulf gas and
oil resources is bound to widen competition between the West and China.
- And, above all, the threat of nuclear
proliferation and the potential access of extremist groups in the Middle East
to nuclear technology and weapons are bound to spill over into the Persian
As long as Britain and the United States
continue to serve their self-interests in disregard of the vital interests of
Persian Gulf states, the prospects for a viable security system in the Persian
Gulf seem moot.
As long as Britain and America approach Gulf disputes by
such means as playing regional powers against each other, by bullying tactics,
by calls for regime change and by the threats of military strikes against Iran,
there is little hope that Per-sian Gulf conflicts will ever be prevented in the
future or that durable solutions can be found for the present ones, including
the British-Iranian dispute today. As a result, the secure export of Gulf oil
supplies to world markets will be threatened and the price of oil will soar
beyond the capacity of the world economy to tolerate.
The real question,
therefore, is whether Britain and the United States will be able to shake off
their addiction to using force and embrace a comprehensive collective security
system that would include the Persian Gulf states and major outside powers with
high stakes in the region, including Britain and the United States, under the
auspices of the United Nations.
Short of that, Iran, as the major Persian
Gulf state, will continue to resist British and American pressures. Its
resistance to foreign bullying and pressures is rooted in a millennial and proud
sense of glory and power in ancient times, in a deep-rooted sense of national
identity and in a resentment of discrimination against the Shia, who are, today
and in history, a minority in the larger Muslim world, by the Sunni
Iran aspires to equitable treatment and respect in the
international community. And it has long favored the creation of a viable
Persian Gulf collective security system.
Can Britain and the United
States understand this fundamental truth and have the political will and
prudence to engage Iran in a comprehensive collective security system for
stability, security and prosperity in the Persian Gulf?
About the author:
R.K. Ramazani has published extensively on the Persian Gulf region and
has on ocassion advised the U.S. government and the U.N. secretariat-general. He
wishes to acknowledge the help of W. Scott Harrop on the draft of this
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