Can anyone gain from tensions in the Gulf?

by Claude Salhani
You would think that with all the super-sophisticated gadgetry available to the military, with modern satellite technology that can photograph the time on your wristwatch from space or the amazing drones that have been miniaturised to the size of fruit flies, there would be no ambiguity about who is responsible for the attacks on oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf.

Yet, here we are, once again, playing that old game of saying we don’t know, with fingers pointing in all directions. With all the eyes on the region — both electronic and human — we still don’t know. The United States and Israel accuse Iran, which accuses the United States and Israel.

Let’s see who stands to benefit and who stands to lose from the mayhem and the escalation of tension to the possibility of all-out war in the region.

The United States does not need to become involved in another war in the Middle East, yet it might well provide US President Donald Trump with an opportunity to escape his ever-growing problems at home regarding the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections and all the sideline issues that have emerged and continues to do so.

Having exchanged verbal accusations with Iranian leaders, Trump might find it desirable to engage in open warfare. Indeed, this hypothesis becomes more possible as each side ups the ante.

When asked June 17 whether he thought the United States would be going to war with Iran, Trump replied, “I hope not.” As the United States enters election season, a war in the Middle East could go either way. If the war goes well and is quick and objectives met, Trump would claim credit for getting Iran to comply and this would likely win him the election.

The worst-case scenario would be Trump thinking he can get a quick, clean war but instead ends up with a long and costly conflict, such as the one in Iraq.

Iran might find that going to war with the “Great Satan,” as the ruling mullahs typically refer to the United States, would allow Tehran to clamp down on those calling for greater reforms. Additionally, having picked up real war experience in Syria, the leadership in Tehran might be tempted to put their hard-learnt lessons to the test.

However, Iran could face unpredictable developments at home. Its domestic front could give in under pressure even if the rulers’ common wisdom is that the population is most likely to focus its animus on the villainous Americans and not on the mullahs or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The attacks on oil shipping “put Asian and European powers on notice that the US-Iran crisis could affect their bottom line. The threat to move away from the nuclear deal also puts the P5+1 on notice that the crisis with the US might unravel the work that European powers, along with Russia and China, achieved with Iran back in 2015,” said Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

Saudi Arabia has been telling anyone willing to listen about the dangers that Iran, with its expansionist desires to dominate the region, represents to the stability of the Gulf. The Saudis, along with the United Arab Emirates, see themselves as the only real deterrent to Iranian ambitions in the region, albeit with the help of the United States.

Russia would like to see the United States embroiled in another Mideast conflict because it would further drain US resources and weaken Washington’s standing in the region, leaving the field open for Moscow to step in, as was the case in Syria.

Israel can only benefit from a US war with Iran because it would relieve much of the pressure that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, much like the US president, is facing, including accusations of corruption.

Western powers stand to gain through military sales. France, for instance, is making a killing — pun intended — selling arms to Gulf countries. French arms exports increased 27% in 2013-17 compared to 2008-12.

As long as the United States and Iran have their horns locked, the calculus of war gains stands, provided the showdown does not generate a direct confrontation that spins out of control. That’s another story.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist with The Arab Weekly and a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs

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