The US has vital interests in the Persian Gulf: to maintain access to energy resources at tolerable prices, to prevent any power from gaining control over them, and to ensure the security of regional friends and allies.
The US policy of "dual containment" hasn't changed defiant regimes in Iraq and Iran. Seven years after the Gulf War, friends and allies have little enthusiasm for open-ended UN sanctions against Iraq. No government has joined the US in sanctions against Iran. Key Arab states boycotted the US-backed summit in Qatar, but all went to the Islamic summit in Iran. US policy is not sustainable - and needs review.
Iraq, a police state led by an unpredictable tyrant, still threatens regional stability. The Arab-Israeli impasse, and the suffering of the Iraqi people because of sanctions, enable Saddam Hussein to win Arab support. Many of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed, but many haven't - especially chemical and biological weapons. UN inspectors' work is far from over.
Iran confronts the US and the region with a difficult challenge. The 18-year break in US-Iran ties means that mutual understanding is poor. We want to change Iran's objectionable policies: its support for terrorism, opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process, and its weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. Unfortunately, our policy of unilateral sanctions against Iran is counterproductive to achieving US goals.
The Arab Gulf states rely on a large US military presence for their security, but are reluctant to support confrontation with Iraq and Iran. With the exception of Kuwait, they resent what they see as US partiality toward Israel and hostility toward Arabs and Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza, Libya, Sudan, Iraq, and Iran.
What should we do?
How should US policy change?
1. The willingness of Gulf states to stand with the US will improve if we get the Arab-Israeli peace process back on track. The greater the momentum in the peace process, the stronger the support in the Gulf for US objectives.
2. We should state US objectives toward Iraq precisely. We have not been clear about whether Saddam should be removed, and at what point sanctions should be lifted. Our prime objective should be to contain Iraq, because its weapons programs are a threat to peace. If Saddam threatens his neighbors, or openly pursues weapons of mass destruction, the US should severely punish Iraq.
We must make clear that our problem is not with Iraq's people, but the policies of its government. We should allow more food and medicine into Iraq, so long as the UN can monitor end-use. We should support Iraq's territorial integrity. The US should indicate its willingness to lift sanctions and help a new government in Iraq that complies with all UN resolutions. An Iraq that accepts international norms of behavior should be allowed to return to the family of nations.
3. US criticism of Iran should focus on the conduct of Iran's leaders, not on Iran's people, and not on Islam. Our goal should not be to change the regime, but to change Iran's unacceptable policies on terrorism, the peace process, and especially its quest for weapons of mass destruction.
Other constructive steps
The US and Iran need to cool the rhetoric, end mutual demonization, explore better ties, and gradually establish a reliable, authoritative dialogue. As Iran's policies change, the US should respond step-by-step - reducing sanctions, permitting nonmilitary trade, and allowing US firms into Iran.
We should support the military containment of Iran. We should push for full international inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities and multilateral restrictions focused on, and limited to, weapons of mass destruction and related technology.
The US should work to reduce differences with its allies in order to develop new avenues of cooperation against Iran's unacceptable behavior. The US needs more carrots in its policy toward Iran; Europe needs more sticks. We can't guarantee success if we work together, but we'll fail if we do not.
Finally, there must be no doubt that the US plans to remain in the Gulf. US military forces continue to be necessary, but we also need to strengthen political and economic ties. More attention from senior US civilian officials will help preserve the Gulf coalition and strengthen the US message about reform, accountability, and openness.
Conclusion. Peace and security in the Gulf are vitally important to the US national interest. Iraq and Iran will require constant, consistent, more balanced attention from US policymakers. The task is enormously difficult. Success will require close, effective cooperation with friends and allies, and strong American leadership.
* Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana is ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.