When former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched a full-scale incursion into Iran in 1980, he was hoping to take advantage of the chaos after the Islamic Revolution to stifle Iran and to assert Iraq’s role as the new dominant power in the Arabian Gulf.
But as the bloody eight-year war that followed Iraq’s autumn blitzkrieg showed, Saddam had got it wrong, and instead of the fast defeat of the new Islamic regime, he let Iran’s genie out of the bottle.
The conflict had dire geopolitical consequences not only for Iraq, but also for the entire Middle East and especially for the Arab Sunni countries that were caught off balance by Shia Iran’s rising regional clout after the war.
Three decades after the war with Iraq, Iran has risen from a pariah state to a regional superpower with an extensive nuclear programme, increasing militarisation, and a steady reach across the Middle East through a vast network of proxies.
With tensions between the United States, its Gulf Sunni allies, and Iran dangerously escalating in recent weeks, some fear that history could be repeating itself.
In many ways, the march to war against Iran is not only echoing the run-up to the 1980-1988 War between Iraq and Iran but is also echoing Saddam’s terrible miscalculations about Iran and in particular Iranian nationalism.
Since the Pentagon decided to deploy USS Abraham Lincoln together with a bomber task force including B-52s and marines to the Gulf to join a growing array of American military might, fears have increased that the Trump administration could be considering military action against Iran.
This week, US President Donald Trump gave his approval to deploying additional military resources to the Gulf region, including Patriot missile batteries, reconnaissance aircraft and accompanying forces in the latest sign of escalation.
The deployment will add to about 70,000 American troops now stationed across a region that stretches from North Africa to Afghanistan.
As the escalation cycle seems well under way, a showdown between Iran and the United States may now come as a surprise to no one. Indeed, many fear that Tehran’s and Washington’s impulsive behaviour and blustering rhetoric could lead the two sides into an inadvertent conflict.
Despite claims by Washington that the goal of the recent actions is to deter attacks on American forces and interests, many observers believe that the build-up makes a war in the Gulf inevitable.
Even though Trump administration officials have been keeping their cards close to their chests, the ultimate goal of the war is likely to be an opening to overthrow the Islamic regime in Tehran.
Trump has been constantly flip-flopping on Iran, oscillating between sending threats to destroy the Islamic Republic and being prepared for deals with its leaders.
During a visit to Tokyo this week, Trump said he is not looking for regime change in Iran despite rising tension, remarks seen linked to a Japanese offer to mediate between Tehran and Washington.
But many hawkish members in his administration are outspoken advocate of regime change in Iran. US National Security Adviser John Bolton is widely seen as one of the architects of the showdown that would provide him with a unique opportunity to accelerate ousting the regime in Tehran.
It is not a secret that some US Arab allies that blame Iran for regional instability are known to be seeking regime change in Iran and hope that the current showdown will work as a catalyst for the regime’s implosion.
However, a giant question mark remains over whether the Trump administration and its allies have worked out specific plans for regime change in Iran or if it has discussed what an alternative to the Islamic Republic could look like.
There seems to be no strategy for the implosion of the regime, and the Trump administration and its allies are doubling down on a “maximum pressure” campaign to coerce Tehran to abandon its perceived aggressive policies.
However, regime change in Iran assumes the collapse of the theocratic government of the Islamic Republic and the empowerment of a friendly regime that would lead Iran like any other country.
Such a scenario, which imagines that the regime could not long survive military, economic and diplomatic estrangement, is an utter misunderstanding of Iran and an outright blunder.
It is reminiscent of Saddam’s missteps when he portrayed Ayatollah Khomeini’s drinking from “a poisoned chalice” or his decision to accept a UN Security Council ceasefire resolution to end the protracted war as a victory for Iraq.
One important mistake that the Trump administration is making is to assume that the threat of war could force Iran to alter its behaviour and that this would ultimately lead to regime change in Tehran.
But Iran is not Iraq, which the United States invaded and took down its regime in three weeks because of weak resistance and the lack of motivation and morale that permeated the ranks of the Iraqi military and the lack of support for Saddam from a fatigued population.
The failure of the United States in rebuilding Iraq must also serve notice to the Iranians that regime change by war could result in the mess of a visibly failed state and deep communal divisions that could shake the country to the core.
To make matters worse, there is no alternative to the regime in Iran. After 40 years of theocratic rule, Iran’s political landscape is a barren wasteland in which opposition political parties are prohibited to operate and severe restrictions are imposed on non-commissioned political and cultural activities.
Could one of the hidden goals of the Trump administration be to rattle Iran through a military confrontation and pursue its breakup into several mini states with majority communal ethnicities?
Proponents hope that a prolonged confrontation that could trigger political and social instability inside Iran would not only overthrow the ruling system but also dismantle the Iranian state itself.
While it is unclear if this is part of the preoccupation of US national security planners in the present confrontation, breaking up Iran has been a strategic goal of some decision-makers in some Sunni Arab states that share with Washington the campaign against Tehran.
This, of course, reminds us of the ongoing process of the political fragmentation of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen and the arc of instability, chaos and violence across the Middle East.
However, the breaking up of Iran could be even more painful and would have even more devastating effects on the entire region.
No less alarming is the prospect that the US-led “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran will be conducive to the revival of a strongly nationalist mood and of a sense of patriotism usually associated with popular mobilisation against foreign aggression.
Historically, Iranian identity and national sentiments have been conceived of as a mix of Persian nationalism with Shiism, which was consolidated by the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and is often utilised by leaders of the Islamic regime to defend what they call the “Iranian nation.”
Today, contemporary Iranian nationalism refers to the expression of entwined national and religious identity and political thought based on the native spiritual and cultural traditions of Iran.
Any alliance that brings together the Americans and the Arab Sunni countries will most certainly push this type of assertive Iranian nationalism into the popular mainstream and probably militancy.
Given the historic Shia-Sunni divide and the present sectarian and ethnic polarisation in the Middle East, a war with Iran would likely set the stage for a broader collision for the region’s soul and political future.
But in doing so, the region would be entering a time of troubles, the outcome of which cannot be predicted, and the damage done would not be short term but very long and probably unrepairable.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Keeping Iran’s genie in the bottle