U.S. Department of State
96/05/14 Remarks: Robert Pelletreau on US Policy Toward Middle East
Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Before the CENTCOM Annual Southwest Asia Symposium
May 14, 1996
It's a particular pleasure to speak at CENTCOM's annual Southwest Asia symposium. Today, I would like to present an overview of U.S. policies toward the Middle East, taking into account recent developments.
Some in the region diagnose Saddam Hussein's Takriti regime, as "dead and still flying" and it is true that the Iraqi armed forces are less imposing today than they were in 1990. But we who bear the responsibility for ensuring security and stability in the Gulf cannot afford to be complacent. Saddam has shown on too many occasions his ruthless unpredictability. I've taken a special interest in the Central Command and its predecessor the Rapid Deployment Force since their creation after the traumatic events of 1979: the fall of the Shah and taking of American hostages in Iran; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and President Carter's declaration of the Gulf as an area of vital U.S. interest. Returning from Bahrain to my first tour in OSD, I participated in our early access negotiations with Oman, Egypt, Somalia and Kenya. We have come a long way since those early days. Your superb performance in Desert Storm and closely coordinated political-military action since have consistently strengthened our security framework in the Gulf. We are better able to meet the challenge today than at any time in the past. But we are still well below the comfort level.
Enduring U.S. Interests
Close political-military coordination is uniquely important in the Middle East, where security issues have a high profile. There are few if any areas of the world that combine such strategic importance to the United States with such chronic instability. While remarkable progress has been made toward achieving Arab-Israeli peace, serious obstacles remain to be overcome. We must contend with proliferation threats, border disputes, the problems of domestic instability and economic underdevelopment, human-rights problems, to say nothing of the challenges of dealing with terrorism, extremism, and fanaticism.
Instability in the Middle East carries profound dangers. It can threaten the security of close friends and partners such as Israel and Egypt and the GCC states. It can threaten our NATO partners in Europe. It can threaten our ability to protect vital oil supplies from the Gulf. It can bring new outbreaks of terrorism to our shores. And it can fuel a race to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
With so many of our interests at stake, the United States cannot remain indifferent to this turbulent sector of the globe. Tempting as it is, we do not have the option of picking up our marbles and going home. We have a major interest not just in preventing the outbreak of conflict and promoting the peaceful resolution of disputes, but also in changing the conduct and limiting the means of potential war-makers, and in isolating extremists who foment destabilization and conflict. This can only be achieved through active and sustained political engagement, backed by American military power, and through support from our friends and allies.
Securing a just, lasting and comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors remains a cornerstone of our overall foreign policy. A successful peace process will enhance regional stability, remove a rallying point for fanaticism, and enhance prospects for political and economic development. The United States is engaged on several fronts to advance peace negotiations, an engagement which in turn helps achieve our other objectives in the Middle East. These include preserving Israel's security and well-being; maintaining security arrangements to preserve stability in the Persian Gulf and commercial access to its resources; combating terrorism and weapons proliferation; assisting U.S. business, and promoting political and economic reform.
Let me focus particularly on our two biggest areas of initiative: the peace process and Gulf security.
The Peace Process
Today, more than at any time in recent history, Israel and the Arabs have a historic opportunity to resolve one of the most complicated and intractable conflicts of the twentieth century. Over the past two- and-a-half years, the United States has lent its full support to Israel and Arab partners for peace as they take courageous measures to chart a new course for the Middle East.
Our support has been essential because the forces of extremism and terror in the Middle East have worked hard to discredit the peacemakers and undermine their achievements. Particularly in the past few months, the peace process has been subject to very serious challenges -- first the suicide bombings in Israel, then the confrontation in southern Lebanon and northern Israel.
Improving the 1993 Understandings
In both cases, the United States took the initiative to overcome the immediate crisis and refocus attention on peace negotiations. In the case of south Lebanon, Secretary Christopher spent over a week in the Middle East in April, shuttling seven times between Damascus and Jerusalem to broker a cease-fire. At one point, we had to trade in our Air Force 707 for a C-141 owing to crew rest requirements. At another, we had to enter Lebanon via land convoy across the Bekaa Valley when the air bridge was judged too dangerous.
Secretary Christopher's work in bringing the parties to closure was one of the finest diplomatic performances I have witnessed. The set of understandings he negotiated improves in several ways upon the U.S.- brokered understandings of 1993. First, the understandings are now written to ensure the clarity and consistency of commitments undertaken. Second, the understandings call for a five-party monitoring group which is now taking shape and will review complaints about implementation of the understandings. These understandings will help to protect civilians on both sides, but are not meant to substitute for lasting peace agreements.
However, the parties did renew their pledge in these understandings to continue that broader search for peace. We believe that our successful efforts to control the fragile situation in South Lebanon and limit the potential for escalation have established a basis for resumption of Syrian-Israeli negotiations after a new Israeli government is formed.
Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Peres and Chairman Arafat were in Washington for separate meetings with President Clinton and Administration officials. In their discussions at the White House and with Secretary Christopher, both parties reaffirmed their determination to start the permanent-status negotiations on time according to the calendar set forth in the 1993 Declaration of Principles.
Despite high decibel levels at the UN and in the regional press, they did just that, as in similar fashion the Palestinians did not allow the fighting in South Lebanon to divert them from convening the Palestine National Council in Gaza and taking action to revoke the old charter provisions calling for Israel's destruction. The initial round began in Taba, Egypt, on May 5. We did not participate in this opening session, but we were in close touch with both sides. We will undoubtedly play a facilitative role as those talks unfold over the months and most likely several years ahead.
Meanwhile, we will continue to look for other ways to support the peacemakers as they take risks for peace. During Prime Minister Peres' visit to the United States, we signed a counterterrorism agreement and an agreement to expand cooperation on theater missile defense. We also continue to play a leading role in the international effort to help the Palestinians build a more peaceful and prosperous future.
Jordan's Bold Move
Promoting comprehensive peace requires the United States to stand beside Arab states as well as Israel as they take risks for peace. President Clinton committed the United States to support Jordan when King Hussein defied the predictions of many observers and took bold steps toward peace without waiting for others in the region. We worked quietly with Israel and Jordan for more than a year leading up to the signing of their peace treaty in 1994 to identify potential areas of economic cooperation, many of which are now being pursued. And with the support of Congress, we have relieved Jordan of its bilateral debt to the U.S. and undertaken to help Jordan meet its legitimate defense requirements through the provision of a squadron of F-16s.
Already we see evidence of the goodwill and cooperation engendered by Jordan's decision for peace. Jordan and Israel are moving toward a warm peace on many levels. Israeli and Jordanian military officers have hosted one another. They have flown a joint humanitarian aid mission to Bosnia and have worked together to defuse landmines along their common border. For our part, we applaud King Hussein's clear moves away from the dictatorial regime in Baghdad and to rebuild Jordan's traditional relations with the GCC, Jordan's vigorous enforcement of UN sanctions, and its decision to host the temporary deployment of the Airpower Expeditionary Force. This force is providing additional land-based air forces to augment regional deterrence while affording Jordan and the U.S. Air Force increased joint training.
Egypt's Stabilizing Role
U.S. strategic cooperation with Jordan is strengthening regional stability and expanding on the solid foundation of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and close U.S.-Egyptian military ties which have held firm for more than 17 years. Egypt plays an important stabilizing role in the region, supporting our peace process objectives and providing essential support for the U.S. military presence. A decade of U.S.- backed military modernization, coupled with strong Egyptian leadership, has helped build a modern force in Egypt capable of working effectively with U.S. forces in coalition warfare. Egypt galvanized the Arab coalition during the Gulf War and constituted the second largest foreign force to our own in the campaign to liberate Kuwait. And when Iraq threatened Kuwait again in October 1994, Egypt's expeditious approval for deployment of a carrier battle group through the Suez Canal sent a critical signal to the Baghdad regime.
We continue to rely on Egypt for quick transit of military assets to and from the Gulf region. The U.S. routinely conducts 500 military overflights each month. Our military assistance also facilitates Egypt's contributions to international peacekeeping operations. At last count, Egypt was involved in five different peacekeeping operations. The Foreign Minister of a Gulf country said to me recently, "You must continue to assist Egypt. For us, Egypt is the High Dam."
The Multilateral Track
The Multilateral track of the peace process plays an indispensable role in the overall structure of negotiations: reinforcing progress on other tracks, buffering shocks and periods of impasse, and laying the foundations for longer term regional cooperation and development. Last week, for example, even as the level of tension in the region remained high over clashes along the Israel-Lebanon border, Israeli, Arab, U.S. and other outside experts held a productive meeting in Amman on plans for regional economic development. The Multilateral Working Groups bring together representatives from Israel and 13 Arab countries and more than 30 parties from outside the region to address broad issues facing the region as a whole such as water, the environment, refugees, and arms control and security. Fred Axelgard, our point man for the ACRS working group, will speak tomorrow on the important efforts to develop regional confidence-building measures and other initiatives.
We see the economic underpinnings of peace agreements as vital to their success. In addition to our bilateral efforts, we have put a lot of energy into the economic summit process, which will convene for the third time this coming Fall in Cairo. The two previous regional economic summits in Casablanca and Amman were instrumental in galvanizing regional economic cooperation and showcasing new commercial opportunities opened up by the peace process. They have stimulated a new level of intra-regional economic activity and contact, as well as a progressive dismantling of the barriers to trade on the Arab-Israeli level, the Arab-Arab level, and also the global level.
Let me turn to our policy toward the Gulf region. A key national- security concern is to protect our friends and vital interests in the Gulf against the twin dangers of hegemony and regional conflict. The chief threats today come from Iraq and Iran. Powerful in regional terms, the dictatorship in Iraq and the theocracy in Iran openly declare their enmity toward the United States, blatantly disregard international norms of behavior, and pose a direct threat to their neighbors. The U.S. commitment to protect the Gulf from domination by a hostile power is not new: a series of Presidents from both parties have expressed this commitment in private discussions with leaders of the area and in public declarations.
The Administration has led two tough-minded international efforts to contain the threats posed by Iraq and Iran and to compel changes in their conduct. While we can claim considerable success in limiting and countering the military capabilities of these rogue regimes, their ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction and to dominate the Gulf continue, as does their support for terrorism as an instrument of policy.
Five years after the Gulf war, Iraq remains a threat to international peace and stability. Iraq's invasion was a noxious act of twentieth-century piracy: the unprovoked occupation of a small, peaceful neighbor and a fellow member of the Arab League and United Nations. Had the U.S. not organized and led the international coalition to roll back this aggression, Saddam Hussein might well have gotten away with his gamble and become a regional superpower with dark and far- reaching consequences for us all.
Thousands of American soldiers were in involved in halting and reversing this aggression. Twice since then, we have been obliged to conduct rapid deployment exercises to strengthen our deterrent in the region. When Iraq moved military forces to the border with Kuwait in October 1994 in an effort to intimidate the UN Security Council, the swift and decisive response by U.S. forces in operation Vigilant Warrior convinced Iraq to pull back. Last August, there were once again ominous signs of an Iraqi military threat following the defection of Saddam's brother-in-law, Hussein Kamel. And once again, following coordinated visits to regional capitals by General Peay and my delegation, we increased our military capabilities and staved off the threat.
Throughout this period, the efforts of the Multinational Interception Force have been critical to enforcing the sanctions. In the past 18 months, CENTCOM naval forces of the U.S. Fifth Fleet have interdicted and diverted to Gulf ports almost 70 tankers and cargo vessels attempting to skirt the sanctions. Regional states have joined in accepting these vessels into their ports and disposing of the sanctions-violating cargos.
Our policy on Iraq remains firm: Iraq must fulfill all obligations established under UN Security Council resolutions passed after the invasion. No relaxation of the sanctions will be possible until Iraq complies fully. There is solid allied support for this position; the Security Council last week unanimously agreed for the 31st time to maintain sanctions without modification. As the most recent report submitted by UNSCOM Chairman Ekeus lays out, Iraq continues to hide evidence of past weapons programs and is continuing clandestine efforts to develop missiles and other frightening weapons. It has not yet returned stolen Kuwaiti military equipment or complied with one of the most universally accepted rules of warfare, a good faith effort to account for prisoners and MIAs when the fighting is over.
We are also disturbed by Saddam's callous indifference to the welfare of his own people. Over a year ago, the Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 986, crafted by the U.S. with Omani help to permit limited and controlled sale of Iraqi oil for the purchase of humanitarian goods. Ongoing discussions at the UN suggest that the Iraqis are ambivalent. Are they genuinely interested in taking this opportunity to alleviate the suffering of their people or are they viewing the 986 negotiations as a way to achieve some gain for the regime? We have made clear that Resolution 986 must be implemented as written, without amendment, and we are working with the UN to make sure that any agreement on the details of implementation clearly reflects this stance. If Iraq is playing straight, reaching agreement on the text as it has been tightened should not be difficult. And we will be pleased to see the people's hardship relieved and the compensation and UNSCOM funds replenished within the framework of the resolutions and the sanctions which will continue to remain fully in effect.
Iran represents a different -- and in some ways more complex -- challenge. There are no UN sanctions on Iran, and there are significant differences between the United States and its allies over how to deal with Iran. We have deep objections to several of Iran's policies, including it's support for terrorism, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, support for Hamas and other violent groups seeking to derail the peace process, subversion of other governments, and a human rights record which is deservedly condemned by the international community. None of these policies is required by Islamic teachings. President Clinton's decision one year ago to impose a trade and investment embargo against Iran affirmed both the depth of U.S. feeling about Iran's conduct and our willingness to assume leadership of a stronger international effort to confront the Iranian challenge.
We have called on all major industrial states to join the United States in denying Iran sophisticated armaments, nuclear technology, and preferential economic treatment. Although European governments have not as yet seen fit to join us in a full embargo of Iran, no government or international financial institution is providing Iran with any official aid. Our allies have substantially reduced the pace and scope of new loans and investment guarantees. Most major oil companies have concluded that investing in Iran is not worth the cost in terms of U.S. pressure and potential retaliation.
Our diplomacy has consolidated a consensus among Russia and 29 other governments participating in the Wassenaar arrangement to deny Iran and other pariah states arms and sensitive dual-use items that can have military purposes. Our high-level dialogue with Russia and China has limited their nuclear cooperation with Iran, especially the sort of assistance that would be most helpful in the development of nuclear weapons, and we hope through persistence and improved intelligence to convince them to end all forms of nuclear cooperation with Iran.
On balance, however, our efforts to impose a severe economic cost on Iran for pursuing objectionable policies have so far elicited a disappointing and lukewarm response from our allies, despite our urging and ongoing discussions with them. Some of our closest allies, in the hope of commercial reward, have been tolerant of Iran's outlaw behavior. We are, therefore, working with Congress to devise more thorough-going and effective measures to step up international pressure on Iran. We are not insisting that our allies give up their policy of "critical dialogue", but we believe dialogue without associated economic pressure and real costs to Tehran will continue to be ineffective.
At the same time, we see no viable opposition movement in Iran at this time. We, therefore, remain willing to enter an authorized and above-board dialogue with Iran's leadership and we will welcome better relations with Iran once it abandons its unacceptable policies and begins to act as a peaceful not aggressive neighbor in the region and responsible member of the international community.
U.S. efforts to enhance the military strength of the six states of the GCC are an important complement to our political efforts to contain the threat from Iran and Iraq. Under CENTCOM's determined leadership, the United States has made steady progress in improving security cooperation with these states since Desert Storm. We have a three-tier approach. First, we help each Gulf state strengthen its individual defense forces through our defense sales and training programs. Second, we encourage regional defense cooperation among the Gulf states through the GCC's collective security arrangements. The GCC's recent exercises in Kuwait and in the seas off Oman mark an important step forward, although there is quite a long way to go in this area. The recent resolution of the Saudi-Qatari border dispute should improve the atmosphere.
A lot of hard diplomatic and military work has gone into the third tier: our bilateral security cooperation with individual states. We have made dramatic strides since 1991: increasing U.S. forward presence in the region in a careful, non-permanent way; prepositioning equipment in Kuwait and Qatar; and carrying out an expanded program of land, sea, and air training exercises with the GCC states. This cooperation has been critical to defusing crises, as in October 1994, and in maintaining stability. We are steadily increasing our regional consultation and intelligence exchanges, and working to resolve the inevitable problems and frictions that arise in a cooperative spirit.
I believe there is a general understanding that the U.S. cannot and does not aim to impose a "pax Americana" on the Gulf. Our own anti- imperialist tradition prevents it, as does the strong anticolonial sentiment of the area's citizens. We may be the dominant outside power, but we must operate within a unique -- and complicated -- political framework. While our friendship and strength are welcome, area governments resist permanent bases, iron-clad treaty arrangements, and grand blueprints for NATO-like structures. The frustrating costs in efficiency and capability of this still-too-ad-hoc security structure means that we and Gulf governments must continue the process of consultation and adjustment in order to construct and maintain a credible deterrent against evolving threats.
A Regional Concern: Internal Reform
Most of the foreign policy issues I've outlined have their roots in the domestic conditions in the states of the region. Although circumstances vary from country to country, populations are troubled by a lack of political and economic opportunities along with intimations of corruption and injustice. This situation fuels extremism, whether of a secular or Islamist variety, which works against U.S. interests as well as the broader interests of the Middle Eastern states.
While the ability of an outside power to affect domestic circumstances is limited, the measures we take to preserve security and order must be complemented by an awareness of internal conditions which fuel extremism. When we operate on the territories of friendly governments, we must do so with sensitivity to their culture and its norms of behavior. The same is true when we ask for favors or burdensharing. Our requests must fall within the circle of agreed- common interest and be pursued through consultation, not diktat. At the same time, we should not hide our own values. We support free-market economic reforms in the region and are encouraged by progress in countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Israel. Egypt and Algeria have launched important market-oriented initiatives. We also encourage movement toward more participatory government and respect for human rights and the rule of law. We encourage practical measures to foster greater political freedom and openness. We do this not because we are trying to impose Western models of society and government on the Middle East, but because experience has taught us that governments must be seen as responding to the aspirations of their people and acting for the benefit of their people in order to ensure long-term allegiance and stability.
As you know because you are a part of it, the United States has a large agenda and faces daunting challenges in the Middle East. With the end of the Cold War and the superpower rivalry, the United States has a unique capacity to influence events and promote our interests. We are right to be turning our energies increasingly to supporting steps toward more peaceful and cooperative relations in the region.
At the same time, security remains the foundation of all progress. It requires vigilance and sound preparation to meet contingencies, foreseen and unforeseen. Iran and Iraq continue to defy international norms and must be met with more than ringing rhetoric. Their behavior serves as a reminder that the forces of extremism and fanaticism continue to agitate the wider Middle East, especially now that we are making progress toward resolving the larger Arab-Israeli struggle.
The United States' ability to meet these challenges depends in large measure on how well our warriors and diplomats work together. When we cooperate, we are a powerful force for stability and peace. If we do not, we are all the losers. Cooperating together, we can ensure that America will continue to wear the mantle of leadership, not just in combating enemies, but in building a world that reflects our ideals and promotes our interests.
Back to Near East and North Africa Bureau Documents
Return to the Electronic Research Collection Geographic Bureaus Home Page
Visit the Electronic Research Collection Home Page
Go to the U.S. State Department Home Page
To top of page