Iran and the Gulf is an interesting compendium of multi-disciplinary papers, sponsored, edited and published by an official Arab agency. Its thirteen contributors include mostly political scientists, with a sprinkling of military strategists, Islamic historians and regional planners. The authors include retired military officers, seasoned foreign-service Arabists and intelligence analysts, as well as some young academicians. The topics range from Iran's theocratic politics and government to its bilateral relations with Arab neighbors, its military-economic capabilities for becoming a regional hegemon, and its juxtaposition vis-a-vis the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
As in most such collections of essays, the content and quality of papers vary considerably, and their relevance to the study's main focus is uneven. Several articles are merely synopses of the authors' published works, referenced in the bibliography, and some have already appeared in one or two other publications. The essays on the Islamic government's institutions, Shiite political thought, Iran's policy on Northwest Asia, and Iran's development plans-while all valid scholarly pieces in themselves-are only obliquely related to the study's principal theme.
On the whole, no more than half the work deals squarely with the subject matter. Curiously enough, one of the smallest segments of the study-4 pages out of 350--is devoted to a discussion of the "islands dispute" between the Islamic Republic and its Gulf neighbors to the south, which is very simply the only on-going conflict (or ''threat to stability"). It is written by a prominent UAE citizen, from the federation's standpoint, with no opportunity offered for the presentation of an Iranian brief. It is interesting also that, while Israel is mentioned here and there by some authors in passing, no specific essay is devoted to the overarching role of the Jewish state in the region’s elemental stability.
The study is built around the question, "What measures-whether political, economic, or social in nature--are likely to promote enduring peace and prosperity in the Gulf?" (p. I). This is indeed an intriguing question, but the scholars who are asked to "find" answers succeed largely in identifying the challenges confronting Iran and the region. As could be expected, they offer little by way of practical or feasible solutions.
The article by Mehdi Noorbakhsh on the structure of the current theocratic regime, focusing on the interactions between radical, reformist and populist elements within Iranian society, concludes that Islamic puritanism has failed to establish a viable political system in Iran. But as to future events, he says, "We shall have to wait and see" (p. 46). Bahman Baktiari's chapter on the current governing institutions presents a thorough description of Iran's decision-making apparatus not found in other works on Iran. He argues that limited popular participation and some decentralization of state power have made the Iranian system "more democratic" than before, but wonders how long these institutions will "survive without coming into conflict with each other" (p. 69). Mohsen Milani's piece on Iran’s Gulf policy rightly traces the shift in the regime's foreign policy from the early romantic/ revolutionary adventurism to a subsequent pragmatic and nationalistic stance. But his suggested approach toward the resolution of regional problems does not go beyond such irrefutable niceties as peace, not war; economic integration, not isolation and protectionism; and political dialogue, not mistrust and suspicion. His one concrete proposal for the formation of a regional trade bloc-apart from arguable theoretical validity for the region's competing (rather than complementary) economies-may also be challenged; many attempts since the 1970s to form such blocs (RCD, ECO, GCC and others) have still to bear palpable positive results. But he is on the right track in his recommendation.
James Bill's "Geometry of instability" correctly identifies the conflicting vital interests of the major players in the region-Iran, Iraq, the GCC and the United States-and justifiably relates the clashes of these interests to the causes of instability and intra-regional wars. Yet, again, his suggestion about the need for local rulers to promote democratic pluralism and for the United States to assume a lower profile in the Persian Gulf as a means of ensuring durable stability-while arguably a right prescription-falls in the category of wishful thinking. Given the tribal, patrimonial and culturally autocratic character of the current regimes, what chances are there for the present custodians of centuries-old traditions to relinquish power during a foreseeable time horizon? Can Washington realistically be expected to leave its crucial but fragile allies in the region at the mercy of a regional hegemon? Can local bullies be trusted to behave in the absence of a U.S. presence in the area? Remember Iraq's recent move against the Iraqi Cardias despite all U.N. resolutions.
The two papers on Iran's relations with the GCC states and with Saudi Arabia by Anwar Gargash and Saleh al-Mani painstakingly review past history in appreciable detail, but their suggestions for improving those relations offer few chances for easy adoption. Gargash speaks of establishing institutional mechanisms for "confidence building" measures between Iran and its southern neighbors. Al-Mani wants a Saudi Iranian dialogue to include "religious matters" in their relationship.
Kenneth Katzman's focus on the Revolutionary Guard (Sepal) as the central element in safeguarding the revolution, spearheading the interests of radical factions within the Iranian armed forces, and influencing Iran's foreign policies-the theme of his major work on the subject-is thought-provoking but a bit dated. Now being organized along a regular military hierarchy with ranks, salaries, privileges and pensions in place, the Guard has lost much of its early messianic radicalism and joined the mainstream political forces. While it is being kept and supported by many factions in the regime as a bulwark against any possible coup attempts by the regular armed forces, it is not now regarded by many as the true guardian of the revolution. Reports coming from Iran indicate that the regime now suppresses occasional local popular uprisings not by the police or the Sepah, but by the Baseej (volunteer militia) and Ansar (auxiliary street bullies), in whom it evidently has greater trust.
The two articles by Anthony Cordesman and Geoffrey Kemp on Iran's military and political capability to pose a real threat to the region are more directly relevant than most papers to the study's quest for answers. The Cordesman piece is not only thorough but also highly objective in evaluating Iran's threats and non-threats to the region-a feat that could be expected from a man of his expertise, experience and judgment on both this subject and the area as well.
The well-written and copiously referenced essay by Jamal al-Suwaidi, the editor, on the Gulf security dilemma is, as expected, the most tightly tied in with the study's central issue. But it regrettably appears as rather one-sided, as he begins with the proposition, attributed to "the international community," that the Islamic Republic is "a major threat to the stability of the Gulf region" (p. 439). This axiomatic embracing of the proposition appears even more partisan because many military analysts (including Cordesman) effectively argue that it is Saddam Hussein who is militarily stronger, and see hegemony and dominance in the region as Iraq's destiny. Left also untreated in the study are the threats the Arab countries face from their own domestic opposition. Al-Suwaidi's examination of the issues is scholarly and informed, but his sources on the Iranian economy are not the most reliable; his interpretation of Tehran's attitude as paranoia is a bit exaggerated; and his strong defense of Washington’s words and deeds regarding the Islamic Republic is not shared by many, including Iran's other trading partners.
Judging the volume as a whole, one must appreciate the richness of its information and analysis. From all indications, special care has been taken by the editor and the sponsoring agency to select topics and authors in such a way as to avoid an appearance of a partisan or polemical stance against the Tehran government. To this end, even some writers known for their strong personal sympathy toward the Islamic Republic are included among the contributors. Nevertheless, the study's bias in at least one respect is ill concealed. Identifying the region ostensibly as the Gulf in the study's title and in the inserted maps instead of the historical and universal usage of the term Persian Gulf, has long been considered a hostile gesture on the part of ultra-Arab nationalists against Iran. The omission has been a sore point not only with the leaders of current and previous regimes, but in fact with Iranians of all political stripes-a fact which the sponsoring agency must have known all too well.
Finally, while editing a group of such disparate essays into a consolidated and coherent volume has clearly been a challenging task-and done with admirable skill-some occasional errors in summarizing individual articles have crept into the Introduction. For example, the statement on page 4 that the 1989 revision of the Iranian 1979 Constitution "no longer requires the office [of the President] to be occupied by a leading marja" is clearly incorrect. The post-revolution presidents of the Islamic Republic were never required to be a marja (source of emulation); none has had such a position; and, in fact, two of the four occupants of the office since 1979 were not even clerics. Likewise, calling Iran the "linchpin" of Western strategy during much of the Cold War (p. 1), or labeling the present Iranian economy "moribund" (p. 5) or "comatose" (p. 11), sounds somewhat hyperbolic. Despite this, Iran and the Gulf is a lucid, well-researched and readable study worthy of careful scrutiny by students of Persian Gulf affairs.