Sleepwalking to war
The Middle East is a tinderbox primed for war and our leaders are sleepwalking right into it
London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 21 Feb 2018 - Ghassan Matar
Anyone who has studied Iranian politics and culture would clearly be fascinated by the large role Iran has played in history. From the rise of Indo-European tribes and settlements, the people of Arya-Vaejah, as Iran is called in the ancient Zoroastrian texts, came to dominate not only Asia, but extended their empire to Greece and Egypt, crown jewels of ancient history.
After the appearance of Islam, Iran quickly became a fault line between the expanding Arab world and the long-standing Persian lands, and eventually between the Turkish Ottoman Empire and Persian Safavid Iran. This fault line persists to the current day: Iran is a regional power, demonstrating a consistent ability to ward off enemies both near and far.
The concept of inevitability in examining the past or predicting the future is fraught with challenges. Indeed, ideologies usually heralded as inevitable typically end up in the trash bin of history. Very rarely is every variable discernible and often the most powerful variables in determining an outcome are the most elusive.
With that said, however, the trajectory of certain events can signal what is to come. The case of Iran is one example in which that signal cannot be ignored. Iran’s leaders are hegemonic in their outlook; they may not want to rule the Arab world directly, but certainly want it under their control.
The US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq transformed Iraq from a regional heavyweight to a crippled state with wider regional implications including the shattering of the balance of power between Iraq and Iran, which was tested by the 1980-88 war and ensured that no one power could dominate the region. However, by weakening Iraq and placing at its head politicians who have deep-rooted ties with Iran, America has effectively handed the country over to its own nemesis, Tehran. As a result, Iran is emerging as a hostile regional superpower, overtly opposed to Israel and destabilising the entire region.
Israel is their enemy not only in public proclamations but, more dangerously, in their minds. Iran’s conservative religious population largely shares their sentiment and for those who don’t, the state security apparatus is powerful enough to ensure dissidents are no threat to the regime’s survival.
The regime’s geopolitical aims, however, are necessary but not sufficient causes for conflict. For the rest of the equation we must look to the current configuration of state power and ideology in the region. Iran has tried, year by year, decade by decade, to inch its way into the Arab world. Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shi’ite militias, Shi’ite dissident groups in Bahrain, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and Yemen are all well-known instances of Iranian meddling in the Arab world.
A less-cited instance of Iranian expansion is the vast network of front companies and logistics hubs integrated into the Islamic Republic’s paramilitary apparatus, designed to wage asymmetric warfare against global, typically civilian, targets in the event large-scale hostilities begin.
The dominant Arab countries in the region are unifying in a way never seen in the Arab world since the arrival of the nation-state system. Perhaps united by the fear of the “Arab Spring,” Egyptian and Saudi leaders are closely aligned in their hostility to political Islam, best exemplified by the theocratic regime in Iran.
These two countries are leading a unified bloc of Arab states, particularly those in the Gulf, to shut down Iranian influence by any means necessary short of direct war, since Iran could militarily destroy both countries. An assessment of the individuals in this equation are also noteworthy. Recently anointed Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) has demonstrated a reckless and expeditionary sense of Saudi foreign policy, demonstrated by his role in the Saudi war with the Houthis, the ruling Shi’ite militia in Yemen, and ill-defined support to Saudi proxies in Syria.
The eventual passing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamanei will leave Iran highly vulnerable, perhaps inducing military opportunism by Iran’s neighbours or pre-emptive provocations against them by the Iranian military establishment. The contrast in leadership cadres is noteworthy. Where Iran’s leaders have experience dating back to the 1979 revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and other conflagrations, the same cannot be said of MbS.
Interestingly, with the rise of the new crown prince and proactive measures coordinated with Saudi Arabia’s allies against Qatar, Yemen and Syria, a region once known for snail-pace incrementalism is suddenly venturing into the world of foreign policy adventurism.
Central to this emerging configuration is Israel. Long the recipient of Arab venom, most Arab countries now share Israel’s fear of a hegemonic and militaristic Iran. The Palestinian issue is largely withering on the vine as Arab states no longer see any advantage to advocating on behalf of the Palestinians.
The stewardship of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, furthermore, has gradually reduced the flame of Palestinian anger from the West Bank. Threats persist from Hamas and Hezbollah, which are aided by Tehran, but the age of liberation and nationalist sentiment is largely disappearing from the global narrative and realpolitik is forging closer relations between Israel and Arab countries.
So why does this description of the region mean war is inevitable? Israel will not disappear, nor will it accept the prospect of annihilation. The Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, will not tolerate new prongs of Iranian expansion in their domain, and may attempt a commitment to “rolling back” long-tolerated Iranian influence in the region.
Yet Iran will not change its foreign policy and military capabilities.
The clerics and military leaders have no incentive to experience a change of heart, with the international community clearly indeterminate in its resolve to marginalize Iran, the effect of sanctions minimal, internal dissent suppressed and a multi-polar world with Russia and China largely unwilling to support the United States in its historical aggression toward Iran.
The United States and the United Kingdom have for the past decade been trying to get the Kremlin to distance itself from Iran. When Rex Tillerson went to Moscow, he laid out Washington’s position by stating:
“Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians, and Hezbollah,” he said. “Is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia’s interest, or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries and Middle East countries who are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?” However Putin would have none of it.
Despite their current alliance, Russia and Iran have historically been rivals, even enemies. Over the centuries, they have fought wars and squabbled over spheres of influence. Stalin occupied northern Iran after World War II, a memory that continues to haunt Iranians, who chanted “death to the Soviet Union” along with the US and Israel in the 1979 revolution that ousted Iran’s pro-US monarch. But all that changed under Putin, who has courted Iran and other players in the Middle East since 2000. Russia–Iran cooperation took on a whole new dimension during the Syria war, where Iranian, Russian, and allied forces have sometimes fought side-by-side against clients of US allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
By sticking by Iran and Syria, Putin also shows the world Russia is a more loyal ally than the US, which shocked many of its regional partners when it called on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down in the early days of the so-called Arab Spring. Offering Russia an incentive here and there won’t be enough to induce a betrayal.
The utility of spy games traditionally used to halt Iranian activities within its borders and in the region is running out. Those with a more optimistic view of the region can argue that there are many factors holding back the region from war.
Most of these assessments will hinge on how devastating the war would be for all parties involved, and for the international community. This is true, which is why this article characterizes the inevitability as unfortunate.
People will suffer on all sides, but the system as it stands now and the trajectory of events charted are not sustainable. Triggers for war are too numerous, leaders are increasingly impatient and tempestuous, and the ongoing conflicts make the fog of war too dense to detect red lines. Saudi Arabia is bolstering is weapons systems for offensive and defensive purposes, makeshift airstrips may be prepared in the Gulf to allow for a quick, stealthy air operation against Iran in the future, and Iran continues to advance its ballistic missile capabilities.
With declining US influence in the region, perhaps other global powers such as China and Russia can reign in the factors leading to war, although China’s track record with North Korea is not promising. The war will be devastating on both regional and global levels, but it will happen eventually and this time, the United States and NATO members are all teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
If the United States or Israel attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity by air, the mission would not be like Israel’s 1981 single-day strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor. A U.S. attack would have to target multiple complexes, and planners would need to prepare the battlefield by destroying air defense radars, interceptors and much of Iran’s air force. Such an operation could require hundreds of sorties over several days.
Iran would probably respond by threatening shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, potentially touching off a global oil crisis. The U.S. Navy would be forced to patrol the Persian Gulf and possibly undertake a lengthy operation to destroy Iran’s navy and its arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles.
Iran would be unlikely to capitulate even with its air force and navy out of commission. It would probably turn to terrorism to strike at U.S. targets around the globe. If such attacks were successful, they would generate enormous public pressure to escalate the conflict, perhaps including demands for regime change in Tehran.
That, in turn, could mean yet another U.S. ground war in the Middle East, this time against a nation of more than 80 million. As we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, the costs of such a conflict could be measured in decades, tens of thousands of U.S. casualties and trillions of dollars.
Such escalation is not theoritical, it is already in motion. For anyone with an inkling of historical literacy a general state of war exists between antagonistic, intervening states in Syria, even if it remains undeclared and unacknowledged. The dizzying implications of these intersecting battles – Turkey invading Afrin, Russian enforcing de-escalation zones, Iran sending drones into Israel, and Israel attacking Syrian military installations – suggest that the possibility for escalation and wider regional war is thus not imminent, it is here. It is not on the horizon but right in front of us.
What forms the war takes and under what conditions will it escalate or de-escalate should inform the questions we ask about the conflict today.