For more than 60 years the Persian Gulf has been an American lake, and protecting its vast energy resources has been a cornerstone of U.S. strategy, through the Cold War, two wars in Iraq, and another in Afghanistan. If the Iranians are now fearless in dealing with the Obama administration, it’s because they have recognized that Obama is shockingly unconcerned with maintaining America’s longstanding commitments in the Gulf.
Let’s look at Obama’s Middle East policy the way Tehran must. Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq and has scheduled a similar exit from Afghanistan, exposing the region to Iranian influence that the United States will have little ability to check. Instead the administration has left U.S. interests in the hands of largely incapable allies. The Obama administration did sell $30 billion worth of F-15s to Saudi Arabia—as if hoping that with enough hardware Riyadh would be capable of defending itself. - Lee Smith
These "allies" are incapable of defending themselves precisely because the U.S. taxpayer has assumed responsibility for their security for so long. And in any event, the kind of security challenges posed to friendly Gulf states by Iran has very little to do with conventional power, but subversion or guerrilla-style groups that act as Iranian proxies. The U.S. can protect a regime if Iran decided, ala Iraq in 1991, to invade a country - but the U.S. has far fewer tools to combat other levers of Iranian "influence" in the Gulf.
Smith's analysis is also tellingly incomplete. The Obama administration is not pulling U.S. forces and bases from Kuwait or Bahrain - i.e. they are not stepping back from a general U.S. commitment to the Gulf, they are unwinding the presence in Iraq. The view from Tehran, then, is more complicated. They see the U.S. liquidating (fragile) footholds in Iraq and Afghanistan but also a U.S. administration committed to attacking it via sabotage, sanctions, international isolation, arms sales to neighboring states and the continued presence of U.S. military forces in the region.
The Gulf’s enormous reserves of oil make it one of the world’s great prizes—as has been recognized by those most hostile to the United States, from the Nazis and the Soviets, to Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. What has compounded the danger for Washington is that the political order of the Gulf is inherently unstable, as has been abundantly clear ever since the collapse of the shah’s regime, which had once been an American security pillar in the Gulf, in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The Gulf's political order has been unstable since World War I, when the shattered Ottoman Empire was carved up by France and Britain. The subsequent "Pax Americana" has tried, with mixed results, to hold this order together, but it is fraying rapidly now. Smith would have the U.S. redouble its efforts to ensure that the Persian Gulf remains "an American lake" but how tenable is such a posture as the Arab Spring roils the region?