The killing of General Qassem Soleimani and subsequent Iranian careful response to the US strikes has potentially pulled out both countries from the brink of war. However, it seems clear that Iran has started a robust campaign to oust the US military from the Persian Gulf region. The Iranian Supreme leader Ali Khamenei said that the “military action alone is not enough and corrupt presence of the US in the region should come to an end”. Subsequently, the Iranian President and Foreign Minister have echoed the similar desire. The Iraqi parliament has voted to expel the US troops from Iraq, while the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah said that “U.S. bases, warships and soldiers in the Middle East are all fair targets”.

The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries are host of over 41,000 US troops in the region. According to publically declared figures, the US has 11 air bases and 5 naval bases in the Persian Gulf region. Al-Dhafra airbase in UAE is busiest US air base in the world for surveillance flights, while port of Jabel-e-Ali is busiest US naval port of the region. The U.S. 5th fleet is based in Bahrain, and patrols an area of responsibility covering the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea, including the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, and the Strait of Bab al Mandeb. According to estimates of RAND Corporation, the US spends US$ 100-150 billion annually per base.

There are competing narratives over the US presence in the region. Arab countries consider American presence in the region as prerequisite for the security and stability of the region. For Arab countries, the US presence in the region is meant to deter any threat against the US and allies emanating from Iran and its proxies. This is why these Arab countries have signed numerous agreements ensuring American presence in their respective countries. However, Iran has maintained since 1979 that the US presence in the region is destabilizing the regional security. Washington’s sheer military might and involvement in security architectures of the region disturbs the security equilibrium of the region. This is why; Iran has often used public sentiment as a tool against the US presence in the region. Its proxies frequently attacked or threatened to attack American military and naval bases in the region. Yet, it remained unable to form a massive political and public movement against the military presence of the US in the region.

For Tehran, the killing of its General and violation of Iraqi sovereignty has provided an opportunity to once again mobilize public opinion and pressurize political governments in the region to expel Americans from their respective countries. The public outrage in Iraq and subsequently Iraqi parliament’s resolution against American presence in Iraq is first step towards the grand strategy of Iran against the US in the region.

However, due to political, strategic and economic reasons, it seems near to impossible that the US might voluntarily withdraw its military from the region on the behest of Iran and its proxies. The US military expulsion from the region would mean the end of American influence in the Persian Gulf region, which would not be acceptable for the US and its policy makers. Likewise, the hosting nations especially the GCC countries are sovereign decision makers and they will not take such an extraordinary decision. Lastly, the economic investments in military and naval bases along with security of Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) for oil and maritime trade would hinder the US to abruptly leave the region.

To conclude, the region has been going through a series of political and military crisis making it difficult for peace to prevail for longer period of time. Iranian desire to expel American military from the region might trigger another episode of tensions between the two countries. Tehran needs to understand the global principle that the US being a super power is the neighbour of every nation of the world. Therefore, it would not leave the region on anyone else’ desire.

Khurram Minhas

The writer is a PhD candidate at the NUST and researcher at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.