Power Politics in Transition
May 18, 2004
Iran Institute for Democracy
By Amir Taheri
May 18th, 2004
The history of the dismantlement of the British Empire is full of moments of high political and diplomatic drama that often lead to decades of regional dispute. There are many examples, including such notorious ones as Kashmir and Cyprus. It is one such case that is the main topic of Faisal ibn Salmans information-packed and well-written book.
From the mid-1960s, Britain, under a Labour government, began to consider closing its military bases east of Suez, thus ending over a century of colonial engagement in one of the worlds most unstable regions. Many of those bases had been originally established to protect India, the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire. With the Indian Subcontinent no longer under British rule after 1947, however, that reason no longer applied. In the meantime, however, oil had been discovered in the Gulf, providing the British military presence around the Arabian Peninsula with a new justification.
As is often the case in history, however, the final decision to act in this case to withdraw from east of Suez was taken mainly because of domestic political considerations. Harold Wilson, leading a government with a slim majority in the House of Commons, had to placate his left-wingers; one way to do so was to reduce Britains colonial commitments. Financial considerations also played a part, although Faisal ibn Salman shows that the annual cost of keeping British bases in the Gulf did not exceed £12 million, and that the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai had offered to foot the bill.
At any rate, Britains withdrawal created a political and security vacuum which had to be filled. One outside power capable of doing so was the United States but, as Faisal ibn Salman points out, the US was at that time so bogged down in Indochina that its leaders had no time to pay attention to events in the Gulf.
President Lyndon Johnson was never given a proper report on developments and, it is likely, would have shown little interest had he read one. American indifference continued well into the Nixon administration which began in 1969. Neither William Rogers, Nixons secretary of state, nor Henry Kissinger, who began as national security adviser, were interested in the region.
US lawmakers were even less informed. Faisal ibn Salman reminds us that even in 1973 some members of the US Congress even thought that Iran and Iraq are the same country, spelled differently. After British withdrawal, only three powers in the region could pretend to a leading role in shaping a new status quo: Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
The last one, Iraq, however, had scripted itself out of regional politics because of its radical politics and troublesome alliance with the Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia, for its part, could do much, thanks to the prestige of the Kingdom as the site of Makkah and Madinah, and the charismatic personality of its ruler, King Faisal ibn Abdul Aziz. It too, however, ultimately lacked both the demographic and military strength needed for such major-power games. That left Iran which, as Faisal ibn Salman shows, had the population, the military muscle and, from the mid-1960s onward, the ambition to claim a leadership role in the Gulf. Iran, however, had its own problems when it came to playing big cheese in the Gulf; it had virtually no experience of the region.
Although large numbers of Iranians had immigrated to different parts of the Gulf for decades, successive governments in Tehran had never paid any attention to what was to become of, in the words of the Shah, the lifeline of Iranian economy and security. No senior Iranian official had visited the so-called Trucial States or the Sultanate of Oman before 1968. And Irans official presence there consisted of a single Savak (security) officer plus a few dozen aid workers and medical personnel from the Red Lion and Sun Society running a number of clinics and primary schools. Iranian universities offered no courses about the Gulf. And the Iranian Foreign Ministry did not even have a Gulf desk until 1968. By 1970, however, the Gulf was at the center of Iranian preoccupations, finding echoes even in domestic politics. And the Shah was able to claim that his government would guarantee the security and stability of a region that contained more than half the worlds known oil reserves.
The second problem that Iran faced in claiming a leadership role in the region was its historic claim to Bahrain. For generations Iranian schoolchildren had been taught that Bahrain was an inalienable part of national Iranian territory. At one point Bahrain was even designated Irans 14th province and assigned a seat in the countrys Parliament. By 1969, however, the Shah had realized that, without solving the Bahrain problem, Iran would not be able to claim leadership in the Gulf.
Irans territorial grievances at the time were not limited to Bahrain. Iran also wanted two other islands, later named Al-Arabi and Farsi, in the middle of the Gulf and in waters that, under a continental shelf agreement, were assigned to Saudi Arabia. At one point, the Iranian Navy intervened to seize an oil rig belonging to an American company working under Saudi license in waters between the two islands. The episode ended with Iran receiving one island while acknowledging Saudi ownership of the other. Faisal ibn Salman offers the best account of the incident that this reviewer has seen anywhere.
At the same time Iran was involved in another dispute, not mentioned by Faisal ibn Salman, over the Omani island of Beit Al-Ghanam (also known as Umm Al-Ghanam) which guards the southern section of the Strait of Hormuz opposite Ras Mussandam. That dispute, however, was quickly settled as Iran sought a military presence in the sultanate itself, ostensibly to fight communist insurgents in Dhofar.
Iran was also involved in two other disputes concerning islands. One dispute was with the sheikhdom of Sharjah over the island of Abu Musa. The other was with the sheikhdom of Ras Al-Khaimah over two tiny islands: Lesser Tunb and Greater Tunb. (The two sheikhdoms, along with others, changed their designation to emirate after 1971.)
The three islands are often wrongly referred to as the Hormuz islands. They are in fact located to the southwest of the Strait of Hormuz which is a narrow body of water between the Iranian islands of Hormuz, Qeshm, Larak, and Hangam to the north and the Omani salient in the Mussandam Peninsula to the south. (The body of water between the north of Qeshm and the Iranian mainland is the Strait of Clarence.)
The Gulf is a shallow body of water with a maximum depth of 90 meters. In other words, all of it is continental shelf. In any division of the Gulf on the basis of the continental shelf, the two Tunb islands fall into Iranian territorial waters while Abu Musa falls into the territorial waters of the sheikhdom of Umm Al-Quwain.
In 1970, however, the two Tunbs were under the flag of Ras Al-Khaimah while Abu Musa was recognized by Britain as part of Sharjah. Faisal ibn Salman shows that sometime in 1969 the Shah decided to abandon Irans claim to Bahrain while deciding to seize Abu Musa and the two Tunbs.
Faisal ibn Salman gives an accurate account of the positions of both sides in the two disputes but, maybe because this is still an unsettled diplomatic issue, is careful not to take sides. His account of the secret contacts, the maneuverings and posturings and what can only be regarded as diplomatic skullduggery that surrounded the issue of the three islands, makes fascinating reading. The book is a valuable contribution to the study of a crucial episode in the regions history, a period that has not received the attention it merits. It is also important for at least two other reasons. The first is that it refutes the usual left-wing claim that Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states would make no move without the permission of British or American masters. What we see here is regional powers playing the hand dealt to them by geography and history and in their own national interests.
Secondly, the book shows that, given the will to find a diplomatic solution, the regional states could work out solutions to their problems. And this is an important lesson if only because the issue of the three islands still remains a bone of contention between Iran and the United Arab Emirates.
This excellent book suffers from two imperfections. The first concerns method and substance. The second is a result of inattentive editing.
As far as the first is concerned, the book would have benefited from more background information. For example, the average reader might not be aware of basic demographic, territorial, economic and other facts that contribute to a states ability to project power at any given time. Some maps would have also been helpful.
The author also misses some crucial points. For example, he does not notice the distinctly pro-Arab tilt that Irans foreign policy assumed after 1967 partly thanks to Ardeshir Zahedi. He also ignores the campaign that Iraq conducted against Irans plans. In fact, in 1970, this reviewer read a set of confidential reports that detailed Iraqs contacts with Sheikh Saqar ibn Muhammad Al-Qassimi, the ruler of Ras Al-Khaimah. Midhat Ibrahim Jumaah, an Iraqi diplomat, visited the sheikh on at least two occasions and promised him all necessary support against Irans attempts to capture the two Tunbs. Thus the stronger power to which Sheikh Saqar was referring in his conversation with a British emissary was neither China nor Russia but Iraq.
In the case of Iran some account of the dramatic social, economic and cultural changes that it experienced in the 1960s would have been helpful. It would have also been important to present the factors that shifted Irans historical gaze from the north to the south. For example, from the mid-1950s onward the southern half of Iran experienced the nations biggest demographic boom after Tehran. The growing importance of oil revenues, the heightened activity of the Soviet Navy in the Indian Ocean, the appearance of radical groups in the Arabian Peninsula, linked with the communists in South Yemen, and the need of new Iranian industries for easy markets, all helped bring the Gulf region to the attention, not only of policymakers but also of the average citizen.
Also Iranian decision-making was not as straightforward as the author assumes. Nor was Iran a one-man show with the Shah doing as he pleased.
To be sure, the Shah did make all major decisions but the input from the bureaucracy, the diplomatic service, interest groups, the media and other non-state organs was much more important than Faisal ibn Salman believes.
The author also ignores a major problem: The decision by some Arabs from the 1960s onward to refer to the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf. That decision poisoned relations between Iran and the Arabs and promoted popular support for Irans aggressive pursuit of hegemony in the Persian Gulf.
One problem that Faisal ibn Salman faced was his lack of access to official Iranian archives. To make up for that, he has depended on two sources. The first is the memoirs of Assadullah Alam, one of the Shahs longest serving court ministers. Alam, however, is not a very reliable source for two reasons. First, he tends to exaggerate his importance, at times to the point of twisting facts.
Secondly, he was not really in the loop as far as government policy was concerned. Although he bore the title of minister, he was in fact a kind of royal chamberlain. His position had no basis in the constitution, and he was thus not allowed to attend Cabinet meetings. Unless he asked for specific briefings on this or that subject, there was no way for him to know what was going on. And because both Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda and Foreign Minister Zahedi disliked Alam, it is unlikely that they would have gone out of their way to enlighten him on any subject.
There are also problems with some other Iranian officials that Faisal ibn Salman interviewed. Because they had no access to official documents and/or private notes, at times they gave inaccurate, if not misleading, accounts of some events.
As already mentioned, there are also problems, including grammatical errors and misspellings, that more careful and vigorous editing would have avoided. For example, Irans decision to buy military hardware from the Soviet Union is repeated three times.
We read of Soviet insurgence instead of incursion. Vittorio Winspeare Guicciardi, the Italian diplomat who led a United Nations mission to Bahrain, is often referred to as Winspeare only. Muhammad Reza Amir-Teymour is presented only as Amir Teymour (who is somebody else) and wrongly described as the Iranian governments parliamentary secretary.
Amir-Khosrow Afshar is described in three different ways on the same page. Richard Helms is suddenly introduced as Helms with no mention of his positions as director of the CIA and later, US ambassador to Iran.
Theodore Sorensen is presented as President Kennedys military adviser. And President Franklin D. Roosevelt is presented as President Theodore Roosevelt. Goronwy Roberts is presented as British foreign secretary which he never was. And Omar Saqqaf was minister of state for foreign affairs while King Faisal himself held the post of Saudi foreign minister.
There are also different spellings of the names of several islands, notably Hangam and Farur, causing some confusion. The author mentions that a brother of the sheikh of Sharjah was attacked and wounded after the deal with Iran concerning Abu Musa. There is no mention, however, that the Sheikh himself, Khalid ibn Muhammad Al-Qassimi, was in fact assassinated.
Nonetheless, all these are minor points that do not diminish the books essential contribution to the study of Iran-Arab relations in the Gulf in the aftermath of Britains withdrawal from east of Suez. The book has the unusual merit of making a complex issue accessible to the average reader without compromising its own academic credentials.
Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf: Power Politics in Transition by Faisal ibn Salman Al-Saud, 181 pages, Publishers: I.B. Tauris, London, 2004.
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