The Magazine

Downwind from Iran

Why they're nervous in the Gulf.

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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While Kuwait's elite--political, commercial, intellectual--is, like that of the UAE, typically educated in the West and comfortable with Western ways, Kuwaitis concentrate more on conserving their traditional culture. Kuwait has not sought to become an international tourist destination, and only lifted its ban on direct foreign investment five years ago. The liberalizing forces in Kuwait, moreover, face significant internal opposition. The parliament, which the emir dissolved on March 18 because of a dispute over the extent of representatives' oversight of cabinet ministers, will, after the coming mid-May elections, almost certainly still contain a substantial Islamist and tribal bloc.

Much as the UAE and Kuwait have been rocked by the global economic crisis, security questions remain a paramount concern. In discussing them, Emiratis and Kuwaitis often begin by criticizing what they perceive to be the United States' one-sided support for Israel, deploring the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu, and urging the Obama administration to compel Israel to cease settlements in the West Bank and make whatever other concessions are necessary to achieve a peace agreement that promptly brings into existence a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

But even when these criticisms are heartfelt, they quickly give way to the more urgent question of Iraq. Many in the region believe the U.S. invasion was a mistake the Bush administration could have avoided had it consulted its Gulf state allies. Although they would be delighted by the emergence of a stable and enlightened Iraq, most observers in both the UAE and Kuwait are convinced that the new Iraq is inherently unstable, even if it is now enjoying a lull before the next violent storm. Their biggest regret about Iraq, however, has to do with Iran, the primordial issue to which all discussions of national security in the Arabian Peninsula eventually return.

The dominant view in the UAE and Kuwait is that by toppling Saddam Hussein, who had served as a check on Iran, and building a Shiite-led government in Baghdad that accepts Iranian influence in Iraq, the United States played a decisive role in unleashing an Iranian superpower. Although our interlocutors were difficult to pin down on how they would prefer the United States deal with Iran, they made plain their concern that no agreement be reached with Tehran at their expense.

Kuwaitis emphasized that Iran's export of jihad and its program to develop nuclear weapons were hardly the only threats it presented. Kuwaitis worry that even if Iran's nuclear reactor at Bushehr, 133 nautical miles across the Gulf on the coast, were intended for strictly civilian purposes, it would still pose a grave threat. Given the Russian--and worse still in Kuwaiti eyes, Iranian--engineers at work there and the direction of Gulf winds, they fear the toxic fallout of a second Chernobyl. And then there are the thousands of Shahab-1, -2, and -3 missiles in Iran's arsenal, which can reach Kuwaiti civilian populations, oil fields, and refineries in minutes.

If one message came through loud and clear during five days of conversations, it was that contrary to the conventional wisdom, and despite the importance of a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Iran is far and away the major threat to peace and stability in the Middle East. If the president thinks that the United States has economic woes now, they will be as nothing if he lets down our pro-Western Gulf allies and thwarts our own vital national interests by failing to employ the necessary mixture of diplomacy and force to persuade or compel Iran to respect the requirements of international order.

Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.