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Prospects of war on Iran

The region is seeing a new confrontation between Iran and the United States, but this need not lead to full-scale war

Hany Ghoraba , Wednesday 15 May 2019
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The Iranian regime has been instigating trouble in the region since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

When the mullahs led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini replaced the former shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, they did not take long before instigating their first international crisis when a group of students and followers of Khomeini stormed the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and held 55 diplomats and embassy staff hostage for 444 days.

This was then the longest hostage crisis in history, and the Iranians demanded that the Americans turn in the former shah to be tried by the new regime, a demand that was refused by then US president Jimmy Carter.

It thus did not take long for the Iranian regime to display its true colours and to project its animosity not just on the Western world but also on its regional neighbours.

The relations between Iran and its neighbours as well as the West have plummeted since the revolution. The nuclear deal signed with the West in 2015 to curb Iranian ambitions to create a nuclear arsenal did not alleviate the strain on relations.

The region is now seeing a new confrontation between Iran and the US along with its Arab allies.

The US has now sent its strongest message in years to Iran by amassing a naval force in the Arabian Gulf and sending its fifth fleet to join its forces stationed in the Gulf.

The US base in Al-Sailiya in Qatar might ironically be the launching pad for any upcoming operations against Iran, despite the strong Qatari ties with the Iranians.

The US has already deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and four B-52 bombers in the Middle East to respond to concerns that Iran may be planning an attack on American interests.

 Before the Islamic Revolution, Iran possessed one of the most capable armies in the world. That changed after the eight years of the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988), which left the Iranian military battered and with limited resources thanks to the international sanctions on the country.

The Iranians since have been reliant on militant and terrorist proxies across the Middle East, including the Lebanese group Hizbullah, the Palestinian group Hamas, the Yemeni Houthi militants, and elements of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Front.

These proxies serve the Iranian regime to send messages to its neighbours that they could wreak havoc in such countries should the Iranians order it. For instance, Hizbullah receives an annual contribution of nearly $1 billion from Tehran.

Hamas receives substantial sums to keep this terrorist organisation in business. The Houthis have received substantial financial and military aid in their war against the legitimate government in Yemen and the Arab Coalition.

However, Iran never interferes officially in any conflict, and even during the Syrian civil war though it has sent some of its most important commanders to Syria it has never declared this on an official basis.

Despite its chaotic and provocative behaviour, Iran is not keen to be officially involved in military conflicts because it is neither backed by a robust economy nor a strong army, as it claims.

Despite the massive buildup of US forces in the Arabian Gulf, there is no certainty that a war or military conflict will now erupt. There is a temptation inside the US administration to deliver a stern warning to the Iranian regime following the toughest sanctions ever imposed by the US on Iran’s oil exports.

Along with these has come the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group by the US, the first time a national military unit has been designated as a terrorist group even as the US has elaborated on the destructive role that the Iranian military has conducted over the past four decades.

The challenge facing the US now is the sending of a tough message to Iran without igniting a full-blown war, whether caused by a massive military buildup or limited strikes.

It is always much easier to start a war than to end one. The costs of the present operation will be mostly born by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, but there are also limits on what these countries are willing to pay, as they do not want an open bill from the US.

This is especially the case since a limited operation or show of power will be highly unlikely to deter the Iranians for long, given the historical precedents.

Egypt has long considered Iran to be a foe in the region because of its record of supporting terrorism and radicalism. But the Egyptian leadership does not want to see a war spiralling out of control in the Arabian Gulf.

Egypt believes that the region is still suffering in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions and the civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya. The lack of political stability in Algeria, Sudan and Lebanon adds even more reasons to reject another growing conflict.

This is especially the case given the growing possibility of a confrontation with the Turkish regime, which is now setting its greedy eyes on Cypriot natural gas resources.

Accordingly, though Egypt would like to see the Iranian regime gone or pacified at least, it remains vigilant about further escalation in the region that could force it to interfere militarily to protect the Gulf states from foreign intervention. Having to do so would be a military burden that the country could do without.

One of the main aims of the US is to thwart threats to the flow of oil from the Gulf states through the Straits of Hormuz, where the Iranians are threatening to block them. Should they do so, this would spark military action if not full-scale war.

Unfortunately, the Iranian regime, which is rejecting domestic reforms on the political, social or economic levels, is facing pressure that may entice it to try to distract the Iranian public by an international crisis.

During the Iraq-Iran War, Iran targeted the oil tankers and commercial vessels of Iraq, and the war also extended to tankers of countries supporting Iraq, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. A total of 546 oil tankers and commercial vessels were destroyed during the conflict.

The Iranians have been developing long-range missiles in recent years that they are threatening to use, especially against cities in the Gulf. They may also activate their proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq in an attempt to take the battle away from Iranian soil.

The Lebanese Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah has denied statements published in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Ray in April about a possible war with Israel this summer.

But his group is likely to be activated along with others in the region should a military strike be conducted on Iran by the United States or there be the possibility of further sanctions on Iran.

Iranian proxies have been successfully utilised for decades for distraction and leverage purposes by Iran, and the present case is unlikely to be any different.

While the Iranian regime remains a clear and present danger to the peace of the region, a war with the regime is not certain to bring it down, especially since it will likely use its traditional propaganda tools to rally disgruntled citizens to defend their homeland.

That said, all possible methods to curb the expansionist ambitions of the Iranian mullahs without igniting the region in a full-scale war remain welcome.

*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Prospects of war on Iran  

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