Sep 27, 2022
By F. Gregory Gause*, III
Anything that moves Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia,
away from confrontation is a good thing. Lowering the temperature on these fraught
bilateral relations lessens the chances of miscalculation and escalation. Thus, having
witnessed the dramatic Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019,
regional observers have cheered more recent moves toward Iranian-
As welcome as these green shoots of regional communication are, they should not blind us to the extensive obstacles to a real and sustained relaxation of tensions. While some might attribute those obstacles to sectarian animosity, the core of the problem is less about Sunnis and Shi’a and more about what international relations scholars call the “security dilemma.” The term has come to be used loosely as a synonym for any geopolitical problem, but it actually has a more rigorous definition that can help us understand why a Gulf regional understanding is so hard to achieve.
John Herz coined the term “security dilemma” in his 1950 book Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma. And since then, the concept has been key to foundational works in international relations theory by Robert Jervis, Glenn Snyder, Charles Glaser, and many others. Its core insight is simple to grasp but devilishly difficult to overcome. States want to protect themselves, so they build up their power — military, political, economic, ideological — to fend off potential adversaries. This buildup might be purely defensive from the state’s perspective. However, its neighbors cannot be sure about those defensive intentions. The neighbors then have to increase their power to guard against the possibly aggressive intentions of the first state, which, seeing its neighbors take such steps, redoubles its own efforts. From such dynamics, hostility spirals outward and wars can result.
The situation of Iran and the Gulf states is a pure example of the security dilemma.
The Iranian leadership sees the United States and Israel as mortal threats that purportedly
aim to bring down the Islamic Republican regime. So it justifies its flirtation with
nuclear weapons as a purely defensive step to deter American-
Leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, surveying the expansion of Iran’s influence throughout the Arab East and the development of Iran’s extensive nuclear program, see themselves threatened. Iran’s attack on the Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 confirmed that threat. As worried as they are about America’s staying power in the region, the growth of Iranian power and Iran’s willingness to use it against them pushed Riyadh and its Gulf monarchical allies to deepen their security relations with the U.S. and, in some cases, with Israel through the Abraham Accords. Those steps simply confirm to the Iranian leadership the threats that they face. And so the hostility spiral escalates into a textbook example of the security dilemma.
The security dilemma cannot be “solved.” It is structural, built into the nature of the balance of power system that drives most international security situations. However, its effects can be mitigated. Communication can reduce (but not eliminate) fears of hostile intentions. Strong defensive postures can signal both the costs of conflict for aggressors and the limited goals of those building their defenses. Common interests can bring states together in cooperative frameworks that greatly reduce the chances of armed conflict.
Unfortunately, few of those mitigating circumstances can be found in the Gulf these days. The American withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018 opened the door to further Iranian nuclear development. The recent failure of the Biden administration and Iran to negotiate a return to the JCPOA increases the likelihood of a confrontation down the line and will exacerbate regional tensions. The continuing crisis in Iraqi politics adds to regional uncertainty. The Yemen conflict drags on, despite the recently renewed ceasefire. It is a good thing that the Saudis and the Iranians are talking, but so far that talk has not led to any tangible agreements on regional questions.
Relevant historical examples in the modern Middle East of overcoming the obstacles
to improved relations presented by the security dilemma are few and far between.
The most significant case in this regard is the Egyptian-
A more relevant example might be the détente achieved by the Shah’s Iran and Ba’thist
Iraq in 1975, with the signing of the Algiers Accord. In that case, an overtly hostile
relationship was ratcheted down with the end of Tehran’s support for Kurdish separatists
in Iraq in exchange for border modifications that Iran had been seeking in the Shatt
It is possible that the Iranian government could give tangible signals to the Gulf Arab states that it does not intend to threaten their internal or external security. Movement on the Yemen conflict could be such a signal, if Iran is interested in putting pressure on its Houthi allies for a settlement. Iranian cooperation with interested regional and domestic parties in Iraq to overcome the current governing crisis there would be another such signal.
As of now, there seems to be little prospect for Iranian moves to reassure the Gulf
states or for American-
*F. Gregory Gause, III is a professor of international affairs and John H. Lindsey ’44 Chair at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, and an affiliate of the School’s Albritton Center for Grand Strategy.