As of this
writing, President Trump seems to be using more severe sanctions as a response
to the September 14 attack on two Saudi oil facilities, which he blames on
Iran. It’s difficult to predict whether, in a few days, the President might
reverse course and opt for a military action, as some of his hawkish advisers
are advocating. If he decides to strike Iran, a war will engulf most of the
region with untold misery and destruction.
the belief that Trump and some of his advisers hold, the war will not be quick
and surgical or end in a matter of days. Nor will Iran absorb the attacks
without conducting devastating counterstrikes against its neighbors’ oil infrastructure
and other strategic targets.
Risks of War
the de facto Saudi ruler Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) is hellbent on fighting Iran
to the last American, his country will not escape punishing attacks from Iran
should war break out. The Kingdom’s oil, natural gas, and water infrastructure
and other industrial parks could be destroyed. Saudi Arabia and its allies,
including the United States, would be unable to wage a first strike attack that
would disable Iran’s retaliatory capability and survivability and prevent it
from striking back.
Cooperation Council (GCC) states see the potential devastation and hence are
not as sanguine about striking Iran as their Saudi neighbor. Unlike MbS, Abu
Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed (MbZ) seems to be more realistic about
the devastating impact of a military confrontation on Abu Dhabi and its sister
emirates. Accordingly, he is much more interested in a diplomatic resolution of
Saudi-Iranian tensions. Nor has he accepted the “Act of War” mantra that U.S.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Saudi counterpart have been bellowing.
position is shared by Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman. Bahrain, effectively a Saudi
vassal state, is in no position to oppose MbS. Although Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu has been a staunch supporter of MbS’s war drumbeat against
Iran, Israel is currently in political turmoil, and Netanyahu’s political
future is in limbo. MbS’s calls for military retaliation against Iran seem to
go unheeded among his Arab brethren. Trump’s decision to deploy a few hundred
U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia might give the Saudi crown prince some solace, but
it does not necessarily put the United States on a war footing with Iran.
nutshell, no regional state, including Saudi Arabia and Israel—whose current
leaders are the war’s most ardent supporters—will benefit, either in the
short-term or long-term, from a war against Iran. The Gulf Arab emirates will
suffer heavily, and their tribal families’ hold on power will become tenuous.
In case of war, the presence of U.S. troops in the Gulf states will be unable
to secure the future survival of their archaic tribal regimes.
1991, when American forces guaranteed the survival of the Kuwaiti and Saudi
regimes following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, an all-out war with Iran
will most likely spread across the Persian Gulf, the Levant, and other parts of
the Middle East. In such a scenario, the survival of the tribal regimes becomes
one of many side issues, and not necessarily a critical objective for outside
warring parties. Sadly for these states, the “regime change” that some of them
have sought for Iran may instead be visited upon them. If Gulf oil facilities
go up in flames, family rule will teeter as the Arab monarchies’ economic
bargaining power diminishes.
Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, Gulf monarchies survived because of their support
for Iraq against Iran. Once Washington decided in 1982 to help Saddam Hussein
not lose the war, it became only a matter of time before Iran would capitulate.
Gulf monarchies also survived the short Gulf War in early 1991. Saddam invaded
Kuwait in August 1990 and was forced by a U.S.-led coalition to withdraw seven
months later. That was a mini-war with limited objectives, which cannot
possibly compare to a potential war with Iran. Even then, as the Iraqi army
retreated from Kuwait, it was able to burn nearly 600 oil wells. Those fires
burned for weeks, causing ecological, human, health, and economic disasters. A
war with Iran could result in the burning of thousands of oil wells and
installations in Iran and across the Arab littoral from Kuwait to Oman.
survives a Saudi-driven war successfully, despite U.S.-supplied fire power,
Gulf populations will begin to wonder why their governments have been spending
billions of dollars on sophisticated foreign weapon systems. They would pose
several questions to their rulers: What is the value of these weapons?
Shouldn’t the oil-rich Arab states spend their wealth instead on combating the
rising poverty of their peoples?
A war with
Iran will also be felt in several Levant countries, including Israel and
Lebanon. In support of embattled Iran, the pro-Iranian Lebanese Shia political
party Hezbollah will enter the war by launching missiles, rockets, and drones
against Israeli towns, cities, and installations in northern Israel.
Hezbollah’s missiles could cause considerable damage as far south as Haifa and
the industrial complexes in the Akko-Haifa region. It’s also not unthinkable
for Iran to launch medium-range missiles against Israeli targets in the heavily
populated center of the country.
Israel has the capability to face a two-front attack, Israel’s population will
be rattled by the ensuing chaos, especially if the attacks cause a high number
of casualties. Israel escaped getting involved in previous Gulf wars, but will
most likely not this time around.
Jordan, and Iraq will also get caught in a regional war with Iran. Lebanon’s
national politics is already precarious, with Hezbollah being the most
influential political group in the country. Jordan’s internal stability will be
threatened as well with the arrival of more refugees and the rising tide of
protests against poor economic policies and systemic corruption inside the
Hashemite monarchy. Iraq could easily be used as a proxy territory, possibly by
the Iranians, the U.S., and the remnants of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
Hearts and Minds
Arab Barometer survey of Arab youth shows that majorities have favorable views
of China, including in terms of economic relations. Less than half hold similar
views of the United States. If a war with Iran results in no clear victory for
the American-Saudi side or in a stalemate, Arab youth views toward their regimes
and the United States will sour considerably. In this scenario, the United
States would have supported Gulf autocratic regime but lost Arab publics—a sad
eulogy for Washington’s efforts since 9/11 to win the hearts and minds of Arab
and Muslim peoples.
unpleasant Arab and non-Arab regional realities will be the backdrop of an
all-out war against Iran. And the more complex they are, the more dangerous and
chaotic the unintended consequences will be. It’s much easier to go to war than
to face the morning after questions and consequences. We experienced that
during the Iraq War. Have those who are pushing for a war against Iran learned
any lessons from that conflict?
Middle East is not in a good place—politically and economically. Arab peoples are
mostly young, restless, poor, disenfranchised, and alienated from their
governments. According to the Arab Barometer report, roughly 30 percent of the
350 million Arabs are between 15 and 29. As a result of high unemployment and
poverty, there is widespread discontent among the youth about their economic
prospects. Street demonstrations against regime economic policies are occurring
almost daily across the region.
pervasive security state in Egypt, for example, demonstrations against the corruption
of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime continue unabated. They have spread from Cairo
to other Egyptian cities. Youth demonstrations of various sizes are a regular
occurrence across the region, from Sudan to North Africa and the Levant.
Dissatisfaction with economic and political conditions is prevalent across the
region. Hopelessness and economic bleakness are driving large numbers of Arab
youth to emigrate.
socio-economic drivers are not religious or ideological. They are economic and
political in nature. While many youth have come to tolerate the oppressive
nature of state securitization across the region, they have become more vocal
against corruption of their individual regimes, whether in Egypt, Jordan,
Bahrain, Morocco, or Algeria.
President Trump sticks with his instincts against waging yet another war in the
greater Middle East, deal making becomes the only clear path forward. To attain
this goal, it’s imperative that Washington revisit the 2015 nuclear deal (Joint
Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) with Iran and the other signatories.
Trump’s economic sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy considerably, and Tehran
may be willing to reopen negotiations on extending the breakout time and other
conditions specified in the JCPOA.
avenue to facilitate the making of a deal with Iran would be a concerted effort
to convince the Saudis to end the war in Yemen. The political and power sharing
demands of the Houthis and the pro-Saudi factions in that war-torn country are achievable.
A proxy war cannot and must not go on forever. MbS should be persuaded that his
Yemen war is unwinnable in the long-run, especially as more and more U.S.
Members of Congress persist in questioning the continued U.S. military support
for the Saudis there.
collaboration between Riyadh and Tehran is necessary for the long-term security
of the Gulf. The United States, back in the 1950s, realized that Gulf security
could only be attained through a partnership between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The
geographic realities of that region haven’t changed much since then. The Arab
and Persian littorals of the Persian Gulf must find a way to secure the Gulf.
If President Trump is interested in establishing some sort of rapprochement
with Iran and in avoiding another war in the greater Middle East, then this is
his path toward a “Deal of the Century.”
Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence
Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program
at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a
member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director
of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New
Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s
Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a
Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics,
political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received
his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and
the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque,
Headline: Iran And The Middle East Amid Shifting Alliances