To many observers, Iran’s foreign policy is at best unclear and, at worst, unpredictable. This study by Mahboubeh Sadeghinia offers an in-depth explanation of the complex factors that have shaped Iran’s policy in the Persian Gulf, a stretch of water also referred to as the Arabian Gulf. It examines the incendiary forces, internal and external, which have made this region the so very volatile flashpoint that it is.
Sadeghinia makes a strong case to turn “threats into opportunities”. She argues that if the regional states do not support integration they could, at the very least, recognise their diversity and have a more inclusive cooperative system. In other words, she favours an approach of realpolitik and cooperative security rather than the hegemonic which excludes competitors with different goals and values. Toward this end, she says the pyramid security model could be the solution to the regional tensions because while it recognises geopolitical rivalries, it makes provisions for political and economic concerns of regional and ultra-regional actors. It is founded on the premise of interdependency and attachment. Every state, “like pieces of a puzzle, has a unique and non-ignorable place in the security system”, regardless of size [XXXVI].
Idealistic, maybe, but according to Sadeghinia, the safest way to offset the fears of the smaller states is to focus on socio-political and economic power rather than military power. There must be a holistic approach and vision of the region, not as individual states.
In theory, this pragmatic and collaborative approach outlined in the book seems valid and appealing. However, it does not match with the view expressed by the author in her foreword where she asserts that Iran is “the hegemonic power in the Persian Gulf” (XVI). Hegemonic may be construed as pretentious and exaggerated. Nonetheless, Sadeghinia is right when she says that whatever regime exists in Tehran, Iran has legitimate national and security interests in the region.
A dominant theme that is revisited time and again throughout this book is that despite its size and location, Iran has been, since 1979, treated as an outsider. During the time of the Shah, it was supported equally by the US and Israel. Today, both are threatening it with war. When it was a proxy of the Americans, Iran’s primacy in the region was accepted. This is clearly one of the enduring truths about power politics; small states are valued only to the extent that they serve the interests of great powers.
The Persian Gulf is one of the most important geopolitical regions in the world. It is a sub-system of the Middle East and contains the region’s main oil reserves. Indeed, it contains 55 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves and 41 per cent of the world’s natural gas reserves. Ninety-five per cent of the Gulf’s oil exports pass through the Straits of Hormuz. Not only is the cost of exploration relatively low here, but access to the global markets from the Gulf is also easy. This strategic location attracts the attention of ultra-regional powers. The region is fought over because the ownership of oil fields and control of transit routes influence the balance of power. Most of Europe’s fuel needs come from the Gulf. Sadeghinia explains that this is why oil has become a matter of national security for the EU, the world’s second largest consumer of the precious fuel after the US.
Sadeghinia attempts to provide a security model that would ensure stability and peace in the region. Her concern is not so much to debate the schools of geopolitical thought but to show how location, as in the case of the Persian Gulf, has influenced and shaped the power struggles of international politics. Hence, she goes to great lengths to explain the relation between geography, power and international relations.
Although much of the research for the book covers the period 1962-2007, it does, in some parts, make references to current issues, such as Iran’s nuclear dispute with the West. She divides the period into three phases between pre and post-revolutionary Iran and within the bipolar and unipolar international systems. The book gives a historical overview of the eight littoral states, all of which have territorial disputes with one or the other. This, she notes, is a legacy of British colonial handiwork. On more than one occasion, Sadeghinia points out, each of the Arab Gulf States has been fearful and suspicious of another, a reality that has made ultra-regional involvement easy.
The author argues that in order to dominate the region the external powers have spared no effort to weaken the regional powers. The fate of Iraq and post-revolutionary Iran are striking examples. From an American point of view, there are today new actors whose influence may rein in US hegemony in the region. Apart from their traditional rival, Russia, the US must today also contend with the growing involvement of Asian-Pacific countries in the Gulf. These are the fastest growing energy consumers in the world and are becoming increasingly reliant on Gulf oil. Sadeghinia argues that the competitive interests in the Persian Gulf of the Asian-Pacific countries and the West threaten to make the region unstable.
Undoubtedly, the poisoned relations between the US and Iran over the last 30 years have also rendered the region unstable. It is unlikely ever to enjoy stability as long as these tensions and hostility remain. This is one of the underlying theses of this book. How fair is this? The author makes the case quite convincingly, noting that to exclude Iran would only court antagonism.
On the nuclear issue, Sadeghinia questions Washington’s policy towards Iran. She argues that in the next century nuclear energy will replace oil and those who have a head start in this technology will become influential players. It is for this reason, she asserts, that the West is intent on keeping nuclear technology an exclusive preserve.
Western attempts to prevent Iran from developing as a regional power will continue to cast a shadow of insecurity and instability over the Gulf. Sadeghinia believes that the solution lies in a reduction of foreign troops in the region; respect for Iran’s national pride; and the commencement of direct negotiations between Iran and the US. For the moment, the Americans seem to believe that they can benefit more from a policy of containment by selling weapons to the Gulf States rather than normalising relations with Iran. This is despite the fact that Iran has never invaded or attacked any of its neighbours; on the contrary, it has been the victim of a proxy war waged by Saddam Hussein on behalf of his Western allies.
But it is not just external threats that plague the region. Internally, the states of the Gulf littoral are plagued by territorial disputes which affect stability in the region. The author refers to the UAE “claims” to the Iranian islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs, Greater and Lesser. She points out that during the reign of the Shah the US did not make an issue of the islands. It was only when the isolation of Iran became the cornerstone of US policy in the Gulf that the issue gained prominence. The disputed islands have now become more than a question of territory; it is, according to Sadeghinia, the manifestation of a political rivalry between post-revolutionary Iran and its Arab neighbours and their Western backers.
Although criticism of Iran is rare throughout the book, the author does call upon it to adopt a more stable foreign and regional foreign policy that would ease the mistrust of its neighbours. Since she is not explicit, this may be interpreted to mean not giving the perception that it has expansionist designs over the region. While the Americans and Gulf States share the blame, it is clear that Iran has used the demise of Saddam Hussein to entrench its political and security dominance over Iraq. It took advantage of his departure to project its geo-political interest in the Gulf and create a sphere of influence that extends from Baghdad through Damascus to Beirut. Its erstwhile alliance with the embattled Assad regime in Syria does nothing to allay fears that it does indeed harbour expansionist ambitions.
Sadeghinia refers to Western studies which assert that the Saudi monarchy will not survive much longer because an increasing percentage of the population “believes neither in Wahabism nor in loyalty to the Saud family”.  That may well be the case, but Iran would delay this eventuality if it were to stoke the fires of Shiite sectarian agitation in the Gulf.
Security in the Persian Gulf requires regional as well as international cooperation. This book explains why it cannot be achieved solely by jingoistic militarism and threats of war. The region has had enough of war. More planning and resources must now be devoted to economic development. Mahboubeh Sadeghinia has, with great clarity, outlined this path, yet untried to bring security, stability and prosperity to this region.