The Iranian Long Game

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani used his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday to lay out a new system of collective security for the Persian Gulf exclusively involving regional states termed the “Hormuz Peace Initiative.”

Aspects of the proposed security architecture were pre-emptively published in the Iranian media, which highlighted plans for the creation of a “joint domestic structure” to ensure the security of all regional countries, implying high-level cooperation between Tehran and its current adversaries in the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia.

Tehran’s main selling point for this security blueprint is its claim to be predicated on UNSC Resolution 598 which brought an end to the war between Iran and Iraq in 1988. At the time, the resolution called for indigenous regional coordination to prevent future conflicts. According to President Rouhani, such cooperation would render the presence of foreign naval and other forces unnecessary.

“Security cannot be purchased or supplied by foreign governments. The peace, security and independence of our neighbours is the peace, security and independence of us. The United States is not our neighbour. The formation of any coalition and initiative, under whatever name, with the centrality and command of foreign forces is a clear example of interference in the affairs of the region,” President Rouhani said while addressing the General Assembly.

Throughout his speech, the president rebuffed the possibility of any further negotiations with the United States over its withdrawal from the JCPOA/Nuclear Agreement and called upon the states of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council to abandon their American and European patrons to instead join a new security architecture led by his country.

“It is the Islamic Republic of Iran which neighbours you and we have been long taught that neighbours come first. In the event of an incident, you and we shall remain alone. We are neighbours with each other and not with the United States. We are ready to spend our national strength, regional credibility and international authority. The solution for peace in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East should be sought inside the region,” the President said.

The ‘Hormuz Peace Initiative,’ will be seen in Washington as a challenge to its long-standing doctrine of maintaining military predominance in the Gulf which ensures its control of the movement of oil and natural gas and the vast economic power that flows from their sale.

Until 1979, the United States had enacted a  so-called “Periphery Policy” in the Middle East whereby allied non-Arab states, principally Israel, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran (then ruled by the Shah), would guarantee the security of the oil-producing Arab countries in the region, with the United States and Britain intervening only as a last resort.

This system received its first shock in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution overthrew the US-backed Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, severed relations with Israel and began supporting political revolutionaries throughout the Arab World, particularly in Iraq and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf.

With the loss of its valuable client, the United States instituted the “Carter Doctrine,” whereby any threat from a “foreign power” to Western access to the region’s energy would invite immediate and direct military intervention by the US.

The high point of American deployment to the Persian Gulf came with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which saw close to a million US and other allied personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia and neighbouring states, causing significant social disquiet.

The first decade of the 21st century saw a renewed expansion of America’s military footprint with its invasion and occupation of Iraq, ruled until 2003 by Saddam Hussein. Washington’s attempts to fashion a pro-American client regime foundered on both armed Iraqi opposition and Iran’s much deeper bonds with the Shi’a population who became politically dominant for the first time in the country’s history.

The long, drawn-out US withdrawal from Iraq, ending in 2011, was largely coloured by its concerns over increasing Iranian assertiveness. Despite its occupation of the country, Iraq has since seen administrations more economically and politically inclined towards Tehran than Washington, creating a contiguous arc of influence in the region extending to Syria and Lebanon, often described as the “Shi’a Crescent.”

The 2011 uprising in Bahrain further fuelled Western fears that Tehran and its allies in Baghdad would push for the political empowerment of the Gulf’s Shi’a populations and see US and other Western forces expelled altogether from the region.

While the United States is not dependent on the Persian Gulf for its energy needs, a sudden reorientation of the Gulf states’ investment towards Iran would not only immensely empower it, but see the loss of a vital source of stability for the global financial system, in which various Gulf states have massive and longstanding investments.

However realistic it may be at the moment, the Hormuz Peace Initiative represents the ideal end goal of a long game the Iranians have been playing for many decades.