Sunday 01 November 2020
The bipolarity between the Shia Iran and the Sunni Saudi has emerged, with surrounding states aligning accordingly – either with Iran or with the GCC. Iran’s regional policies, its nuclear programme and the impact upon Balance of Power have long been the focus of International Relations studies (IR)–particularly since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Balance of Power theory is one of the oldest concepts in the theory and practice of IR, and is indeed considered one of the central theoretical concepts in IR. Waltz (1979) contends that Balance of Power is the fundamental organising principle of international politics.
Balance of power in the Arabian Gulf is integral towards maintaining security. The balance of power that existed in Iraq previously boosted security in the Arabian Gulf but when Iraq was dismantled by the US invasion, the power balance shifted from the Arab States to Iran. This break in the traditional balance of power, consisting of Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia was dismantled, resulting in a power vacuum in the Arab Gulf. This has made external influence (primarily that of the US) pivotal in setting the regional security agenda. Yet, the balance of power set by the US in the post-Iraq war has failed to cope with emerging security threats, such as ethnic rivalries, an increased divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the rise of extremist groups, such as IS and territorial disintegration. Indeed, Gulf security is not simply a sub-regional concern, but closely linked with systemic changes; namely, the strategic interests of the US in the region are interlinked with the maintenance of its global hegemony (Gariup, 2008) (Eisenstadt and Knights, 2016).
However, Iran’s hostile behaviour has greatly affected the balance of power, constituting a major threat, worsened by the fact that Iran is allegedly acquiring nuclear weapons and the ongoing support for Houthis movement in Yemen, the attack on Saudi oil installations and on oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, which is surmounting tensions in the region, with a major shift in power balance. Iran is a major power in the Arabian Gulf, therefore, any imbalance in the country will not only affect the country but the whole region, if we accept that central principles of the Balance of Power theory.
Recent nuclear developments in Iran have been of international concern, despite the Trump administration's withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran, Iran is still making appreciable progress toward nuclear weapons (Seligman, 2019) (Schake, 2020). Furthermore, the Arab Gulf region will be the most affected by any further developments, not only in the case of a nuclear attack by Iran but also in the case of a nuclear power plant melt-down or WMD.
By Iran’s own admission, its biggest enemy within the Arabian Peninsula is Israel (the US’s biggest ally in the Middle East). As a result, the security within the region is extremely volatile (Da Cruz, 2020). This is a matter of concern due to the myriad of hybrid complex political alliances in the Middle East, and of course as a means to assess whether neighbouring countries such as the UAE’s security concerns are proportionate to the likelihood of a nuclear attack against them, if Iran were to become nuclear-ready.
Arguably, power balance has been a problem in the Arabian Gulf as countries strain to gain power to control the region in terms of weaponry development. However, Iran’s nuclear development has seen Israel and the West deeply troubled by the shift in power, coupled with the reluctance exhibited by Russia and China toward curbing Iran’s nuclear programme’s advancement. This situation could arguably pose a more volatile situation, as a predisposal of war between the world power states.
Barzegar (2010) opined that the Balance of Power theory seems to be inappropriate in bringing about security and stability in the Gulf region in today’s world. In such systems, the possibilities of generating worries, disbeliefs, catastrophes, conflicts and hostilities are many and varied. Balance of security might form the latest strategy of the countries in the Gulf region for the purpose of establishing peace, security and stability in the region. A highly relevant and current example of such a balance of security is perhaps the ongoing Yemeni crisis, which is a proxy war between Iran and the GCC States in essence.
In contention with the view of Barzegar, Western nations (particularly the US), consider that balance of power is crucial in the case of the Arab Gulf region. Many commentators postulate that the US government actively interferes in the Arab Gulf region, either through direct or indirect associations with nations in the region. The efforts made by the US aim to prevent any form of power build-up in the region that might ultimately turn against their own interests in the region. Pre-9/11 researchers like Wohlforth et al (2007) described the US as a status quo power that dominates nearly all power-relevant issues in foreign policy.
When evaluating the power situation in the Arabian Gulf region, the current situation in Iraq is highly relevant. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the US led to the expansion of Iran’s influence in the region (Eisenstadt and Knights, 2016). As a result, the US now faces the dilemma of how it can mitigate potential threats to its interests if Iran succeeds in consolidating its new position as the leading power in the region (Carpenter and Innocent, 2007). Nevertheless, the US still plays a major role in regulating the power balance in the region, especially by preventing countries like Iran from becoming too dominant in the region. As a result, from the start of the Iraq conflicts in 2003, Iran and the US have battled with each other to establish and augment their new functions and tasks in the region. Presently, actions considered security-enhancing in Washington are regarded as bringing insecurity to the region in Tehran.
Up until the new Millennium, the balance of power tilted towards Israel due to a strong economy, a plethora of foreign investors and of course full backing by the US (Da Cruz, 2020). Israel was the only country in the Arabian Peninsula to possess nuclear weapons without any particular opposition from the international community, but right after the new millennium, Iran started its undeclared nuclear research. Whilst it remains unclear what exactly Iran’s military objectives are, it appears that Iran’s main regional enmities are Israel and Saudi Arabia and with the looming threat of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon in the near future, there is cause for concern. The current intentional focus is for major powers to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through diplomatic efforts, such as the JCPOA agreement and the current Trump administration’s sanctions. With a power play between Saudi Arabia and Iran competing to be the regional hegemon, a strategically and economically important state such as the UAE is highly vulnerable.
Balance of power can be attained only through relying a great deal on the immense power association and the means by which such powers are connected to local systems (Barzegar, 2010, p. 10). In the changed political and strategic scenario, the balance of interests appears to be suitable for establishing peace and security in the Gulf region rather than balance of power. A new security arrangement should primarily be based on a new definition of the nature of the threat; thus, a precise understanding of the aims of all involved players and an identification of common security concerns and interests is paramount. But high levels of security are attainable only through developing proper cooperation and associations with all the major regional players in this region.
In summary, to attain balance of power in such hybrid and complex alliances region, there is a need for developing capabilities in line with the challenges as well as to establish right levels of security associations and partnering at national and international levels.