Are Circumstances Now Aligned for Possible War in the Middle East?

Yves here. I hope knowledgeable readers can provide a less, erm, hackneyed reading of events in the Middle East. However, this article starts out by dignifying the bizarre Wall Street Journal report of Iran considering attacking Saudi Arabia. Mind you, the Journal has been running bizarre reports about Russia in recent weeks, but that’s not too abnormal by Western press standards. Iran has made clear it will strike only defensively, but it is happy to have Hezbollah mix things up on its behalf.

As for the JCPOA, I have regularly referred to this discussion by Scott Ritter in July (see starting at 122:30), which IMHO can’t be seen too often. Ritter contends Iran deliberately blew it up after US-instigated provocation, which begs the question of why anyone is flogging this apparent dead horse.

Having said that, it’s not hard to see that Middle East at risk of war. If nothing else, Israel has to recognize its support among the US Jewish community is declining generationally. Younger Jews identify vastly less with Israel than their parents and grandparents.

By Paul Rogers,  Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies in the Department of Peace Studies and International Relations at Bradford University, and an Honorary Fellow at the Joint Service Command and Staff College. He is openDemocracy’s international security correspondent. He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers. Originally published at openDemocracy

On 1 November The Wall Street Journal reported on a Saudi intelligence assessment that Iran was preparing for a military attack. The motive, according to the assessment, was partly to divert attention from the widespread protests across Iran, some of the most intense and long-lasting in years.

The US and some Gulf states raised their military alert levels, but nothing came of the Saudi concern. However, it does raise the question of whether there is an increasing risk of a confrontation, stemming from the complex interrelationships in the region in the context of parallel political developments.

For example, in Washington, the Biden administration is still attempting to restore the nuclear deal with Iran that was ditched by Donald Trump four years ago, while Iran has been developing its missile capabilities and supplying Russia with armed drones. And Israel has elected a far-right Parliament that includes religious fundamentalists, who will have an influence on Israeli politics that has not been seen in decades.

As to the nuclear agreement itself, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a multi-state deal made in 2015 during the Obama administration. It limited Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons in return for some sanctions relief and was considered a useful if incomplete deal. Then came Trump, who withdrew from it in May 2018, and also imposed further sanctions intended to make it difficult for a successor to reverse the process

Since then, the Tehran regime has pursued a twin-track response of drawing closer to Russia, especially by supplying drones used in the current war in Ukraine, while eroding its previous commitments to the JCPOA almost to breaking point. These commitments revolved around the low level of uranium enrichment Iran was allowed to undertake and the amount of enriched uranium it could stockpile.

The International Atomic Energy Agency reported that two months ago Iran already had a stockpile of 55.6 kg of uranium enriched to the high level of 60% and was also increasing its enrichment capabilities so that further enrichment could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb within three to four weeks. The JCPOA deal was rooted in limiting that theoretical ‘breakout period’ to a year, so Iran has essentially bypassed that. But if it is accused of breaching the JCPOA, it can simply reply that Washington ditched the deal in the first place, not Tehran.

Having the weapons-grade material is not the same as producing a bomb, which might take months, but it does make it very difficult to restore the JCPOA, to the extent that the Biden administration may now be merely going through the motions in the continuing, if intermittent, JCPOA talks.

Instead, Washington is concentrating much more on supporting the internal human rights movements in Iran while trying to sanction Tehran’s oil exports.

Neither shows many prospects for success – the regime in Tehran is set on maintaining domestic control, often with considerable violence, while it benefits from high oil prices, caused mainly by the impact of the war in Ukraine. It is also testing new rockets, including a satellite launcher, to remind its own people and neighbouring states of its technological capabilities.

Then there are the Israeli election results, which have brought Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the seriously far-right Jewish Power Party (JPP), to political prominence. The JPP is one of several religious fundamentalist parties, but it is the most significant and likely to be part of a new governing coalition, with many of its supporters confidently expecting its leader, Ben-Gvir, to be Israel’s next prime minister.

Benjamin Netanyahu will form the country’s next government, but given his legal problems, the idea that Ben-Gvir could be prime minister is not that far-fetched. In any case, almost any combination of leaders will produce a state decidedly more hawkish in its actions, making a long-threatened Israeli attack on Iran more likely.

If the current state of tension in the Gulf intensifies and war does break out, it will most likely focus on Israeli air and missile attacks intended to do as much damage as possible to Iran’s developing nuclear infrastructure, as quickly as possible.

With Israel’s new-found alliances with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the view from Tehran would certainly be that these countries would be directly involved in a war. It follows that Western Gulf infrastructure, especially for oil and gas production and export, would be early targets.

Due not least to the rise of the Israeli extreme right, the US under Biden might not provide initial military support for Israel, but a substantial Iranian attack on Saudi and UAE oil and gas would make US involvement in an anti-Iran war well-nigh certain.

That, in turn, raises the issue of the UK’s role. Over the past 12 years of Tory governments, the UK has substantially increased its forces ‘East of Suez’, including a naval base in Bahrain, substantial facilities at the new port at Duqm in Oman large enough to support Britain’s aircraft carriers, strike aircraft that have operated out of bases in Kuwait and Qatar, and a desert warfare training centre for the British Army has been opened in Oman

There has been very little debate about this ‘Make Britain Great Again’ posture but it seems likely that every attempt would be made to thwart public debate should a conflict escalate, most likely made more effective by the new National Security Bill about to go to the House of Lords.

Another Gulf war is far from the minds of most Western politicians, with Ukraine dominating their security outlook, and any suggestion of an imminent conflict is dismissed.

But the uneasy combination of those parallel political developments is the reason the politicians may be mistaken. The Tehran regime is under very heavy pressure at home, with a strong probability that this will be sustained, so a foreign threat comes in handy as a major diversion, just as Israel elects a far-right government including extreme religious factions in positions of power that look in horror at Iran’s nuclear prospects

In short, prepare for the unexpected and urge caution where possible. One thing is clear, though: if a conflict does evolve, then the UK will be involved at a very early stage – one more thing for Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer to consider.

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  1. KD

    I wonder if this is their way of saying that Israel intends on attacking Iran, and Iran is expected to retaliate by hitting gulf petro capacity. Otherwise, it makes no sense.

    1. russell1200

      Nothing is ever that strait forward in the ME.

      Israel just signed a very important deal with outgoing Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun – a very close alley of Iran. This deal took place even though the two countries were technically still at war with each other.

      Israel is also at odds with Turkeys oil asperations – and Turkey and Iran aren’t best buddies at the moment. Israel, quietly, has fairly good relations with Russia in some areas.

      Maybe Israel attacks. Maybe Iran fires back at the Gulf States. But the actors don’t have the all-with-us or all-against-us attitude that the US typically does.

      1. Adam

        You’re thinking that these are rational actors which isn’t necessarily the case for many of them, especially JPP. Just listening to Ben-Gvir gives me the willies. They are just as likely to start a war because their god told them so.

  2. Col 'Sandy' Volestrangler (ret)

    Looking outside the DC-Hollywood IngSoc bubble, I have seen repeated references to ongoing discusions over various issues between Arabia and Iran. Almost as though the abled antagonism is a figment of someone’s imagination. Kuwait playing a role in facilitating continued talks over issues and conflicts.
    It this is true, then we can look forward to renewed demonization of Prince Regnant MbS.
    And remember Jamal Khashoggi was Adnan’s (of Iran-Contra fame) nephew and probably an American agent.

  3. Altandmain

    From what I’ve seen of the Iranians, most people in Iran have moved on from the JCPOA. Those in Iran who wanted rapprochement with the West were given a chance. From the Iranian point of view, that was discredited when the US withdrew unilateral from that agreement.

    What’s the point for Iran from joining any new agreement, know that the US, as Putin once noted, is “agreement incapable”. At this point, it is far more rational for Iran to align with China and Russia.

    Then there’s the historical reasons why the Iranians should distrust the US.

    – The CIA backed overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953, because the leader at the time of Iran, wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil and use it for the benefit of the people
    – The freezing of Iranian reserves after the 1979 Islamic Revolution
    – The decision of the US to back Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war \
    – Most recently, the US assassinated a major Iranian military leader near the end of the Trump administration, Qasem Soleimani

    I could make a much longer list, but you get the point. Iranians have good reason not to trust the US. That doesn’t highlight the economic hardship the Iranians have endured as a result of these sanctions.

    Now though, with the rise of China and Russia, perhaps one of the biggest failures of US foreign policy is now getting the Iranians to ally with the Russians and Chinese, forming an alliance against the US. With the latest fall in relationships between Saudi Arabia and the US, there may be a detente of sorts between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have historically been rivals. This has especially been highlighted with Iran joining BRICs, for which they have applied to join for.

    On that note, I will say one thing – the US should not underestimate Iran. Note the accusations that Iran was supplying “suicide” drones for Russia in the most recent conflict in Ukraine. They Iranians likely have many more capabilities that they have not showed. I suspect the US Navy and military are a lot more vulnerable than they think. Years ago, there was an Operation Millennium Challenge, a military exercise where the “US” side lost badly in the exercise against theoretical Iranian opponent.

  4. Louis Fyne

    One of the most dangerous times for war is when one side misjudges the other for a weakling.

    Maybe in the past, Iran was leery of a full-blown war as it was internationally isolated. If that was the case, I doubt it is so now. Iran’s domestic weapons industry has demonstrated in Ukraine and Yemen (and Kurdistan) that it has thrived despite western sanctions.

    While on the other hand, I presume Bibi still clings to the notion of Israeli invincibility with its US-built air force.

    If there is a war it’ll be like the Russo-Japanese War of 1904—the post-war political world will be turned upside down.

  5. jrkrideau

    My uneducated guess is we are seeing the US panic and feeding rumours to the press to try and scare Saudi Arabia.

    Saudi Arabia is clearly turning away from the West and looking towards China & Russia. And the SCO & BRICS. The US is doing anything it can dream up to prevent this. IIRC Saudi Arabia is accepting or planning to accept yuan for oil. This is probably one step away for joining Russia, China in moving away from SWIFT and the US dollar.

    For Iran, they are a SCO member, should soon be a BRICS member, and have just signed a couple of huge deals with Russia. Given that they have survived some ferocious sanctions already, my guess would be that JCPOA sanctions are rapidly becoming close to irrelevant. Given that Iran is already an SCO member and likely to be a BRICS member I cannot see them wanting a war with a fellow member.

  6. Maxwell Johnston

    Don’t forget about Syria, where one can find USA troops (illegally, and stealing Syria’s oil), Turkish troops (also illegally), Russian troops (invited by the Syrian government), and regular Israeli air raids, all in a country the size of North Dakota. The Turkish government is blaming yesterday’s deadly Istanbul explosion on the Kurds, saying the attack was planned by Kurdish forces in Syria. Lots of dry kindling there, all that’s needed is a tiny spark to set things off.

    1. Greg

      I was going to comment re: Syria. The article starts off on the wrong foot by talking about the potential for war in the Middle East.

      There is already an ongoing war in the Middle East, several in fact. There’s even one with actual real USA citizens involved, so it counts as a “real” war by busted western standards.

      Perhaps the point of the article, given the focus on Iran, is whether or not Syria is going to get expanded to include Iran. Perhaps Israel in more than an airstrike capacity is at risk too.

    1. Expat2Uruguay

      Ha! I have a similar comment in moderation, which is okay because this point bears repeating ;)

  7. Expat2Uruguay

    With Israel’s new-found alliances with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the view from Tehran would certainly be that these countries would be directly involved in a war. It follows that Western Gulf infrastructure, especially for oil and gas production and export, would be early targets.

    Curious that there’s no link or source for the bolded information. I contend that, in the event of a war with Israel, it would be unlikely that Iran would bomb Saudi Arabia, as they are both angling to get into BRICS. In fact, we have a situation where China is working to bring in Saudi Arabia and Russia is working to bring in Iran . I don’t necessarily mean that they are working to bring these two countries into BRICS, but instead that Russia and China are working parallel paths to defeat the West and establish a new multipolar world.

    This article then goes on to argue that the US and the UK would have to come in on Israel’s side to defend Saudi Arabia. I haven’t read other people’s comments yet, but this article looks to me to be a piece of propaganda angling to maintain Western hegemony.

  8. flora

    Turkey is part of the ME I think. This statement from from the Turkish Interior Minister is easy to read.

    ‘Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu about the terrorist attack in Istanbul: “We know how this event was coordinated. We know where this is coordinated from. We know the message given to us.We do not accept the condolences of the American ambassador,we reject them” ‘

  9. Willow

    There is a rapprochement of convenience between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Story that Iran is going to attack Saudi Arabia is the West trying to break this up. Iran’s focus will be the Kurds which have been getting help from Israel. Which also suits Turkey which is likely increase its offensive operations against the Kurds in Syria/Iraq. Especially now with the Istanbul bombing. Expect some unexpected horse trading between these three.

  10. JTMcPhee

    Sounds to me like more advertising from the MICMAC, spewed out by the “thinktanker” noise machine and the folks who make a career out of selling the idea that “we are only inches from disaster unless all the militaries on Our Side are plumped up — with appropriate large diversions of Mon$y to us and our wing mates — to the max extent the poor old real economies of the prey nations and our own Imperial Clown Show can be looted.”

    It’s like the Wurlitzer story about Iran selling drones to Russia, which they acknowledge doing before the hostilities. Check the WSJ and similar articles, based on “Ukrainian officials said” and similar Indisputable Fact Sources:

    Always remember: “We will know our program of disinformation is complete when nothing the American public believes is true.” William Casey, CIA Director. Fear, uncertainty and doubt, with the players generating it profiting from the opportunities in the resulting chaos.

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