The United States has maintained a robust military presence in the Gulf since the days following the 1977 Carter Doctrine, a presence that assumed its current shape more or less in the wake of the 1990–91 Gulf War. Successive U.S. administrations have preserved that presence primarily for twin strategic purposes: to prevent another regional war (long assumed to be an Iraq-centered contingency), and to blunt the rise of an aggressive and anti-U.S. hegemon (an Iran-centered scenario), both for the chief intent of protecting the reliable flow of Gulf oil to the U.S. and world economies. That is why the term “dual containment,” coined by the Clinton Administration in 1993, aptly described U.S. policy for a good part of the 1990s. Since the ouster of the Iraqi Ba‘ath regime in 2003, the Islamic Republic of Iran has constituted the greatest challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East and the stability of the regional order, notwithstanding the civil wars in Iraq and Syria and the rise of the Islamic State in their wake.
A large nation of more than eighty million with a civilizational role and proud history, Iran has capacious aspirations and little regard for its Sunni Gulf neighbors’ sovereignty, history, or capabilities. Yet Iran does appreciate U.S. military power and has learned to live, albeit grudgingly, with U.S. regional hegemony. Certainly since 1991, and arguably since 1981, Iran’s leaders have avoided provoking the United States beyond recall. In recent years, the hardliners approached a red line with their aggressive effort to develop nuclear weapons, but were evidently prepared to shift gears to stop crippling sanctions against the Iranian economy and, most importantly, to avoid war with the United States. Iran has engaged in provocative and aggressive anti-U.S. behavior since the July 2015 nuclear deal—examples include the humiliating treatment of captured U.S. sailors in January 2016; numerous harassments by Iranian vessels of U.S. naval ships, the latest in September 2016 when seven Iranian fast-attack boats were involved in a dangerous encounter with the USS Firebolt; and the provision of heavy weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen who unsuccessfully tried to attack a U.S. Navy destroyer with missiles. But such activities have remained below the threshold of requiring a forceful U.S. response.
Yet whether the Iranian leadership will maintain the status quo in the Gulf throughout the duration of the nuclear deal remains an open question. Seen through the prism of U.S. policy, the assumption that Iran will continue to respect past and present rules of engagement with the United States and its regional partners and refrain from further flexing its muscle is imprudent at best, especially now that it has much more money to fund its regional paramilitary programs. U.S. power in the Middle East remains a source of frustration to Iran’s mullahs and generals, who often describe Washington’s military footprint in the region as unwelcome and unnatural, meant to subjugate the Iranian nation and prevent it from reaching its full and deserved potential.
And the Iranians are correct to a point. While U.S. policy is not and has never been about constraining or humiliating the Iranian “nation” as such, it is hard to believe that U.S. military might has not helped to check the regime’s interpretation of Iran’s historical destiny and hence its imperial impulses. Through its forward-deployed posture, along with its informal security commitments and major arms sales to its Arab Gulf partners, the United States has helped keep the cold peace between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbors. In recent years, what amounts to proxy warfare between the Iranians and the Saudis has expanded and intensified, with theaters including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and to some extent Bahrain. But so far direct conflict remains a bridge too far for the Iranians. Their patience with the U.S. regional presence is likely to endure for the same reason it has in the past: because the alternative, confrontation with a vastly superior foe, is not only undesirable but could well represent an existential threat to the regime.
However, the Iranian elite has good reason to think that the constraints of U.S. power working against it are not endless. A master of the long game, and with geography in its favor, all the regime may have to do is outlast a Middle East-fatigued and more energy-sufficient U.S. adversary. It is no secret that the Obama Administration longed to disengage from its “overinvestment” in the region—the President’s own word as redacted in Jeffrey Goldberg’s famous Atlantic exposé and elsewhere. Perhaps the Iranians have concluded that the U.S. urge to withdraw, or at least to significantly draw down, is not idiosyncratic to Barack Obama, but has structural sources in broader U.S. thinking and is influenced by both difficult fiscal realities in Washington and a more insular American public, led by President Donald Trump. Hence, it will persist into the future.
If so, the Iranian leadership has a choice before it. It could let matters take their course, or it could decide to accelerate the process by gradually pushing the United States to leave and increasing its costs of operation in the Gulf without risking direct conflict. The latter is risky and could backfire on the Iranians. But the future of the Gulf region, and beyond, depends on how the Iranians read U.S. intentions and willpower, and how the Trump Administration and future ones read back into Iranian behavior its leaders’ intentions, capabilities, and willpower. Obviously, U.S. relations with regional partners cannot be divorced in practice from the dynamic with Iran, but the U.S.-Iranian assessment competition will be center stage.
Are the Iranians correct, or partly correct? While a major reduction or total withdrawal of U.S. military capabilities from the Gulf is very much unlikely under a Trump Administration, a drawdown in the region for domestic political purposes or narrow foreign policy principles as espoused by President Trump is possible. Should that happen—should there be a gulf in the Gulf—how would modifications in the U.S. presence affect regional stability and Iranian calculations? How would the power dynamics between Iran and its key Arab Gulf adversaries be affected? Above all, to what extent could the Arab Gulf countries hold their own in a wider strategic competition with Iran?
GCC Qualitative Edge
If we begin an analysis by looking at objective criteria such as defense spending and investment levels, the Arab Gulf states, or to be more precise, those countries within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) most likely to get involved in a fight with Iran—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain—will have an overwhelming advantage for many years to come. These states have made massive investments in enhanced land, air, and naval weapons systems in partnership with Western governments and top global defense firms. All three countries, but especially the first two, have continued to build more capable and professional militaries.
Iran’s military, on the other hand, has been unable to compete in terms of both investments and acquisition of advanced foreign systems due to decades-long sanctions. Iran’s annual defense budget is somewhere between $10 and $14 billion, which could be eight times less than what Saudi Arabia spends alone. Even if Tehran gains full access to the international financial system in the wake of the nuclear deal, it would continue to face major restrictions on what it can purchase given its own structural economic problems, international arms sales rules, and remaining non-nuclear-related sanctions against the regime. That would tend to turn Iranian acquisitions strategy toward Russia and China, which would bring disadvantages to Iran as well as advantages.
But can the Arab Gulf states’ investments in military power be sustained over the long run? While falling oil prices have not yet led to reduced defense spending within the GCC, it is unclear whether similar levels of military expenditure can be maintained in the absence of structural economic reform and better defense organization and acquisition strategies. Projections of higher military spending by the GCC notwithstanding, what matters is not just the amount of weapons a state buys or how much it spends on armaments, but how it uses, integrates, and maintains them. Here, the learning curve of most, if not all, Arab Gulf states is still steep.
The plain truth is that the Arab Gulf states are not becoming notably more self-sufficient in addressing their core national security needs (though in fairness one could say the same about numerous European and Asian allies), and more specifically in their efforts to contain Iran. Bluster aside, security self-sufficiency remains an unrealistic goal; at best one can speak of reduced dependence. The lack of GCC military integration and interoperability severely weakens individual as well as collective capabilities, which also hampers the quest to become less dependent on the United States. To a large extent, the prospect of self-sufficiency in the Arab Gulf is directly proportional to the goal of GCC political and military integration. And that is very unlikely to advance far in the foreseeable future.
In contrast, while Iran’s regime relies on lower-grade imports, it leverages its own industrial capacities far more ably. But because that industrial base is limited, the Iranian economy has remained unable to develop dependable or effective military capabilities. Projections of increased self-reliance, however, seem more promising in Iran than in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else in the GCC because domestic defense industrialization in Iran has a higher ceiling, notwithstanding recent advances in Saudi Arabia and particularly in the UAE. That is due to the fact that the local defense enterprise in Iran, despite being severely underfunded by the government (with the exception of the missile program), has several advantages over those of its Gulf rivals: the existence of older defense institutions and accumulated experience in the field since the days of the Shah; a more established and larger industrial base; and, most importantly, a larger pool of skilled local labor in several military, technical, scientific, and civilian sectors.
The qualitative edge in air and, in many respects, land and naval power will continue to belong to the Arab Gulf states at least for the next decade. Their military systems boast state-of-the-art intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) software, and superior command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I) capabilities. Some Arab Gulf forces can now credibly engage in joint and net-enabled warfare in various domains in ways that will remain well beyond Iranian capabilities for many years to come.
Iran’s leaders are very much aware of all this. For example, no rational Iranian commander would order his pilots to engage in aerial combat with any Western-supplied GCC fighter jet or to fly over GCC airspace for a sustained period, unless the intent of the mission was to damage ground or naval assets or installations by resorting to Kamikaze attacks. Yet even if Iran’s military wisely avoids air battles outside its territory, it cannot so easily cancel out or render irrelevant the GCC’s strategic advantage in air forces. The GCC’s U.S.-supplied precision-guided munitions (PGMs) can penetrate Iranian air and missile defense systems when fired in a standoff mode far from Iranian airspace.
A delivery of Russian S-300 air-defense missile systems would improve Iranian capabilities in that domain, but would not constitute a game-changer, because GCC fighter planes either have or can be equipped with effective countermeasures. In addition, it remains unclear which variant and how many of the S-300s the Iranian military would receive. Some newer versions are resistant to jamming and stealth technologies; older, more basic ones are not.
Integration is another major issue. It matters whether Iran’s military can integrate the S-300 into its existing air-defense structure. To use an analogy from American football, you can acquire a highly skilled player from the free agent market, but how that player fits into the team is more important than his individual abilities.
Despite many hardline Iranian generals’ dismissal of GCC military power, they must privately concern themselves with the GCC’s air-delivered standoff PGMs, which are steadily increasing in accuracy, lethality, and range. The Iranian military elite must also be at least a bit nervous about the evolution of some Arab Gulf states’ armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) capabilities. With larger volumes and greater sophistication, these drones could help the GCC effectively counter some of Iran’s tools of ground asymmetric warfare. Iran has UAV capabilities of its own, some of which it has transferred to Hizballah, but the technology remains very basic.
Size and Experience Matter
GCC conventional forces look significantly better on paper given their modernity and technological prowess, but Iran’s forces have a numerical edge in manpower and hardware, which matters in a gunfight, at least on land and at sea (it matters far less in air). Equally if not more important, the Iranian military is combat experienced as a result of the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War and its more recent military and paramilitary engagements in Iraq and Syria. The ongoing Yemen conflict has earned Saudi Arabia and the UAE some military experience, albeit against a much weaker Houthi foe whose capabilities pale in comparison with Iranian paramilitary forces or Hizballah. But how much learning that experience has so far provided remains unclear. What is certain, though ,is that the UAE armed forces have performed better than their Saudi counterparts in counterinsurgency warfare.
If one were to pinpoint the biggest military vulnerability for the GCC both now and going forward, it would be the size of its land forces. Simply put, not enough locals are enlisted in GCC militaries, and should push come to shove, no Arab Gulf state can rely on foreign conscripts for sustained and high-risk combat. The most important military lesson from the fight against the Islamic State is that territory matters, and therefore land power still matters considerably, contrary to claims made by 21st-century air-power theorists. Iran’s military has roughly 325,000 soldiers under arms, with another estimated 350,000 in reserve and another 100,000 Revolutionary Guards in land forces. This is far more than the total for the GCC countries, which collectively have roughly 170,000 active military, with 23,700 in reserve plus 39,000 National and Royal Guard forces. Iran also has a striking advantage in paramilitary power. Thanks to relentless indoctrination and training at an early age, roughly a million Iranian men stand ready to die for their Supreme Leader. Loyalty, morale, and cohesion are questionable in several GCC state forces.
GCC leaders need not worry about Iranian forces invading their territories through land routes from Iraq, where those forces are currently deployed and engaged in operations. Similarly, neither Israeli nor Jordanian leaders need worry about a conventional threat emanating from the establishment of a relatively recent Revolutionary Guard presence in southern Syria. This presence is capable only of launching pinprick harassment operations or staging terror attacks and subversion. Iran’s military would be very hard-pressed to sustain an expeditionary attack along such long lines, and would gain nothing from trying in the face of international and specifically U.S. intervention and, likely, swift and painful retribution. However, Iran’s relative numerical superiority in (at least elite) land forces can provide a strategic cushion in the form of the option to plot and execute politically destabilizing attacks against its Arab Gulf adversaries, directly or through proxies, without fear of military overstretch.
Should Iran maintain a long-term presence, overt or covert, of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Iraq and Syria, it could perform special operations from closer distances. In contrast, GCC militaries cannot deploy thousands of soldiers for sustained periods outside their borders—although the UAE’s military is inching closer to acquiring such capabilities given its experiences in Afghanistan and Yemen, and ambitious military basing in Eritrea. In short, Iran’s ability to project regular and irregular land power in the region is real, and constitutes an advantage over its Arab Gulf rivals.
To deter the Iranian regime and, more broadly, tackle their chief external security concerns, the leaders of several Arab Gulf states, with the help of the United States and other Western nations, have focused on maintaining their qualitative edge over Iran’s military with respect to defense and deterrence. This includes erecting an integrated regional missile defense structure to defend against potential Iranian missile and rocket attacks; developing and purchasing modern and capable naval and land forces to counter and interdict potential Iranian ground and sea operations and weapons shipments, respectively; and acquiring stealth and other powerful aircraft to protect and maintain supremacy in the skies. All of these efforts are ongoing; none is complete, and none can be completed without U.S. participation.
One notable capability in which the Arab Gulf states have chosen not to invest is an offensive ballistic missile force (although they have made some advances, particularly in the UAE’s case, in long-range artillery rockets). This has created a deficit in the GCC force mix, the consequences of which are unclear. What is clear is that U.S. advice is primarily responsible for this imbalance. For decades, the U.S. government and various private U.S. defense firms have advanced four main reasons for abjuring an offensive missile capability.
First, the U.S. government has a broad strategic interest in preventing an offensive missile race in the Middle East that could put Israeli security significantly at risk and, depending on weapons ranges, reach the West. Second, because the United States cannot supply offensive missiles to any of its allies and partners due to its global arms control commitments, China (or Pakistan) might gladly fill the void (China is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime, or MTCR) and as a result expand its regional influence, which goes against U.S. strategic interests. Third, the Arab Gulf governments’ possession of ballistic missiles might backfire in deterrence terms given the Iranians’ sensitivity about missile attacks as a result of their experience with Iraq during the 1980-88 war; the regime might launch preemptive strikes to eliminate the threat. Doing so would not be incredibly difficult since stationary offensive missiles would be particularly vulnerable if deployed in the constrained geographies of the smaller Arab Gulf states. Fourth, relinquishing the offensive missile option helps U.S. regional partners project an image of peaceful nations that prioritize stability and defense over offense.
The picture in Iran’s case is almost completely reversed. While the regime has sought to upgrade its air defense capabilities, its strategic priority has been to develop its offensive missile arsenal and long-range artillery rockets. These systems can be used to strike anywhere in the Gulf and the Levant. In peacetime, it is a force meant primarily to deter the Israelis and coerce its Gulf neighbors. War that starts for any number of reasons would cast that force in a different light depending on circumstances.
Doctrine and Strategy
Looking ahead, in an era of likely decreased U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, increased Russian and Chinese involvement, and a greater drive for autonomy on the part of the Arab Gulf states, it is worth pondering whether current U.S. regional partners might tweak their defense strategies and postures in a way that does not reflect U.S. preferences. Furthermore, should missile defense prove too costly in an age of financial retrenchment in the Gulf, and too unpredictable or ineffective in a military environment of advanced Iranian missile proliferation, some Arab Gulf states might seek an offensive missile force, possibly mounted on naval vessels or mobile land platforms.
If so, the Saudi military would not have to start from scratch, given its possession since 1987 of an unspecified but likely small number of medium-range Chinese ballistic missiles. The Saudis paraded those missiles for the first time in 2014, possibly to put the Iranians on notice or to express displeasure with U.S. policy. The price of alienating Saudi Arabia is greater Saudi efforts at self-help, some aspects of which Washington will not like, if Yemen is any indication.
That said, none of the Arab Gulf governments can credibly threaten to go it alone. Although several Arab Gulf militaries have made important advances in defense organization and institutionalization, this process is still nascent and, until recently, was dominated by U.S. preferences, with little local input or direction. Most Arab Gulf governments do not even have authoritative and professional ministries of defense, for example, even though they exist on paper.
While both Iran and the Arab Gulf states suffer from the syndrome of self-imposed institutional divisions when it comes to national defense and security—there is always an ill-equipped and -funded regular force and a much better-equipped and -funded elite force protecting the leadership, and there are always parallel national security bureaucracies—Iran has the sufficiently specialized and authoritative bureaucracies necessary for any sustained war effort. Such bureaucracies are either weak in the Arab Gulf or nonexistent.
National defense requires the rational functioning of a set of government bodies, bureaucracies, and institutions that are coherent, well-staffed, and civilian-led. Without a structured relationship between political leaders and military personnel, national defense planning and execution in essence exists in an institutional vacuum. Not that defense organization runs smoothly in Iran. Ideology heavily shadows the process and civil-military relations are imbalanced, to say the least. But the IRGC has carved out for itself a sizeable sphere of influence and autonomy in military (and economic) affairs, whereas it is impossible for military commanders in the Arab Gulf to do the same, as they operate under the tight supervision of princes and kings, some of whom lack military experience and strategic foresight.
Indeed, it is in the realm of strategy and military doctrine, mainly due to years of war in the past and currently in Iraq and Syria, that Iran’s leadership fares better than its Arab Gulf adversaries. To put it simply, Iranian leaders appreciate their military weaknesses and deliberately try to overcome them by mastering the asymmetric playbook, whether on land or at sea. To deny its Arab Gulf adversaries the strategic benefits of their qualitative conventional edge, the Iranian regime not only builds countermeasures but also expands its military power by allying with both Sunni and Shi‘a politico-military forces able to wreak havoc on its enemies from within. It tries to create, sustain, and expand a network of clients, both state (Syria under President Bashar Assad) and non-state (the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Yemen’s Houthis, Lebanon’s Hizballah, and an array of Iraqi and Bahraini militias), that can powerfully supplement Iran’s own power. Tehran’s model, though currently experiencing major difficulties in Syria, has doubtless brought strategic dividends since 1979.
The Iranian leadership’s likely thinking is that no amount of state-of-the-art military hardware in the GCC can offset the specter of internal instability. Iran’s oft-mentioned “destabilizing agenda” in the Middle East turns precisely on strategies to exploit societal and sectarian fault lines in neighboring Sunni-ruled countries. And it works: Iranian proxies currently dominate the Lebanese and Iraqi political and security landscapes and have a huge say over what happens in the Syrian and, to a lesser extent, Yemeni conflicts. Tehran has a good bit of influence in Manama too. Neither the Arab Gulf states nor the U.S. government have yet been able to counter Iran’s strategy.
While there has been increasing talk of containing Iran—the latest serious conversation on this issue happened at this past year’s U.S.-GCC summit in Riyadh—no actionable joint plan exists (though, again, one suspects similar gaps exist between the United States and its NATO allies with regard to the Russian threat). True, Saudi and Emirati intervention in Yemen is designed to block Iranian advances and prevent Tehran from turning the Houthis into a Yemeni Hizballah. Some GCC states’ indirect involvement in the Syrian conflict, through their support for various rebel groups, can be cited as a related example. Yet none of this has really hurt Iran or led to Arab Gulf strategic victories, and in some cases the effort may be counterproductive: The ineffectiveness and brutality of the Saudi air war in Yemen may make it easier for Iranian power to aggregate there.
Besides, the Iranian regime is fighting in Yemen on the cheap, which is typical of its proxy operating mode. Its investment has been modest, whereas Saudi and Emirati expenses have been relatively high and their military losses painful. Moreover, an outcome in Yemen that vindicates the Saudi-Emirati effort is nowhere in sight, such that all the Iranian elite need do to justify their investment is to make sure their side does not lose definitively.
In Syria, the Iranian regime’s position is much more precarious. It has lost many of its finest soldiers and generals in battle, and its number-one ally in the region, Hizballah, is exhausted, bleeding, and overstretched. Several of its commanders, including Mustafa Badreddine, have died in Syria. Yet despite these considerable costs, thanks to Russian help no political outcome can be negotiated in Syria without the Iranians. And the opportunities in Syria, regardless of Assad’s fate, are real and long term. Iranian influence has dramatically increased as a result of Assad’s weakness and the presence of Iranian and Hizballah military personnel on Syrian soil fighting alongside, if not directing, Assad’s forces.
Beyond Yemen and Syria, GCC leaders cannot (and have no desire to) replicate the Iranian playbook. Even though Iranian leaders occasionally claim that the Saudi monarchy is seeking to spread its influence in Iran by financing Wahhabi mosques and educational institutions across the country’s few Arab-majority areas (in Khuzistan province mainly), none of this is comparable to the Iranians’ proven meddling, for example in Bahrain. For the Saudis and other governments to seek to destabilize the ethnic composition of Iran would necessitate a dramatic shift in their national security approach and would constitute a risky proposition; the Iranian government might well react by dialing up its own game. Besides, any shift from defense to offense, even if the goal were still to enhance deterrence and persuade Iran’s leaders to stop or reduce their own meddling, would come with international reputational costs. Instead of going on the offense in this domain, the GCC leaders are better served by building more resilient and integrated societies and reforming their economic and political systems so as to leave as little room as possible for Iranian exploitation. This would constitute deterrence by denial par excellence—by far the most potent non-military and strategic response to Iran’s destabilizing strategy.
In the presence of major U.S. and British forward-deployed military deterrents in the Gulf, the likelihood of a large-scale war in the Gulf or Tehran causing great mischief is much reduced. The Iranian regime is neither careless nor irrational in its national security decisions, and has shown pragmatism and understanding of the dynamics of deterrence in the past.
However, recent regional and international trends are introducing a degree of unpredictability that could lead to greater instability in the Gulf and the broader Middle East: a reduced U.S. desire to get involved militarily in the region; an uncertain U.S. policy in the Middle East under a Trump Administration; the growing political, economic, and military involvement of Russia and China in the region; and profound political, generational, and economic changes in the Arab Gulf countries that are likely to affect future security and defense policies.
Furthermore, the type of Iran that we will see until the expiration of the deal will matter a great deal. In a post-nuclear-deal era, a main danger is that, depending on how the Trump Administration postures itself and deals with its partners, Iran’s leaders might misperceive U.S. intentions and test Washington’s resolve as never before. As mentioned previously, the regime would be smart to continue to avoid clashing directly with the United States and its partners, but it most probably will augment its paramilitary activities in the region and possibly even experiment with conventional contingencies that would create policy conundrums for the United States. Also, it is certainly not unthinkable that Iran abjure its commitments to the nuclear deal, especially if President Trump “dismantles” it as he stated numerously during the campaign.
Should the Iranians violate the agreement, it would dramatically alter the strategic and security landscape and reshuffle U.S. and Gulf perceptions and options. Nuclear proliferation is in nobody’s interest—arguably not even Iran’s—and would thoroughly destabilize the Middle East for numerous reasons, including questionable nuclear safety and control, and the risk of rapid escalation due to extremely short missile flight times. Yet even if the regime respects the deal, but chooses to resume its quest for a nuclear bomb some 15 years hence, the strategic repercussions would still be extremely serious, probably prompting the United States and other major Western stakeholders in the Middle East to introduce new capabilities to the region and, prior to that, possibly revisit the preventive military option.
If its ultimate ambition is regional hegemony, Iran will aim to achieve that goal at the least cost and risk. Since direct war is very costly and could be deadly for the regime, it will likely continue to focus on ways to weaken and divide its adversaries asymmetrically, and specifically make it as costly as possible for Washington to operate in the Gulf. That is precisely why Iran’s military is developing its asymmetric capabilities and investing in hybrid warfare. Surely, Iran’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenge is not as powerful or comprehensive as China’s in the Asia-Pacific or Russia’s in various parts of Europe and the Arctic, but it is a threat that U.S. military officials take seriously. The view from Tehran probably is that if Iran’s military cannot fight U.S. forces, at least it can delay a U.S. intervention or increase U.S. costs should there be a war between Iran and a GCC state. Such a delay could enable the regime in Tehran to create favorable facts on the ground that would be difficult to reverse, be it regime change in Arab Gulf capitals or greater infiltration of pro-Iran agents that could form a powerful insurgency or political force.
But Iran could reach too far, and elicit a punishing response from the United States. Finally in this regard, it is also possible, if unlikely, that the regime could be pulled into a fight on account of the untethered behavior of one of its proxies—notably Hizballah.
For the Trump Administration, all this counsels very close attention to optics—to how things look. The U.S. government must not give the impression either that we are leaving the region, drawing down too quickly, or that we have fallen out with our Arab regional partners and are therefore willing to let them rely on possibly dangerous forms of self-help. Whether U.S. policy can persuade its Gulf partners to reform in such a way as to make Iranian exploitation of their internal fault lines harder is questionable. But it can certainly support and accelerate trends in that direction that carry their own internal rationale. Above all, only the United States can lead an international effort to contain a thoroughgoing meltdown of the region’s Sunni polities and their security architecture with it. It’s very much unclear what policies the Trump Administration will pursue in the Middle East. It might reduce U.S. overinvestment in the region as much as did its predecessor, but it would be wise to better recognize the prudential limits of speed and scope when downsizing its portfolio.
Furthermore, the conversation about U.S. posture in the Gulf shouldn’t be solely focused on capacity or numbers of stationed U.S. military assets, it should also be about capabilities—and the right type of capabilities. There is no question that the United States, even with half the size of its current defense posture, could still perform ably the core missions of deterrence and defense in the Gulf. But that same robust posture is ill-equipped to deal effectively with the real, growing, and unconventional threats that Iran has posed to the regional order and security system.