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The Changing of the Guard: The Persian Gulf between Two Superpowers

by ALI VAEZ in Washington, D.C.

15 Dec 2010 23:289 Comments

Pax Iranica's rise and fall, and the 1971-1991 interregnum between British and U.S. hegemony.

4.jpg[ feature ] On December 19, 1971, as HMS Achilles and HMS Intrepid sailed out of the Persian Gulf, the curtain fell on more than a century of British imperium in the region.1 No superpower, however, rushed to fill the sede vacante of Great Britain. For the first time since the arrival of the European colonialists, the Persian Gulf was left at liberty to seek its own destiny. The subsequent two decades (1971-1991) proved to be an interlude between the twilight of the British Raj and the advent of the American hegemon. The eventful interregnum transformed the Persian Gulf into the scene of turmoil and conflict, and stained its cerulean waters with blood and oil. By reexamining the history of the interregnum, this article attempts to answer the question, "Does the most critical chokepoint in the world always need the guardianship of a superpower or can the countries of the region defend their own national interests, territorial integrity, and oil fields?"

The Dusk of Pax Britannica

When Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the British foreign secretary, told the House of Commons in 1971 that all permanent British forces in the Persian Gulf would be withdrawn by the end of the year, he signaled the end of the last important vestige of the 19th century's Pax Britannica and opened the door to what could be a major, and possibly painful, reconstruction of the Middle East.2

British forces first entered the Persian Gulf in 1622 to assist the Safavid Empire in expelling the Portuguese, who had arrived almost a century earlier.3 The British Empire needed to protect the critical gateway to its crown jewel, India. The strategic importance of the Persian Gulf in the "Great Game" and the discovery of oil in the 20th century significantly increased the stakes for Britain. The British became the sole guarantor of security in the region by a remarkably smart design. The empire maintained a small naval force in the Persian Gulf complemented by its vast strategic reserve in India that could be used for "gunboat diplomacy," if necessary.

The winds of change, however, started blowing on the gulf in the aftermath of World War II. The independence of India, the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and a dire financial situation forced the British to abdicate from their role as the arbiter of order in the Persian Gulf. The 14-percent devaluation of the pound sterling in 1967 accelerated the impetus for abandoning overseas military commitments.4 As Chancellor of the Exchequer Roy Jenkins, said in 1968, "Great Britain was no longer a superpower."5

During the three-year transition, from the announcement of withdrawal to the actual departure of its last ships from the Persian Gulf, Britain worked assiduously to find a viable formula for solving the region's political and territorial problems. Its role was transformed from the hegemonic power of the region to the mediator of territorial disputes. The British were able to solve several problems, but some are still awaiting resolution after four decades. The seven Trucial States (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, 'Ajman, Ra's al-Khayma, Umm al-Qaywayn, and al-Fujayra), despite considerable differences, formed the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The British persuaded the Shah of Iran to agree to a U.N.-organized plebiscite that gave Bahrain its independence. They failed, however, to solve the riddle of the disputed islands of Abu Musa and the two Tunbs. Iran captured the three islands on November 30, 1971, just days before the British granted the UAE their independence.6 The strategic acquisition of these islands, located on the world's oil highway, was Iran's first bid for supremacy following the British departure.

The design that the British left behind was by nature combustible: a patchwork of a few rival large states predominating over resource-rich but vulnerable small states. They also did not designate any successor to become the new "Gendarme of the Persian Gulf." The task of determining the succeeding order was left to the new superpower, the United States of America.

From Twin Pillars to Dual Containment

Although the Americans had demonstrated interest in establishing a footprint in the region since the Red Line Agreement of 1928, and the acquisition of the Saudi oil concession in 1933, the timing of the British departure was not ripe for them. The United States was stretched thin in Vietnam and heavily engaged in the Cold War. America had to stay aloof from the Persian Gulf for the time being. As Kissinger wrote in 1968, "No country can act wisely simultaneously in every part of the globe at every moment of time."7 Nonetheless, the United States had two central and strategic interests in the gulf: preserving access to its oil supplies, and preventing Soviet expansion. Lacking the military wherewithal and political will to fill the vacuum, Washington decided to rely on surrogates. Hence, the "Twin Pillars" policy was formulated by the Nixon admiration.8 Iran and Saudi Arabia were designated to play the role that the British had held for more than a century.

The first two years of the interregnum proved to be a time of confusion and insecurity. The large states engaged in a wild arms race and the small states struggled to find their identities. The Shah of Iran had always dreamed of assuming primacy in the Persian Gulf. As the natural regional hegemon, with the highest population and most sophisticated military, Iran took a paramount and proactive role to fulfill its new mandate of regional leadership. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, was more passive and preoccupied with internal issues. King Faisal refrained from resolving the border dispute with UAE. He also abstained from providing help to Oman for its fight against the communist-backed Dohfar rebels. Instead, the Shah sent 3,000 troops to put down the long- standing insurgency.9 Washington encouraged American weapons manufacturers to sell $8.3 billion worth of arms to Iran between 1970 and 1979, and some 50,000 American advisers helped expand and train the Shah's army and secret police.10 However much the Shah was acting as a proxy, the British withdrawal had ushered in Pax Iranica.

The 1973 Yom Kippur War interrupted the relative calm of the interregnum's first two years.11 A coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in an attempt to recapture the lost grounds of the 1967 Six-Day War, an issue of visceral importance for the Arab masses. Many oil-producing states imposed an oil embargo on the United States for its unwavering support of Israel. This was the first effective use of oil as a weapon, and it made leaders in Washington realize that they had little leverage on countries in the Middle East. The United States understood well that to be an effective arbiter of events, it would need to have a regional presence. However, because of its Vietnam-induced paranoia of entrapment, the United States did little to improve its capabilities in the 1970s. It even turned down the offer by Sultan Qaboos of Oman to take over former British bases on Masirah Island.12 The superpower preferred to continue its colossal arms sales to its Middle Eastern policeman. By the middle of the decade, considerable success had been achieved in establishing a modus vivendi among the three largest powers in the region. Even though differing alignments with the United States and the Soviet Union persisted, the risk of interstate disputes in the region was considerably reduced.

Then the "unthinkable" happened. The Shah's regime fell and the Twin Pillars tumbled. The establishment of a revolutionary Islamic state, led by a reactionary anti-Western cleric, proved to U.S. policymakers that relying on the regional players to safeguard American interests in the Persian Gulf was not a viable strategy. Following the American embassy hostage crisis in Iran and the realization that the lack of air and sea presence made rescuing the hostages impossible, the Americans felt the need for a local projection of superpower might. The solution came in the form of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF),13 a solution similar to the means by which the British Empire had managed the affairs of the Persian Gulf for decades. Soviet expansionist policies in the region, manifested in the attack by communist-backed South Yemen on the Saudi-aligned North and the Soviets' own invasion of Afghanistan in the dying days of 1979, prompted a major shift in U.S. policy. The Nixon Doctrine was laid to rest and replaced by the Carter Doctrine, announced by President Jimmy Carter in his State of the Union address on January 23, 1980:

Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.14

At the same time the Iranian regime, eager to export its revolutionary brand of Islam, was threatening its neighbors. Eager to nip the Iranian theocracy in the bud, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein exploited the postrevolutionary turmoil and invaded Iran on September 22, 1980.15 It was the start of an eight-year war. The U.S. position on the Iran-Iraq War was best summarized by Henry Kissinger, who said, "It's a pity they both can't lose."16 Thus was laid the foundation of a policy that was eventually labelled by Martin Indyk, during the Clinton administration, as "dual containment."17 The aim was to weaken and contain both countries by manipulating the balance of power. Effectively caught within the combat zone, in 1981 six regional countries (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and UAE) created the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a collective security measure.18 The war took a terrible turn in 1986, when each side began destroying the other's seaborne traffic, particularly oil tankers.19 The Iranians even targeted Saudi and Kuwaiti tankers in retaliation for their support of Saddam. Washington was forced to engage directly in securing the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf by reflagging and escorting the Kuwaiti tankers. In adopting this course of action, dubbed Operation Earnest Will, the United States was walking a perilous line.20 The policy ultimately resulted, for the first time, in open hostilities between the United States and Iran. On April 14, 1988, USS Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine and nearly sank.21 Four days later, in what became known as Operation Praying Mantis, U.S. forces destroyed two Iranian oil platforms. The two Iranian patrol boats that responded were also wrecked by American forces.22

The last tragic act of this confrontation occurred on July 3, 1988. USS Vincennes, supporting a convoy operation in the Strait of Hormuz, shot down an Iranian civilian airliner.23 Flight 655, with 291 passengers, including 66 children and staff, tumbled into the Persian Gulf in flames. There were no survivors. Unable to fight a war on two fronts, the pragmatic leaders of Iran decided not to retaliate. At last, in July 1988, the ruin and fatigue of the war forced Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to drink the "poison chalice" and accept a U.N.-mediated cease-fire.24 Although the American support during the 1980s warmed its relations with the Arab states in the Persian Gulf, by the end of war, the United States still possessed neither a regional land base nor a commitment to maintain day-to-day security in the region. With the end of the war, most of the country's military forces sailed home and their local presence was drawn down to prewar levels.25 However, a new order was on the horizon with the end of the Cold War.

The Dawn of Pax Americana

It took the desperate gambit of the Iraqi tyrant to permanently bring the United States to the Persian Gulf. The dire economic situation in war-torn Iraq and Kuwait's refusal to pardon its $14 billion debt pushed Saddam to reclaim what he called "Iraq's nineteenth province." In the early hours of August 2, 1990, Iraqi Republican Guards invaded Kuwait.26 The Bush administration strongly condemned the invasion and immediately started to consider its military options. Three days after the fall of Kuwait, King Fahd agreed to host the U.S. troops. American-led coalition forces launched Operation Desert Storm's air campaign on January 17, 1991, followed by the land campaign on February 24.27 The allies successfully evicted the Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Yet the United States decided not to directly defang Saddam and instead called upon Iraqis to "put him aside." However, because of loopholes in the hastily formulated postwar cease-fire, the subsequent Kurdish rebellion in the North and Shia revolt in the South was brutally suppressed by the Ba'athist regime.

After the triumphant victory of the allies, several Arab states, including Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, and Oman, agreed to host American forces on a permanent basis.28 The United States sensed the Arab political willingness and hospitable atmosphere in the region and jumped at the opportunity to plant its roots along the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, the low-intensity war with Saddam and the naval and air embargo on Iraq necessitated the large presence of U.S. forces. Two decades after Great Britain's departure, the United States had arrived to stay.

Two decades after the establishment of Pax Americana, the United States is facing economic hardships similar to those confronted by the British in 1968. Additionally, new contenders -- China and India, with their growing energy demands -- are emerging. The events that occurred during the interregnum confirmed that the world's most valuable and vulnerable waterway is an inveterately mercurial place. Although the turmoil that followed the British withdrawal can be partly blamed on the hasty, ill-conceived manner of its pullout, revolutionary fervor in Iran, and Saddam's adventurism, there are multiple inherent conflicts of interest in the region because of historical grievances and ethno-religious schisms. The innate instability of the Persian Gulf, however, does not justify the need for the constant presence of an exogenous superpower. As two-fifths of the world's oil passes through the 21-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz, the arduous burden of maintaining its flow and the security of the oil-producing countries should be a shared global responsibility and not that of a single nation.

A new international arrangement for the security of the Persian Gulf is required. An appropriate 21st-century modus operandi could consist of a security condominium that divides responsibilities and economic burdens and is acceptable to all the countries in the region.


1 William Taylor Fain, American Ascendance and British Retreat in the Persian Gulf Region (2008), 169

2 Tore T. Petersen, Richard Nixon, Great Britain and the Anglo-American Alignment in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula (2009), 51

3 Kirti N. Chaudhuri, The English East India Company: The Study of an Early Joint-Stock Company 1600-1640 (1999), 64

4 David Reynolds, Britannia Overruled: British Policy and World Power in the Twentieth Century (2000), 34

5 Petersen, Richard Nixon, Great Britain, 25

6 Kourosh Ahmadi, Islands and International Politics in the Persian Gulf: Abu Musa and Tunbs in Strategic Perspective (2008), 104

7 Fain, American Ascendance and British Retreat, 181

8 Ibid., 199

9 Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin, Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (2005), 84

10 Joe Stork, "The US in the Persian Gulf: From Rapid Deployment to Massive Deployment," Middle East Report (January/February 1991)

11 Fain, American Ascendance and British Retreat, 197

12 Jeffrey R. Macris, The Politics and Security of the Gulf: Anglo-American Hegemony and the Shaping of a Region (2010), 205

13 Ibid., 150

14 Ibid., 210

15 Michael A. Palmer, Guardians of the Gulf: A History of America's Expanding Role in the Persian Gulf, 1883-1992 (1999), 118

16 Geoffrey Wawro, Quicksand: America's Pursuit of Power in the Middle East (2010), 175

17 Gregory Gause, "The Illogic of Dual Containment," Foreign Affairs (March/April 1994)

18 Ahmadi, Islands and International Politics in the Persian Gulf, 120

19 Palmer, Guardians of the Gulf, 128

20 Ibid., 136

21 Bradley Peniston, No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf (2006), 115

22 Harold Lee Wise, Inside the Danger Zone: The U.S. Military in the Persian Gulf 1987-88 (2007), 217

23 Ali M. Ansari, Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Crisis in the Middle East (2006), 115

24 Baqer Moin, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah (2009), 269

25 Palmer, Guardians of the Gulf, 150

26 Ibid., 163

27 Alberto Bin, Desert Storm: A Forgotten War (1998), 171-211

28 Macris, The Politics and Security of the Gulf, 226

Ali Vaez was born and raised in Iran. He is a scientist and holds a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from the University of Geneva. He is also a journalist and worked as Radio Free Europe's chief correspondent in Switzerland for four years. He moved to the United States in 2008 to work as a research fellow at Harvard Medical School. He is currently a candidate for a Master of International Public Policy at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at vaez@jhu.edu.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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Mr. Vaez,

Reference to, "Iran captured the three islands on November 30, 1971, just days before the British granted the UAE their independence."

I have read that the Islands have always belonged to Iran. Although they are valuable strategic assets, but they have always been part of our sacred territory. I would like to get some input from you on this matter please.
On the other hand, I had one Bahraini friend who told me as far as their citizenry is concerned Bahrain was an Arab country and they did not understand why Iranians referred to their country as part of their own. Was Bahrain just a claim on our part?
Finally, I believe the following is a more accurate account of the confrontation of April 18, 1988, in response to frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts striking an Iranian mine which almost sank the ship,
On the Iranian side:
1 frigate sunk (Sahand)
1 gunboat sunk
3 speedboats sunk
1 frigate damaged
2 platforms damaged
On the American side:
1 helicopter crashed
2 marines killed (crew of helicopter)

Niloofar / December 16, 2010 12:18 AM

I wonder who fact checked this? In the issue of the two Tunbs and Abu Musa islands: In late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the British occupied a number of Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf, either directly or through assumed sovereignty for the so-called Trucial Emirates. These included Tunbs and Abu Musa as well as Qeshm, Hengam and Sirri islands. A War Office map, presented by the British Minister in Tehran to the Shah in 1888 confirmed all these islands, as Iranian owned. Iran's case was further strengthened with the publication in 1892 of Lord Curzon's Persia and the Persian Question in which the map also showed the islands as Iranian territory.

I also would like to get some input on this.

mehrzad / December 16, 2010 8:00 AM

Mehrzad, your patriotic feelings are understandable, but you should do your homework, first. I don't believe the issue in this piece is about the sovereignty of the islands. Nonetheless, since you raise this point, I think the most logical question to ask is then “why did the Shah send troops to the islands after the withdrawal of the British?” Clearly, because the ownership of the islands was disputed regardless of what historical evidence suggested. To complicate matters more in the 1960s the British transferred the sovereignty of Abu Musa to the rulers of Sharjah. I assume you have heard about the MOU between the Shah and the Emirs of Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah. You have also read in history books that the Shah granted the independence of Bahrain in exchange for full sovereignty over the islands. Again, as I understand, this article only points to the moment that Iran moved to regain full control of the islands and does not question their original ownership by Iran. As with everything Iran-related, this issue is not black and white and there is certainly a lot of room for gray areas.

Elham / December 16, 2010 6:20 PM

The strength of Pax Americana is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. The Pax Britannica of the 19th century was marked by a "hundred years peace" whereby the UK hegemon allowed Europe to fight the wars, and Britain to reap the benefits; British wars were solely colonial affairs. The last war the US fought and won was arguably WWII, and its subsequent "Pax" is best placed between 1945 and 1973 or thereabouts. The US triumphalism of the 1990s, which is probably what this article is describing, was relatively short-lived - the article fails to mention that within this supposed hegemonic control of the Persian Gulf the US is now fighting 4 ongoing wars (including Yemen). What kind of Pax is that? Furthermore, how is this a symbol of American power? It is in reality a symbol of the failure of power - the need for coercion in place of what the entire concept of an "imperial peace" means. This is post-hegemonic geopolitical chaos.

Keyvan / December 16, 2010 7:27 PM

This is a very informative article. It is clear and cogent and cogent and well supported by the scholarly literature. Some of the comments here are emotional.

Rasool / December 16, 2010 8:25 PM

Rasool unless you read English different to I there is nothing emotional about any of the comments that I can see.I tend to agree with mehrzad and Niloofar.The islands have always been part of Iran.That is a historic fact.Elham's comment about sending troops to the islands is ridiculous.What else were they supposed to do?That is their job.They must secure the Iranian territory.If there is one thing I dislike most is some people's attempt to white wash errors in articles by a- praising the writer and b- down playing the unfavorable comments about the article.That is so childish.We can decide for ourselves.

Mahin / December 16, 2010 10:41 PM

Hi RFE connection explains why his article was published and why he has written a completely innacurate article.

For one thing, clearly the author is Shah-Parast, when he passively refers to Shah's willingness to let Bahrain go in the latter days of British presence. He should have concluded that Shah had no pressure or obligation to let its territory go. What country does that, but a pet dog like Shah.

He further fans the winds of war when he presents the Arab and current western version of Tumb islands. He proclaims that Shah took the Islands by force a few days before UAE could delare independence. That is the exact line the UAE uses to claim the Islands are truely theirs. However, that is not the case. The Island were given to Iran in exchange for Bahrain. Iran has an internationally recognized right to the Islands. It is important for the author and his RFE backers to maintain this conflict and merits that they provide for UAE, because it is likely the flash point that the US will need to use to confront Iran in a future military conflict. The author also describes the separation of Bahrain from Iran as one way the British attempted to actually solve problems in the region. Absurd!! And he gives no explaination for this rational. Clearly he says this to give Shah cover, as he continues by saying that Shah's navy captured the Tumb Islands.

There are numerous articles that show the US to be the dominant power in the region long before the Brits left. Just because two ships left in 1971, it does not mean the US was not on the horizon. In fact, US policy was describe as having forces off shore, but guarding US interests from mid-1950's. British empire is agreed by economist to have fallen in 1948, not when the Brits actually fessed up it.

Anonymous / December 24, 2010 12:13 PM


well said!!!

what is more absurd is the author's solution. He clearly shows his RFE colors when he says that world needs to form a multilatteral military presence to keep the peace. This is another prescription for conflict and war imposed by outsiders onto the region and it's people. What is sad is the authors failure to recognize that the violent people of Europe, responsible for two world wars and the holocaust, are not capable of bring peace to anywhere. Just look at what European power has done to poor Africa.

The real solution, and what this European loving author refused to grasp so he can be invited to RFE, is for the outside forces to leave and allow the region come together with its own security arrangement. If we are to be fair, then we must give "outside" forces a grade of "F" for their failure to bring peace to the region in the past region. At what point their are recognized to be failures, and power is returned to the rightful owners?

Anonymous / December 24, 2010 12:20 PM


Historically, all the islands of the Gulf belonged to Iran. The Portuguese took them over, then the Brits claimed "when we arrived there were no Iranian flags." That is important in western terms because it is agreed to put one's flag on ones property. This is actually internationally, now, is agreed upon. This is why the Chinese recently placed their flag at the bottom of China sea just this year. And Russia placed its flag deep under the melting North Pole last year. The US placed its flag on the moon, and subsequently declared no satellites can be place in the very high orbit around the earth. Half of the Atlantic seabed was proclaimed by the US in the 1980's by placing the US flag there.

The point is that when the British made up these rules the west has since followed, Eastern nations did not recognize them and did not play by those rules. Additionally, none of these Gulf nations have ever existed before the twentieth century. Therefore, whoelse by Iran owned them? What the British really did was to get the nomadic people of the region to form unfounded governments in an attempt to claim the land away from both the Ottomans and the Iranians. They are still playing the same game, ie DIVIDE AND RULE.

Anonymous / December 24, 2010 12:33 PM