Jerome H. Kahan
Mr. Kahan is an independent analyst with over 40 years of experience in the field of national security, having held senior positions in the Department of State and the Brookings Institution, where he authored a book titled Security in the Nuclear Age.
Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar — closely followed negotiations between Iran and the five Security Council members plus Germany (P5+1) that led to agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), unofficially known as the Nuclear Deal. In commenting on this outcome, an experienced former U.S. diplomat argued that the JCPOA might well take care of Iran's nuclear-weapons ambitions for the medium term but warned that, with sanctions lifted and more resources available for Iran to conduct disruptive activities in Yemen and Syria, this accord might have the effect of increasing the current sense of insecurity on the part of the Gulf countries — and then observed, "That's why strategic reassurance is necessary."1 Indeed, two months before the JCPOA was signed, the UAE ambassador to Washington, speaking at an Atlantic Council Forum, expressing concern over the continued destabilizing behavior of Iran and the overall dangerous regional environment, claimed that the Gulf states have become interested in a formal security guarantee from the United States: not a "gentleman's agreement," [but] "something institutionalized."2 A week later, President Obama invited leaders of the Gulf states to a rare summit meeting at Camp David, where mutual security relations were discussed.3
At the summit, President Obama applauded progress made by the recently formed U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum (SCF) in building a collective capability to address more effectively the range of threats facing the region: acts of terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and dangers to regional stability. Anticipating the interest of the Gulf states in a more formal security relationship with the United States, Obama explained that such an approach would not be fruitful, since treaties or other legal pacts "would have to be approved by a Congress wary of being legally sucked into any future conflicts in the region."4 However, in defending our de facto security assurances, the president reaffirmed "our ironclad commitment to the security of our Gulf partners, [and reiterated] that the United States is prepared to work jointly with GCC member states to deter and confront an external threat to any GCC state's territorial integrity, using the means at our collective disposal, including the potential use of military force, ... for the defense of our GCC partners."5 The president also made clear to Gulf leaders that the credibility of our security guarantees has been enhanced through such cooperative endeavors as forward basing for U.S. forces, mutual exchanges of intelligence information, joint military exercises, and U.S. provision of sophisticated military equipment and training to GCC members.
Before the summit ended, Gulf-state leaders responded positively to the U.S. proposal for establishing a new strategic partnership aimed at enhancing cooperation between the United States and the GCC collectively as well as with the Council's individual members.6 The United States declared that it would contribute to this partnership by providing assistance in such areas as counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, maritime and cybersecurity, and interoperability of military forces, as well as air and ballistic-missile defense. The United States also agreed to help its Gulf partners "accelerate the acquisition and fielding of key capabilities, [by taking] steps necessary to ensure arms transfers are fast-tracked..." and granting special status to all the Gulf states so they can obtain arms-purchasing benefits from NATO countries.7
In addition to a political agenda, the GCC for over three decades has sought to establish a collective-defense capability to protect its members from external aggression, rather than remaining reliant on the United States and other Western nations for security.8 A Joint Defense Agreement was formed among all GCC member nations to institutionalize the concept that "an attack on any member State meant an attack against all of them," and a unified military command was established for officers from each of the individual militaries to gain joint force experience.9 Despite these initiatives and the spending of many billions of dollars upgrading the military capabilities of individual Gulf states, progress towards a fully integrated GCC defense system has been hampered by several factors: the lack of equipment interoperability, the absence of cooperative combat, the need to enhance the professionalism and performance of military personnel serving in each state, and the inability of the member states to develop common threat perceptions. In short, efforts over the past three decades have not led to a GCC force that can assure the security of its members against growing external threats.
The failure of the GCC to develop the capabilities to defend its members has made U.S. security assurances to the Gulf states vital, requiring more emphasis on deeds than words. For example, the United States conducts exercises in conjunction with all six GCC states, offers combined training for their military units, and assists in making purchased equipment more interoperable — all essential building blocks for a potential GCC force. Additionally, the United States continues to base its forces on the territories of the Gulf states, with their consent. Currently, Saudi Arabia provides the United States with air and army bases; Kuwait, air and staging as well as critical port facilities; Bahrain, a critical base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet; Qatar, a major headquarters center with air bases and ports; the UAE, extensive docking and ship-repair capabilities as well as intelligence cooperation; and Oman, air and naval staging and prepositioning facilities.10
IMPLICATIONS OF THE NUCLEAR DEAL
The Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia, were initially not convinced that nuclear negotiations would lead to a successful outcome. Nevertheless, these nations endorsed the Nuclear Deal after being persuaded that it would severely constrain Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and that sanctions lifted would be "snapped back" if Iran violated the agreement. After attending the summit, Saudi King Salman described the Nuclear Deal as a turning point in strategic relations between the two allies.11 In the official Joint Summit Statement, the participants "affirmed their strong support for the efforts of the P5+1 to reach a deal with Iran ... that would verifiably ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, noting that such a deal would represent a significant contribution to regional security."12 When the JCPOA went into effect, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, "Now we have one less problem for the time being to deal with," Iran's nuclear threat.13
Notwithstanding the successful negotiation of the Nuclear Deal, many U.S. officials have been losing sleep over the thought that the Saudi leadership might acquire nuclear weapons for the purpose of countering Iran's deployment of them once the special terms of the agreement start to expire in 10 years. At least in theory, the kingdom could develop nuclear weapons within a decade as a spinoff of its planned peaceful nuclear-energy program. As a practical matter, however, this would pose an almost insurmountable challenge, given the lack of Saudi technical knowhow and manufacturing capabilities. Additionally, such an effort would put the kingdom at risk of the IAEA's detecting such a program in violation of Riyadh's nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) commitment.14 Even more worrisome is the prospect that the Saudis might acquire nuclear weapons in the near term to hedge against Tehran's abrogating the Nuclear Deal in a few years, after the bulk of the sanctions have been lifted.15 For either purpose, the Saudi leadership could seek to purchase nuclear arms from a nation like North Korea or possibly Pakistan.16 These would be dramatic and dangerous actions, warranting an immediate demarche by the president to the Saudi king if there were any indications that Riyadh was considering such options.
Meanwhile, almost 7,000 miles away, Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners have continued to worry that Washington would view closing the Nuclear Deal as an important step in building improved relationships with the Iranian leadership, putting at risk the longstanding relationship with the Gulf states. When the JCPOA was signed, leaders of the Gulf nations expressed concern that the United States will now "no longer have their back, ... abandoning them in hopes of allying with their nemesis, Iran."17 These and other such anxieties underscore the need for the United States to ensure that its security relationship with the Gulf states is rock solid, especially the nuclear guarantee that represents the cornerstone of our overall commitment.
In the latest Posture Statement, the Secretary of Defense implicitly tries to assuage Gulf states' concerns regarding their relationship with the United States by affirming the commitment and capabilities "to deter aggression and bolster the security of our friends and allies in the Middle East region, …strengthening the regional security architecture in a way that blunts Iran's ability to coerce its neighbors."18 He goes on to explain that this architecture requires the United States to maintain "tens of thousands of American personnel ashore and afloat in the region, along with our most sophisticated ground, maritime, and air and ballistic missile defense assets, [...helping] us stay ahead of the risks posed by Iran's ballistic missiles, naval forces, cyber capabilities, and support for terrorists and others in the region."19 While calming some concerns with these assurances, of particular interest to the Gulf states is the credibility of our nuclear security guarantees as represented by our "nuclear umbrella."
NUCLEAR SECURITY ASSURANCES
The euphemism "nuclear umbrella" is understood to mean a formal or informal guarantee by a nation with nuclear weapons to provide protection to one or more non-nuclear allied states threatened by a nuclear-armed adversary.20 As a key aspect of our overall security assurances we have unfurled an informal nuclear umbrella over the Gulf states, primarily to dissuade Saudi Arabia from acquiring nuclear weapons but to make all of these allies feel confident that we will "have their backs" if they are threatened by any nuclear-armed adversary. In addition, the NPT is also a vehicle for providing the Gulf states with "negative nuclear assurances" — a non-binding declaration by the United States that it would aid any non-nuclear-armed ally in deterring the threat of the use of nuclear weapons and retaliating against their use by any adversary.
As non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) party to the NPT, the Gulf nations are covered by UN Security Council Resolutions 255 and 984, approved in 1968 and 1995, respectively. They commit the United States and the four other nuclear weapons states (NWS) in a nonbinding pledge to "provide or support immediate assistance, in accordance with the Charter, to any NNWS that is a victim of an act or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used."21 That the resolutions also ask the NWS to "seek immediate Security Council action to provide assistance in accordance with the UN Charter" should be considered pro forma and need not stand in the way of rapid reactions on the part of the NWS in coming to the aid of a NNWS subjected to nuclear threats or actions.22
The Gulf states also fall under the unilateral negative security-assurance pledge given in connection with the 1995 UN resolution in which "the United States reaffirms that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons except in the case of an invasion or any other attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies, or on a State towards which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear-weapon State in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State."23
Our defense strategy has in different ways included some form of negative security assurances. In early 2002, this was broadened to explicitly protect its allies against all types of WMD threats, not just nuclear weapons and conventional attacks, declaring that "[i]f a weapon of mass destruction is used against the United States or its allies, we will not rule out any specific type of military response," including nuclear weapons.24 In September of that year, an unclassified version of National Security Presidential Directive 17 stated that "the United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force — including potentially nuclear weapons — to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies."25 A shorter version of this pledge appeared in the December 2002 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, where the United States affirmed, it "must be prepared to respond to the use of WMD against our citizens, our military forces, and [...our] allies." 26 Interestingly, the State Department spokesman then added what might be called calculated ambiguity to our assurances by saying, "We will do whatever is necessary to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, its allies, and its interests. If a weapon of mass destruction is used against the United States or its allies, we will not rule out any specific type of military response."27
From a different perspective, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) explains that the United States would consider the use of nuclear weapons only in "extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners."28 Although the current administration's policy is to reduce the size of our substantial nuclear-weapons inventory, analyses done under the NPR concluded that we will retain sufficient weapons to protect our allies — the Gulf states as well as our non-nuclear allies in Europe and Asia — against contingencies involving WMD threats. We will provide them with a survivable and credible U.S. "nuclear umbrella" composed of the strategic nuclear Triad, forward deployed non-strategic nuclear weapons, and additional U.S.-based nuclear weapons for rapid deployment. In this same vein, the latest National Security Strategy states, "U.S. forces will continue to defend the homeland, conduct global counterterrorism operations, assure allies, and deter aggression through forward presence and engagement. If deterrence fails, U.S. forces will be ready to project power globally to defeat and deny aggression in multiple theaters."29
These UN and defense-related U.S. negative nuclear-security assurances make our nuclear umbrella more believable and should serve to more credibly guarantee that we would come to the aid of any Gulf state whose security is endangered by an adversary nation brandishing nuclear or chem-bio weapons. However, there is more to be said about U.S. assurances that can contribute to the Gulf states' confidence about their security.
LESSONS FROM NATO
Article V of the NATO Treaty states, "An armed attack against one member is an attack against all," committing other members to immediately come to the aid of the endangered party, individually or collectively as they deem appropriate, including by the application of military force.30 It would make little sense for the GCC states to become members of NATO, given the organization's history, post-Cold War eastward expansion, and large number of European participants (26 of the 28 member countries).
Nevertheless, recognizing the security needs of the Gulf states, the Western alliance has reached out to form a security partnership with these nations via its Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), formed over a decade ago as a basis for cooperation between NATO and the GCC countries as well as other interested Arab states. The ICI aims to provide "'soft assets' such as intelligence sharing, training opportunities, and strategic consultancies for its member states."31 Regrettably, the ICI policy of only inviting individual states to join its organization, coupled with the absence of a cohesive multinational Gulf state entity, "has prevented the development of a unified GCC vision toward the strategic partnership with NATO."32
A more recent initiative, led by Saudi Arabia, is the possibility of forming an "Arab NATO," either by establishing a formal military alliance consisting of the six GCC states plus Morocco and Jordan, or by inviting these and other Arab States to become members of an expanded GCC that would need to adopt a new name.33 Despite the potential benefits of creating broader and more powerful multinational Arab military forces, many challenges would need to be overcome in implementing either of the foregoing approaches. For one thing, political infighting among GCC members stands in the way of making the existing GCC more unified. In addition, there are internal differences regarding which nations ought to be asked to join besides Jordan and Morocco. Finally, additional council members "with their disparate force compositions and equipment, would further complicate the effort underway to develop a joint fighting doctrine that includes interoperable equipment and communications."34
With the GCC not yet able to produce a functional multinational force to protect its members, the ICI not offering frontline support for GCC members, and an "Arab NATO" not likely to be in place in the near term, the importance of U.S. security assurance to the Gulf states has become even more significant as threats to the region increase.
REASSURING THEM OF OUR ASSURANCES
The uncertain and dangerous environment in the Middle East demands that the GCC states remain convinced that the United States will indeed stand behind our security assurances, including our extended-deterrence and nuclear-umbrella guarantees. We should recognize that "in today's international environment 'deterrence' should mean convincing the adversary not to attack because he will calculate that any such attempt would likely fail to achieve its political or military objectives and therefore not be worth the investment or the risk."35At the same time, we must accept that it is very demanding to reassure our Gulf allies we will honor our extended-deterrence commitment — by being both willing and able to come to their aid if they are threatened — whereas even a small chance of U.S. intervention would tend to have the effect of deterring adversarial actions.36
This proposition is especially apt if we have to reassure these states that our "nuclear umbrella" will safeguard their security by deterring potential nuclear-armed adversaries, thus obviating their need to acquire such weapons.37 Special attention should be paid to ensuring the Saudis trust this assurance and do not move to acquire their own nuclear weapons, even if Iran becomes nuclear-armed. To make our assurance more credible, we should reaffirm our nuclear guarantee to Gulf-state leaders in future high-level summits, hold institutionalized exchanges on deterrence and refrain from major reductions in our nuclear forces that might be seen as making our commitment less viable.38 Additionally, the United States should assure the Gulf allies that we will not allow our nuclear forces to be lowered to levels that cannot support our nuclear assurances, nor adopt a nuclear no-first-use policy.
We should take every opportunity to repeat the elements of our security assurances to the Gulf states, individually and as part of a series of meetings of the U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum (SCF). Holding such a meeting about the annual U.S. Defense Posture Statement can help our Gulf allies better appreciate the overall power and functionality of America's military forces.39 This perspective on extended deterrence should become part of our public pronouncements and be discussed at SCF meetings, along with the concept that certain ambiguities can actually serve to better deter aggression than more explicit guarantees tied to specific scenarios. These typically fail to predict actual contingencies, thus weakening the value of our assurances.
Actions, not mere words, are essential to making our extended deterrent believable to clients and their adversaries. This is why we need to continue to forward deploy forces in and around the GCC area, conduct joint exercises collectively and individually with the various states, and provide advanced offensive and defensive weaponry and expedited arms transfers. As a general proposition, experts argue that a more permanent stationing of ground forces is likely to produce greater assurance to the Gulf states than conducting exercises or deploying naval forces in nearby waters, "because they are unlikely to be withdrawn overnight and often are positioned where they will be directly engaged by an enemy attack, thus ensuring U.S. involvement in a conflict."40 This justifies an increase and expansion of our permanent forces as well as more effort by the United States to forward deploy naval forces in and around the Gulf area, including positioning a carrier group for significant stretches of time and sending such a group to the area in case a crisis erupts.
Care needs to be taken, however, not to give a "blank check" to the Gulf states that might lead one of them "to act recklessly because it believes that the [United States] will offer unconditional support, thus dragging [us] into an unnecessary conflict or war."41 From the opposite perspective, we should not be surprised if the Gulf states are always wary of our commitment to their security. These are inherent problems for any security relationship, but they are greater than for cases in which guarantees are embedded in a treaty. However, we can mitigate them by constantly reaffirming our assurances to come to the aid of the Gulf states if they are coerced or attacked by an adversary, including terrorist groups, while finding opportunities to warn potential adversaries of this obligation.
In sum, the United States needs to make our de facto security assurances to the Gulf states as politically binding as possible — when interpreted by these increasingly important allies — while maintaining highly credible, albeit not legally-binding, commitments to protect these states — when understood by Iran and other potential adversaries. Indeed, as elegantly put in a study on security assurances, "The credibility of deterrence and extended deterrence is a function of the perceptual lens of potential aggressors against the United States or its allies (the deterree), whereas the credibility of assurance is a function of the lens through which the state under the umbrella (the assuree) perceives and interprets U.S. capabilities and actions vis-à-vis the deterred."42
1 Martin Indyk, in Ashish Kumar Sen, "With an Eye on Iran, Gulf Countries Seek U.S. 'Security Guarantee,'" The Atlantic, May 7, 2015.
2 Sen, "With an Eye on Iran."
3 Julie Pace, "Obama Convenes Camp David Summit with Gulf State Leaders," Associated Press, May 14, 2015.
4 "Annex to U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Camp David Joint Statement," WhiteHouse.gov, May 14, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/05/14/annex-us-gulf-co….
5 "Remarks by President Obama in Press Conference after GCC Summit," WhiteHouse.gov, May 14, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/05/14/remarks-presiden….
6 "U.S.- Gulf Cooperation Council Camp David Joint Statement," WhiteHouse.gov, May 14, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/05/14/us-gulf-cooperat….
7 "Annex to U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Camp David Joint Statement," WhiteHouse.gov.
8 "Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC]," GlobalSecurity.org, 2011.
9 Brahim Saidy, "GCC's Defense Cooperation: Moving towards Unity," Foreign Policy Research Institute, October 2014.
10 Anthony H. Cordesman, Conventional Armed Forces in the Gulf: An Overview (First Working Draft: June 23, 2008), 2.
11 Christopher M. Blanchard, "Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations," Congressional Research Service, February 5, 2016.
12 "Annex to U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Camp David Joint Statement," WhiteHouse.gov.
13 Yeganeh Torbati and Julia Edwards, "Saudi Arabia Satisfied with Obama's Assurances on Iran Deal," Reuters, September 4, 2015.
14 Fareed Zakaria, "Why Saudi Arabia Can't Get a Nuclear Weapon," Washington Post, June 11, 2015; see also Sharona Schwartz, "Saudis Really, Really Don't Believe That the Iran Deal Will Prevent a Nuclear Weapon — So Much So That Saudi Media Has This Scary Suggestion on How to Respond," The Blaze, July 23, 2015.
15 Jerome H. Kahan, "Future of the Nuclear Deal: What If Iran Breaks Out?" currently under review for publication in another journal.
16 Najmedin Meshkati, "Atoms for Peace in the Persian Gulf: The Vital Byproduct of P5+1 Nuclear Agreement with Iran," Huffington Post, January 14, 2016.
17 Seth Mandel, "The Iran Deal Ensures a Mideast Arms Race — Nukes and All," New York Post, August 21, 2015.
18 Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, 2017 Defense Posture Statement: "Taking the Long View, Investing for the Future," February 2016, 6, 22.
19 Ibid. 23.
20 "Nuclear Umbrellas and Umbrella States," Key Issues in a Nutshell (International Law and Policy Institute, April 22, 2016).
21 UN Resolution 955, 1968; UN Resolution 984, 1995.
22 George Bunn and Roland M. Timerbaev "Security Assurances to Non-Nuclear-Weapon States," Nonproliferation Review (Fall 1993): 13.
23 "Declaration by President Clinton on Security Assurances for Non-Nuclear-Weapon States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," April 5, 1995.
24 Kelsey Davenport, "U.S.' Negative Security Assurances' At a Glance," Fact Sheets & Briefs, Arms Control Association, CA, September 2012.
25 NSPD-17 / HSPD 4 [unclassified version] National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, December 2002.
26 Ibid., 1.
27 Chris Jones, "Negative Security Assurance Audiences," Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 7, 2010.
28 Department of Defense Nuclear Posture Review Report, U.S., April 2010, 15.
29 National Security Strategy of the United States, February 2015, 8.
30 Robert Coalson, "What Are NATO's Articles 4 and 5?" Radio Free Europe, June 26, 2012.
31 "NATO Welcomes Closer Ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council," NATO, March 18, 2016, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_129393.htm.
32 Hany Beshr, "NATO and the Gulf: What's Next?" Middle East Institute, February 3, 2015.
33 "Amid Turmoil, GCC Extends Invitation to Jordan and Morocco," Middle East In Focus (Middle East Policy Council, May 16, 2011), http://www.mepc.org/amid-turmoil-gcc-extends-invitation-jordan-and-moro….
34 Stratfor, "The Arab League Contemplates a Joint Force," April 8, 2015.
35 Baker Spring," The Nuclear Posture Review's Missing Objective: Defending the U.S. and Its Allies against Strategic Attack," The Heritage Foundation, April 14, 2010.
36 Elaine Bunn, NDU Briefing to CSIS Workshop "Extended Deterrence and Assurance," June 2009.
37 Brad Roberts, The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (Stanford University Press, December 9, 2015), 8. Adapted from Denis Healey, Time of My Life (London: Michael Joseph, 1989), 243.
38 Clark A. Murdock and Jessica M. Yeats, "Exploring the Nuclear Posture Implications of Extended Deterrence and Assurance," Workshop Proceedings and Key Takeaways, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), November 2009, EXSUM, 5, 6.
39 The 2017 Defense Posture Statement: Taking the Long View, Investing for the Future, March 17, 201.
40 Kurt Guthe and Thomas Scheber, Assuring South Korea and Japan as the Role and Number of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Are Reduced, National Institute for Public Policy, January 2011.
41 Dingding Chen, "For The Diplomat, 4 Reasons Why Japan (Still) Doubts U.S. Security Assurances," April 29, 2014.
42 Murdock, 172.