Transformation in the US Offshore Balancing and the Regional Rivalry between Iran and the GCC, 2001-2021

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran

2 MA in International Relations, Department of Political Science, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran



In contrast to the strategy of preponderance, the grand strategy of offshore balancing can be pursued to achieve the goals of isolation or hegemony. The U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been changing from preponderance to offshore balancing, which has occasionally (and erroneously) been interpreted as the US isolationist tendency to begin the total withdrawal of its forces from the Middle East, followed by the decline of its influence in the region. The authors investigate why and how George W. Bush (2001-2009), Barack Obama (2009-2017), and Donald Trump (2017-2021) followed a similar strategy of offshore balancing, despite all their differences. The study intends to answer the following research questions: 1. To what extent were the US foreign policy strategies and its actions in the Persian Gulf different during the presidencies of Bush, Obama, and Trump? 2. Why did the three presidents follow the same grand strategy, despite the apparent differences, particularly in their worldview, leadership style and personality traits? In the research hypothesis, it is postulated that even though the U.S. pursued the strategy of offshore balancing during the presidencies of Bush, Obama, and Trump, differences in personality, policy-making style, and security threat assessments of these presidents have had an impact on the transformation of the U.S. foreign policy in the region. With a qualitative approach, the method of events and historical data analysis is used to test the hypothesis. The U.S. policies and reactions to the recent events such as the rivalries between Iran and the southern Persian Gulf countries, the political instability of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, the great powers competition in the region are examined.
International relations scholars have different ideas regarding what the strategy of offshore balancing represents, and whether a given U.S. president is an offshore balancer or not. The present study views these differences as an indication of the variations of this strategy. First, one needs to present an inclusive definition of offshore balancing, and for such a definition, one needs to identify the common elements of the various definitions given by different scholars. Different policy goals and means of implementation of offshore balancing have been discussed, but most scholars agree on two points: First, offshore balancing emphasizes the use of naval and air forces, while ground forces should be used only in very special circumstances and on a temporary basis. Second, offshore balancing assigns roles to regional actors, whether allies or competitors which must contribute to the cost of collective defense in the region on the basis of a burden and responsibility sharing formula. Variation in offshore balancing occurs at different levels; for instance, between defensive versus offensive realism, between pursuing a more offshore presence versus a more favorable balance of power.
In conclusion, the authors argue that offshore balancing has been the U.S. grand strategy in the Persian Gulf since 2006, but its goals have changed in response to the need to react to different circumstances. In the last two years of Bush presidency, he was under pressure to find a balance of power arrangement that would end the war in Iraq, while achieving the hegemonic goal of democratization. The cost of upholding the current liberal global order and providing American security guarantees for US allies have adversely affected the prosperity of American people, who expect their politicians to give priority to the economic national interest. Because of the slowdown in the U.S. economy as a consequence of the 2008 financial crisis and military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama followed the strategy of offshore balancing with the goal of reducing the costs of the U.S. foreign policy adventures, and finally ended up being more in favor of an ‘offshore than balanced’ strategy. During the Trump era, offshore balancing was more influenced by the idea of “make America great again,” with its touch of realism. Bush had to deal with the security implications of the September 11 attacks, and acted on the basis of offensive realism and the logic of hegemonism. Obama sought isolationism based on defensive realism, while Trump returned to offensive realism.


Main Subjects

  1. الف) فارسی 

    1. کالا‌هان، پاتریک. (1396) منطق سیاست خارجی امریکا: نظریه‌های نقش جهانی امریکا، ترجمه داود غرایاق‌زندی، محمود یزدان‌فام و نادر پورآخوندی. تهران: پژوهشکده مطالعات راهبردی.

     ب) انگلیسی

    1. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs. (2019, May 9) “Eagles Move as Part of Dynamic Force Deployment,” US Air Force Website ( Available at: eagles-move-as-part-of-dynamic-force-deployment (Accessed 12 May 2023).
    2. Balluck, Kyle. (2013, November 3) “Obama, Saudi King to ‘Consult Regularly’ on Iran,” The Hill. Available at: (Accessed 12 May 2023).
    3. Birnbaum, Michael; and Liz Sly. (2019, May 13) “Pompeo Crashes Brussels Meeting of EU Diplomats but Changes Few Minds on Iran,” Washington Post. Available at: (Accessed 11 May 2023).
    4. Blagden, David; and Patrick Porter. (2021) “Desert Shield of the Republic? A Realist Case for Abandoning the Middle East,” Security Studies 30, 1; 5-48, .
    5. Borger, Julian. (2013, September 27) “Breakthrough Hailed as US and Iran Sit Down for Nuclear Deal Discussion,” Guardian. Available at: (Accessed 2 June 2023).
    6. Brands, Hal. (2018) American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.
    7. “Britain Warns US-Iran Conflict May Break out 'by Accident',” (2019, May 7) TRT World. Available at: (Accessed 12 May 2023).
    8. Brook, Tim Vanden. (2019, May 10) “Pentagon Bolsters Force in Middle East with Marines and Missiles to Confront Iran,” USA Today News. Available at: (Accessed 11 May 2023).
    9. Cox, Robert W. (1983) “Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: An Essay in Method,” Millennium 12, 2: 162–175, .
    10. DeYoung, Karen; and Missy Ryan. (2009, May 5) “In Message to Iran, White House Announces New Military Assets in Middle East,” Washington Post. Available at: 2019/05/05/7d7381d8-6f9b-11e9-8be0-ca575670e91c_story.html (Accessed 11 May 2023).
    11. Dunne, Timothy, et al., eds. (2013) International Relations Theories. Discipline and Diversity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd ed.
    12. Froomkin, Dan. (2008, June 30) “Cheney's Fingerprints,” Washington Post. Available at: BL2008063000719.html?hpid=opinionsbox1 (Accessed 11 May 2023).
    13. Gady, Franz-Stefan. (2020, April 24) “How the 1952 Republican Primary Killed Offshore Balancing,” National Interest. Available at: https://nationalinterest. org/feature/how-1952-republican-primary-killed-offshore-balancing-147771 (Accessed 13 June 2022).
    14. “Gulf Crisis: US Sends more Troops amid Tanker Tension with Iran,” (2019, June 18) BBC News ( Available at: (Accessed 11 May 2023).
    15. Hemmer, Christopher. (2015) “Conclusion: Balancing the Pendulum? The Past and the Future of U.S. Grand Strategy,” in American Pendulum: Recurring Debates in U.S. Grand Strategy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 173-186.
    16. Holmes, James R.; and Toshi Yoshihara. (2012) “An Ocean Too Far: Offshore Balancing in the Indian Ocean,” Asian Security 8, 1: 1-26, .
    17. Houeix, Romain. (2018, April 14) “A History of the Syria Chemical Weapons 'Red Line,” France 24. Available at: (Accessed 2 June 2023).
    18. “Iran Team in Iraq for Security Talks with U.S.: Report,” (2008, March 5) Reuters. Available at: (Accessed 11 May 2023).
    19. Kegley, Charles W.; and Shannon Lindsey Blanton. (2010) World Politics: Trend and Transformation. Boston MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 13th ed.
    20. Kitchen, Nicholas. (2020) “Why American Grand Strategy Has Changed: International Constraint, Generational Shift, and the Return of Realism,” Global Affairs 6, 1: 87-104, .
    21. Lacey, Robert. (2009) Inside the Kingdom. Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. New York: Viking.
    22. “Latest Sanctions on Iran will Block 'Billions' in Assets: US,” (2019, June 24) France 24. Available at: (Accessed 12 May 2023).
    23. Layne, Christopher. (2009, January) “America's Middle East Grand Strategy after Iraq: The Moment for Offshore Balancing has Arrived,” Review of International Studies 35, 1: 5-25, <DOI:10.1017/S0260210509008304>.
    24. Layne, Christopher. (1997) “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America's Future Grand Strategy,” International Security 22, 1: 86-124, .
    25. Macias, Amanda. (2019, September 26) “Pentagon to Deploy Patriot Missile System to Saudi Arabia after Iran Oil Attacks,” CNBC ( Available at: (Accessed 27 July 2023).
    26. McKay, James. (2019) “How Transatlantic is the Trump Administration?” Journal of Transatlantic Studies 17, 4: 532-553, .
    27. Mearsheimer, John J.; and Stephen M. Walt. (2016) “The Case for Offshore Balancing. A Superior U.S. Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs. Available at: (Accessed 17 Sep 2020).
    28. “Mike Pompeo Speech: What are the 12 Demands Given to Iran?” (2018, May 21) Aljazeera ( Available at: 2018/5/21/mike-pompeo-speech-what-are-the-12-demands-given-to-iran (Accessed 3 June 2023).
    29. Nakashima, Ellen. (2019, June 22) “Trump Approved Cyber-Strikes Against Iranian Computer Database Used to Plan Attacks on Oil Tankers,” Washington Post. Available at: national-security/with-trumps-approval-pentagon-launched-cyber-strikes-against-iran/2019/06/22/250d3740-950d-11e9-b570-6416efdc08 03_story.html (Accessed 11 May 2023).
    30. Neuman, Scott, et al. (2019, September 16) “Attack On Saudi Oil Facilities Makes Oil Prices Spike,” NPR ( Available at: 2019/09/16/761118726/oil-prices-jump-following-drone-attack-on-saudi-oil-facility (Accessed 27 July 2023).
    31. Nye, Joseph S. (2006) “Transformational Leadership and U.S. Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs 85, 4: 139-148, <DOI:10.2307/20032047>.
    32. Pawlyk, Oriana. (2019, June 28) “F-22s Deploy to Qatar for the First Time Amid Iran Tensions,” Available at: (Accessed 12 May 2023).
    33. Porter, Patrick. (2018, Spring) "Why America’s Grand Strategy Has Not Changed: Power, Habit, and the U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment," International Security 42, 4: 9-46, <DOI:10.1162/ISEC_a_00311>.
    34. Posen, Barry. (2014) Restraint. A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
    35. “President Donald J. Trump is Ending United States Participation in an Unacceptable Iran Deal,” (2018) Trump White House Archive. Available at: (Accessed 3 June 2023).
    36. Priebe, Miranda, et al. (2021) Implementing Restraint: Changes in U.S. Regional Security Policies to Operationalize a Realist Grand Strategy of Restraint. Santa Monica, CA: RAND. Available at: reports/RRA739-1.html (Accessed 29 November 2023).
    37. Prifti, Bledar. (2017) US Foreign Policy in the Middle East, The Case for Continuity. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
    38. Roberts, Dan; and Julian Borger. (2013, September 28) “Obama Holds Historic Phone Call with Rouhani and Hints at End to Sanctions,” Guardian. Available at: (Accessed 2 June 2023).
    39. “Saudi to Reassess Relations with US: Report,” (2013, October 23) Aljazeera ( Available at: 10/23/ saudi-to-reassess-relations-with-us-report (Accessed 2 June 2023).
    40. Starr, Barbara; and Jeremy Diamond. (2017, April 7) “Trump Launches Military Strike against Syria,” CNN ( Available at: https://web.archive. org/web/20170407021906/ 06/politics/donald-trump-syria-military/index.html (Accessed 2 June 2023).
    41. Stewart, Phil; and Tom Perry. (2014, September 23) “U.S. and Arab Allies Launch First Strikes on Militants in Syria,” Reuters. Available at: (Accessed 2 June 2023).
    42. Taddonio, Patrice. (2015, May 25) “The President Blinked”: Why Obama Changed Course on the “Red Line” in Syria,” PBS. Available at: (Accessed 2 August 2023).
    43. Trevithick, Joseph. (2019, May 14) “U.S. Government Claims Iran Is Behind Attacks on Oil Tankers, But Has Yet To Show Evidence,” The Drive. Available at: (Accessed 11 May 2023).
    44. Walt, Stephen M. (2020, May 5) “The United States Forgot Its Strategy for Winning Cold Wars,” Foreign Policy. Available at: 2020/ 05/05/offshore-balancing-cold-war-china-us-grand-strategy (Accessed 13 June 2022).
    45. Westcott, Ben. (2017, April 11) “US Missile Strike Took out 20% of Syria’s Air Force, Mattis Claims,” CNN. Available at: politics/syria-mattis-trump-strike-damage (Accessed 2 June 2023).
    46. White House. (2013, August 30) “Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013,” Obama White House Archives. Available at: (Accessed 8 August 2023).