Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Iran. From Kuwait

by Steven A. Cook
December 12, 2011


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad welcomes a Kuwaiti official as Kuwait's Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah watches before an official meeting in Tehran (Morteza Nikoubazl/Courtesy Reuters)

Kuwait City

Iraq…Iran.    Iran…Iraq.

It is fair to say that Baghdad and Tehran combine to make for a certain amount of national neuroses in Kuwait.  So it is fortuitous that I am in Kuwait as the last American combat forces depart Iraq and the “coming confrontation with Iran” discussion is heating up in Washington, Jerusalem, and no doubt capitals throughout the Middle East.  The fact that Kuwaitis are worried about both countries is not news.  The Kuwaitis remain concerned—as they should be—that post-Saddam Iraq may yet pose a threat to their security.  According to Kuwaitis, there are enough Iraqis who believe that Kuwait is, indeed, the 19th province of Iraq to produce anxiety about what a Baghdad without the restraining power of American forces might do.

On Iran, there is concern, but it is of an entirely different sort than the debate—if you can call it that—going on in Washington.  Of course, the Kuwaitis don’t want Iran to develop nuclear technology, but their concern is deeper and poses a more difficult policy dilemma for them and their allies, primarily the United States.  From Kuwait City, the Iranian drive to develop nuclear technology is not a function of crazed mullahs hell-bent on dropping the big one on Tel Aviv.  Rather, it is the result of Iranians’ belief in their own exceptionalism, which drives an expansionary foreign policy in Tehran’s quest to influence the region.  In other words, from the perspective of Kuwaitis, the clerical regime in Iran—bad though it may be—is not the problem; Iran is the problem.  In other words, it does not matter who is in charge in Iran and what their particular worldview happens to be, as long as Tehran isn’t the regional hegemon, it will not be satisfied with the status quo in the Gulf and beyond.

It strikes me that this analysis, which is entirely plausible given what we know about Tehran’s foreign policy under the Shah, throws into question the underlying logic of regime change in Iran.  There may be good reason why the clerical regime is a threat to regional peace and stability, but even if the regime is “replaced” (I think that is the new term of art) and there is a change in Iran’s approach to the region, that shift may only be temporary.  If that is the case, then regime replacement seems to be a pretty bad course—a waste of resources and lives.  Still, that insight neither resolves the problem that Iran continues to present nor restrains the Israelis who have a far more acute sense of the Iranian threat than Americans and Kuwaitis.

So what is the answer?  The Kuwaitis will tell you it isn’t war.  Other than a few diehards left in Washington it is unlikely that the United States will try its hand at engagement again.  What was wrong with containment? Somewhere along the line it was declared dead. Yet containing Iran (and Iraq) was relatively cheap and it largely worked.  The Iranians were unable to alter the regional order in its favor.  This failure is, no doubt, the reason why the Iranians are developing a nuclear capacity.   Why can’t the United States and its allies contain a nuclear Iran? Didn’t Washington contain a nuclear capable Moscow? To be sure, some will say that it is because Iranian leaders have a worldview that makes them uncontainable—i.e. that they are irrational.  I don’t buy it.  I think they are bad people, but I don’t think they are undeterrable and uncontainable.  This isn’t a popular position to take in Washington these days, but ask the Kuwaitis.  They don’t want to live with the consequences of yet another war on their doorstep.  They’d prefer to marshal the resources of the region and the United States to keep the Iranians in the proverbial box.  I am with them.

 

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Imran Riffat

    What has Kuwait done for itself during the past two decades in terms of strengthening civil society and promoting democracy? Same old same old . . . . . . . . sham democracy and a lot of corruption.

  • Posted by Fred Rey

    Nonsense. Talking to a few spoiled royals in Kuwait the author is getting carnal knowledge. The problem in the middle east is over involvement by US, in matters that the US has incredibly little knowledge about. Just look at Gingrich and his assertion Palestinians are an invention since 1977, and he calls himself a historian. The problem with US is people like the author thinking that US can do much in preserving tyrannies like Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and even Qatar in the long run. When the bottom falls of these midget kingdoms the US will be clueless how to deal with them.

  • Posted by beto

    This is what mystifies me the most, writers posing a personal perspective about a political perspective and at the same time “they bring along an entire country with them”. For example, has Cook done some kind of survey or just talked to two or three individuals ? The way how he he states his opinion it feels like the entire country of Kuwait disdain the Iranian government- common, people!! in reality probably it is the Kuwait’s monarchy and its puppet parliament who may be pursuing this idea. I think , the people in Kuwait are more preoccupied on taking advantage of their Indian/Bangladesh maids (I am being sarcastic).
    but, you know it is a lack of professionalism and ethics to do that.

  • Posted by Khaled Al-Sharikh

    Imran, Sham democracy? If you actually bothered reading about Kuwait, you would be hearing about the debilitating stand-off between Kuwait’s parliament and government which is leading to new elections (our third in four years). If Kuwait’s gov’t rigged elections as your “sham democracy” comment would have us believe, then they did a damn poor job of it. Corruption exists for sure, but you only need to look at Newt Gingrich’s Fannie Mae connections to realize Kuwait isn’t the only country with that problem.

    As for your thoughts on Iran, Prof. Cook, I think your assessment of the Kuwaiti perspective is entirely accurate and I’m also inclined to agree that war really isn’t an option. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the sanctions placed on Iran–more specifically whether or not they are achieving the goals set out i.e. to alter Iranian behavior vis-a-vis its nuclear program, to limit Iran’s ability to exert external influence and to bring about regime change (although the latter goal isn’t state publicly).

    Now in assessing the impact of sanctions, Saddam’s Iraq provides a relatively recent example. While sanctions severely hindered Iraq’s ability to exert any influence and arguably brought about a change of behavior from Saddam’s regime in terms of WMDs (as proven by the US’ inability to find them in Iraq), they did nothing in terms of bringing the fall of the regime closer. If anything the state was strengthened in relation to society because sanctions were so devastating for a hitherto influential middle class.

    I think the prospects of behavioral change are even slimmer in Iran and the regime has demonstrated an ability to exert a great deal of influence in the region in spite of the sanctions. Meanwhile, the regime doesn’t yet seem likely to fall anytime soon (though, in the age of the Arab Spring, you admittedly never know). If you agree with this humble assessment, then what’s the point of sanctions?

  • Posted by Abdullah Bader

    Imran how long do you think Kuwait has been an independent and sovereign republic? 235 years like the states? Its easy to ridicule and criticise let alone a country that has only been independent for hardly 50 years. By the way where did you say you are from?

  • Posted by arabist

    You may be right about containment (although I would dispute that, notably towards Iraq during “dual containment” in the 1990s which was a humanitarian disaster) but remember there was tremendous pressure to abandon it in the late 1990s, and not only from Republicans. This perhaps concerned Iraq more than Iran, but transposed to today one wonders whether the inevitable Washingtonian one-upmanship would lead regime change advocates and others to attack containment as a convenient way to undermine the administration.

    In other words, even if containment makes sense and works in Persian Gulf terms, does it work in Washington terms?

    Also, isn’t the constant threat of regime change the more plausible motive for a nuclear weapons program?

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