As of this writing, President Donald Trump seems to be using more severe sanctions against Iran as a response to the Sept. 14 attack on two Saudi oil facilities. 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 cause untold misery and destruction across most of the region.
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 assets.
The risks of war
Although the de facto Saudi ruler Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) is hell-bent on fighting Iran to the last American, his country will not escape punishing attacks from Iran should war break out.
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.
MbZ’s position is shared by Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. Bahrain, effectively a Saudi vassal state, is in no position to oppose MbS. No regional state, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, will benefit from a war against Iran. The Gulf Arab emirates will suffer heavily, and their tribal families’ hold on power will become tenuous.
Unlike in 1991, when American forces guaranteed the survival of the Kuwaiti and Saudi regimes after 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. The “regime change” that some Gulf states have sought for Iran may instead be visited upon them.
During the 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. 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, causing ecological, human, health and economic disasters.
A war with Iran will also be felt in several Levant countries, including Israel and Lebanon. Hezbollah would enter the war by launching missiles and drones against Israeli towns in northern Israel. It’s also not unthinkable for Iran to launch medium-range missiles against Israeli targets in the heavily populated center of the country. 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.
Losing hearts, minds
The recent Arab Barometer survey of Arab youth shows 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’s opinions of their regimes and the United States will sour considerably. In this scenario, the United States would have supported Gulf autocratic regimes 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.
Popular demonstrations have spread across the region, from Sudan to North Africa and the Levant. Dissatisfaction with economic and political conditions is prevalent across the region.
These socioeconomic drivers are not religious or ideological. They have become more vocal against corruption of their individual regimes, whether in Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco or Algeria.
The path forward
If 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. Because of the devastating impact of sanctions, Tehran may be willing to reopen negotiations with Washington.
Washington should convince the Saudis to end the war in Yemen. A proxy war cannot and must not go on forever. This war is unwinnable in the long run, especially as more and more members of Congress persist in questioning the continued U.S. military support for the Saudis.
A security collaboration between Riyadh and Tehran is necessary for the long-term security of the Gulf. The Arab and Persian littorals must find a way to secure the Gulf. If 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.”
Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM and a former senior intelligence service officer at the CIA. A longer version of this article was published on LobeLog.