An iconic image from 2015 is of young Iranians dancing in the streets of Tehran when news of a preliminary framework agreement with the West on Iran’s nuclear program was announced. There was genuine hope among a younger generation of Iranians that the nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would usher in a new era of economic improvement and greater people-to-people contact between Iran and the West.
There is real fear that the current face-off between Iran and the United States in the Persian Gulf can lead to war. While seemingly unthinkable, as was war in the heart of Europe roughly a century ago, many of the same ingredients are present. The mistrust and hate each side harbors inevitably lead to fear, which can lead to violent confrontation. All that’s necessary is a spark to ignite a destructive conflagration.
Do not underestimate the potential for disaster in the region. Once again, the antagonists are at it accusing one another of violations of treaties and agreements and finger pointing in all directions. Despite all the reporting about recent events, we still don’t know for certain who is behind the attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The US and Israel accuse Iran, who in turn accuses them. The Iranian downing of a US drone has just raised the tension level several degrees.
Perhaps we should examine which countries stand to benefit and which stand to lose from mayhem and escalation of tension in the region.
The list of usual suspects is long, and includes the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and France, and to a lesser degree Iraq. These are all key actors with vital strategic, political and economic interests in the Gulf region. They all stand to gain, to a certain extent, from escalating the tension and possibly even going to war. Yes, one more war in the Middle East, regrettably, is a possibility.
Some in the region believe that another war might well provide the American president with a golden opportunity to escape his ever-growing problems at home and deflect attention from the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Iran too might find that going to war with the ‘Great Satan’ will allow the mullahs to clamp down on those calling for greater reform. Additionally, with substantial war fighting experience in Iraq and Syria, hawks in Tehran might be tempted to put hard learned lessons to the test.
When asked by a reporter on Monday if he thought the United States would be going to war with Iran, President Trump replied, “I hope not.” Both sides have good reason to be wary.
Anyone with knowledge of the region can guarantee that another violent conflict will be highly destructive and very costly.
Saudi Arabia has been telling anyone willing to listen about the dangers that Iran presents to the stability of the Gulf. The Saudis, along with the United Arab Emirates, see themselves as the only real deterrent to Iranian aspirations in the region, albeit with the US playing a central role.
Russia would like to see the US embroiled in another Mideast conflict because it would further drain US resources and ultimately weaken Washington’s standing in the Middle East, leaving the field wide open for Moscow to step in, as was the case in Syria.
The regime in Israel can only benefit from a US war with Iran because it would relieve political pressure on the current leadership and potentially boost its standing among voters in a new round of elections. And, finally, France is making a killing selling arms to Saudi Arabia and to the UAE, amongst others. According to figures released this week, France’s weapons sales to Saudi Arabia rose 50 percent in 2018 despite the government calling for an end to the “dirty war” in Yemen.
As happened in the Balkans a little over a hundred years ago, a seemingly small incident can set off an unanticipated chain of events with calamitous consequences.
Claude Salhani is a regular columnist with The Arab Weekly and a senior associate at the Institute of World Affairs