Options for peace and war in the Arabian Gulf

Al-Quds Al-Arabi – May 15, 2019, issue 9545, p. 21

The current Iranian regime depends on a central leadership led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the religious leader who has the first and last say in any political, military or economic decision taken by the regime. Khamenei is surrounded by two wings sharing roles within his perspective and choices. The political wing led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the military under the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani. Based on the movements of these two personalities, we can read the overall orientation of the system as whole.

With the announcement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of the new package of economic sanctions on the Iranian regime, which eliminates the eight countries’ exclusion from continuing to import Iranian oil, Khamenei’s first reaction was to send Zarif to New York. Zarif addressed the US people and government calmly, confirming Tehran’s unwillingness to escalate and readiness to sit at the negotiating table to resolve their differences. Despite the diplomatic tone, Zarif returned to Iran empty-handed.

On another occasion, Zarif went to meet with Lavrov, trying to garner some international support that would give the Iranian regime confidence. But things did not reach the desired level. Moscow, enjoying the results of the Ukrainian elections and which in the language of numbers gains from the absence of Iranian oil from the global market, while also immersed in negotiations with Israel over the Syrian file, gave no importance to Tehran and the critical situation it is in. However, the strongest blow to Zarif and the political wing he represents in Iran came from Europe, as his contacts with Paris were strictly zero.

Standing on the map of the region in general, Washington’s massive military influence in both the Gulf and the north of the Middle East makes it a double-edged knife. With this deployment, loss control becomes more complex. On the other hand, Tehran has no less influence on militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza, in addition to its strategic influence in Afghanistan. According to the Wall Street Journal leak, Iranian Revolutionary Guards can use this influence to guide targeted military attacks and Iraq tops the list. These leaks were the reason for the cancellation of Pompeo’s planned visit to Berlin and his emergency visit to Baghdad a few days ago. The visit, which lasted three hours, included a warning and calm message. The warning was that Iraqi territory would be turned into an arena of fighting with Shiite militias, which are Iran’s hand in Iraq on one side, and Washington’s calm message to Tehran that military is not the preferred option for the US government today.

In terms of numbers and militarization, any war between Washington and Tehran would not be in the interests of the parties in any way. Tehran, which is proud of its ballistic missiles and militias in the region, will not withstand the technology and striking force of the Pentagon. But this equation is not complete. The transformation of the Middle East, one of the world’s most important oil and gas regions, into a fiery front will put the international system, and in particular Washington, at the heart of economic, political and security instability. Therefore, there is no winner in this war. This, of course, does not prevent a fight that will not lead to gains for either side, and this side will be neither American nor Iranian.

On the 6th of the month, Khamenei held a closed meeting with his associates, which resulted in a brief deadline for Zarif to find a way out of the siege situation Rouhani described a few days ago as an unprecedented war in the history of the Iranian revolution. The new thing of this meeting was to give Soleimani the green light to adjust his military compass in the area. In this way Tehran activates its options for peace and war together.

On a secret visit a few days ago, Soleimani went to Najaf and then to Damascus, as well as to southern Beirut where he met with senior Iraqi militia officials of the al-Ḥashd ash-Shaʿbī, the Assad regime and Hezbollah. The message was clear that the military option was ahead of them. The ignition of the fronts is closer than ever. The situation can be understood by reading Soleimani’s most sophisticated cards. The mobilization of al-Ḥashd ash-Shaʿbī or one of the militias associated with Tehran will lead to the closure of the only port and major trade route for the Iranian regime financially.

Hezbollah’s first shot on Israel’s northern front will be the beginning of the end of the organization. This has been confirmed by many Israeli officials on several occasions and by the Israeli ground forces commander a few weeks ago. Therefore, Tehran will lose its spearhead and its strategic depth in the region. Igniting the Golan front may lead to direct Israeli strikes targeting Assad personally. Tehran will thus lose everything it has offered to keep Assad in power for the last eight years. These considerations will put Soleimani ahead of the two least expensive options. The first is to use the Houthi militia in Yemen as a launching pad for rocket attacks or drones against Saudi refineries or oil tankers in the straits of Bab el Mandeb or Hormuz. The second option is to use Gaza as a springboard for indirect military messages.

Peace remains a foothold in the cards on Khamenei’s table. The first is turning to strategic patience, avoiding confrontation or an uncontrolled reaction and waiting for the upcoming US presidential election, where Trump may lose. The Iraq experience after the second Gulf War in which Saddam Hussein was able to resist US sanctions for more than a decade is an example of strategic patience. The second option, the closest and more widely accepted by Iranian conservative politicians, is to re-activate Oman’s diplomatic path to be the mediator between them and Washington and propose to reform the nuclear deal in which Tehran could agree on stricter terms on the nuclear program and the ballistic missile program in exchange for Washington’s tolerance of its regional influence. The problem with this proposal will be Israel. Tel Aviv will not be satisfied unless it results in the complete withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria and the pruning of Hezbollah claws in Lebanon.

Between the choice of peace and war, Iranian politicians and military men stand on their toes. The next mistake can be catastrophic, while Uncle Sam is still pushing his nuclear aircrafts and warships in the region, putting us political analysts to read the scene and imagine it as a dance on the edge of the abyss. It may not be Tehran or even Washington that will light the wick. The Century Deal needs a noisy orchestra to pass from Tel Aviv.