chapter  6
40 Pages

The chaotic interregnum: America cries enough, 1972–91

As promised, the British withdrew their military forces from the Persian Gulf at the end of 1971. The United States – mired in Cold War commitments in Vietnam, Europe, and elsewhere – elected not to replace them. Washington officials kept in the Gulf region their very modest naval flotilla based in Bahrain, as well as their cadre of military trainers in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Those sea and land units, however, were political tools, and did not represent war-fighting, operational forces. By early 1972, then, for the first time in almost 150 years, the Persian Gulf lacked a major Western military presence. Though the British prior to their departure managed to solve a hefty share of the political quarrels in the region, as detailed in the last chapter, even before the last British troops departed it became apparent that substantial turmoil and tension remained. The Persian Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s increasingly became an armed camp. Over the next two decades, without Britain to maintain order, the three large states in the region – Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq – squared off against each other and the small states around them. A very turbulent era followed. Although this story up to this point has concentrated on the British in the Persian Gulf, after 1971 it becomes largely an American saga. As Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Roy Jenkins explained when his Labour Government announced their withdrawal from the Gulf, the British were “no longer a superpower.”1 This chapter, then, primarily surrounds America’s response to the chaotic “interregnum” between Britain’s pull-out in 1971 and America’s arrival in force two decades later in Desert Storm, a conflict after which the Americans never left the Persian Gulf.