Dennis Horak was Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia until he was expelled in August, 2018. He was also head of mission in Iran from 2009-12.
Escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf have once again raised the spectre of war, this time with Iran at the centre. Despite the dispatch of U.S. warships and bombers to the region, reports of a plan to send up to 120,000 U.S. troops (which the U.S. President denies), leaks about the Iranian threat to U.S. interests, threatening rhetoric and the mysterious “sabotage” of oil tankers, war remains unlikely. The simple truth is that no one really wants one.
While the Trump administration has more than its share of Iran hawks in key positions, the last thing the President really wants going into the U.S. electoral cycle is another war in the Middle East. The economic consequences of a conflict in the Gulf would be severe and the political risk of potentially entering another Gulf quagmire would be high. Recent leaks about U.S. backtracking likely reflect that anxiety, despite Donald Trump’s typically blustery tweet warning that war would result in the “official end of Iran.”
Saudi Arabia is equally reticent about taking on Iran, even if the expectation is that the United States would do most of the heavy lifting. Their concerns about Iranian behaviour are genuine, but Riyadh is also acutely aware that war would bring devastation to its economy and, likely, its cities, given Iran’s missile capabilities. Despite the billions the Saudis have spent on defence, they remain vulnerable and they know it. Saudi statements seemingly egging on the United States and their call for a meeting of Arab allies in Mecca on May 30 to deal with Iran are aimed more at demonstrating Saudi solidarity with Mr. Trump (and avoiding the kind of abandonment they believe they were subjected to under Barack Obama) than any real desire to militarily confront Iran.
The Iranians, too, don’t want war, notwithstanding the bluster that frequently emanates from various elements of the Iranian leadership. They are confident they could survive, but they also understand what war can bring, having suffered deeply during the eight-year conflict with Iraq.
War talk is nothing new to the region. The Iranians and the Saudis have exchanged threats before as relations have ebbed and flowed over the decades. Ironically, Mr. Trump’s quixotic nature may in fact be the best deterrent against a war erupting this time. The Saudis can’t be sure that Mr. Trump will come to the rescue despite his promises and threats, but the Iranians can’t be sure he won’t.
The United States aims to exert “maximum pressure” on the Iranian leadership to renegotiate the nuclear deal, curtail its disruptive regional behaviour and limit its missile program.
Iran’s behaviour in the region is indeed destabilizing and its missile program – including exports (or gifts) to equally destabilizing allies such as Hezbollah or the Houthi – are problems in need of a response. The nuclear agreement was working, but it was also flawed (the sunset clauses on production are, for example, worrisome).
But military threats are not the answer to Iran’s disruptive actions or the imperfections of the nuclear deal. On the contrary, threats and regional tension only serve to reinforce, in Iranian minds, the need to maintain the deterrent capabilities that their actions and missile program are meant to enhance. They boost the voices of Iran’s own hawks who question the wisdom of the nuclear deal and who would like the security of a nuclear deterrent.
Ultimately, the dream of many U.S. and regional leaders is regime change, and for many U.S. hardliners, that is the real goal behind the current uptick in pressure.
It is an illusion. Iran has an established record of remarkable resilience, and Iranians, despite their fractious nature, are a deeply proud people. Even some of those most adamantly opposed to the Islamic Republic will unite under their leadership in the face of existential external pressure or in the event of war. Moreover, U.S. actions have provided the Iranian leadership with a convenient foreign bogeyman to deflect blame for the regime’s own mismanagement and corruption.
Iranians cannot be squeezed or scared into regime change. Like everyone else, they have seen what has happened in places such as Iraq and Syria once the Pandora’s box of revolution or violent regime change is opened. For most Iranians, whatever may be coming their way through “maximum pressure,” the hardships they will face pale in comparison to that horrific prospect.
This is a dangerous game. Heightened tension in a region as volatile as the Persian Gulf escalates the risk of stumbling into a war none of the key players really wants.