With the military defeat of the Islamic State and the al-Assad regime’s grim victory in Syria’s civil war, there has been much speculation about the risks of a new major war breaking out in the Middle East. Until recently, the limelight had shifted to other regional tensions. The proxy confrontation between sectarian and geopolitical rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia is still raging. A fragile and divided Iraq is attempting to counterbalance the competing vested interests of the US and Iran in the country. A hodgepodge of non-states actors, including mostly Shiite but also Sunni militias, hover over the region beholden to the greater ambitions of their sectarian overlords. Remnants of diverse jihadists groups threaten to reemerge at the slightest power vacuum. An array of Kurdish groups is vainly attempting to capitalize on weakened nations-states to advance greater autonomy and even independence. And then there are regional powers Turkey and Israel, whose military interventions to safeguard their own borders are upping the ante.

The labyrinthine relationships that bind the many actors involved defy rationale. The Middle East is a cauldron of passions, ambitions and scheming that converge into a potent and sometimes unpredictable brew of alignments. Lines between adversaries and rivals are often blurred; strategic allies support opposing factions, and interests and allegiances can shift as unexpectedly as the khamsin winds.     

In such a murky environment, the panorama of possible hostilities is disconcerting. Some stand out more than others. In almost all of them Iran looms as foe and ally.

No one really wants another war

Yet the major war scenarios in the region, the ones with the greatest regional and international impact, include a confrontation between the US and Iran, a multi-front war between Israel and Iran and Hezbollah in the Levant, and the Saudi-Iran rivalry evolving from proxy war to a full-fledged confrontation in the Persian Gulf. All three scenarios are not necessarily insulated; they could occur simultaneously and be interrelated.

Despite the hype, no one really seems to want a war. Not Syria, which would be the main battleground of an Israeli-Iranian/Hezbollah conflict; not Iran, whose considerable leverage in the region will end up diminished with an assured military defeat; not Israel, which fears getting bogged down in a war on two fronts; not Saudi Arabia, absorbed in transformational domestic reforms, and whose clumsy regional maneuverings have questioned its leadership. And certainly not the US, with the recent memory of two inconclusive and controversial interventions in the region, and whose new National Defense Strategy shifts from fighting terrorism to strategic competition with China and Russia.

But war could still occur, probably through an unpredictable escalation of isolated, contained events; or a miscalculation, as the norms of behavior and engagement seem to be shifting constantly.

A US – Iran confrontation

The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was intended to bring Teheran back to the negotiating table. Instead, the maximum pressure campaign has increased tensions in the region and alienated allies and rivals alike that jointly participated in the far-reaching agreement. In place of negotiations, the two countries have come to the brink of confrontation. The US withdrawal and subsequent imposition of tough economic sanctions have emboldened the more radical and unyielding factions of the regime, most notably the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Accepting Trumps’ severe set of demands would mean Iran meekly giving up its defence capabilities and hard-fought presence throughout the Shiite Crescent and in Yemen; it’s not going to happen.

Even though tensions have subsided from their high point several weeks ago, they still linger. There are multiple scenarios for how a confrontation between the US and Iran would play out. The risk is compounded by a long history of mutual mistrust and the absence of direct lines of communication, which could lead to a misreading of the others intentions and actions, and thus to an escalation with unpredictable consequences.

The huge disparity in force structure between the two would preclude a conventional military confrontation. Whereas the US has by far the most sophisticated and formidable armed forces in the world,  Iran’s are restrained by mostly obsolete military hardware, some of it dating back to the era of the Shah (even though its endogenous military industrial complex is impressive in scope, it’s subpar in quality). Instead, Teheran relies on asymmetric warfare that includes the use of proxy militias throughout the Middle East, the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the region and a fleet of well-armed IRGC speedboats and mini submarines that can launch swarming attacks on economic and military targets in the Persian Gulf.

A confrontation would most likely be limited in scope. The US would launch a surgical strike targeting select Iranian military objectives in a tit-for-tat to, say, proven Iranian attacks on an oil tanker or even a direct proxy attack on a US facility in the region. The until now rather limited deployment of US military hardware to the region points to an unwillingness to escalate. President Trump at the last moment called off an air strike on radar and missiles batteries, opting instead for a non-kinetic cyber-attack on IRGC missile command and control systems. Meanwhile, the actions undertaken up to now by Iran have been mostly measured and consistent with its entrenched strategy of calculated aggression and deniability: it shot down a US (unmanned) surveillance drone and mined tankers in the Persian Gulf, avoiding casualties by placing the limpet mines far from crew spaces – Iran has denied responsibility for the mine attacks.

But there’s a risk of escalation due to a misrepresentation of the others intentions, even if these are just defensive in nature. Iran faces a use-it-or-lose-it dilemma, as the array of IRGC naval forces and ballistic missiles sites are vulnerable to US precision strikes. Thus, if Teheran doesn’t rapidly use such weaponry in the eventuality of a conflict with the US, it could lose its major domestic military deterrents. But if it preventively sends its naval forces out to sea and attempts to disperse and conceal its missiles and mines to avoid their destruction, the US could interpret these defensive measures as a provocation and launch a preemptive strike. Similarly, if the US transfers additional troops and matériel to the region in a bid to safeguard its interests, Iran could perceive such action as an intent to escalate and thus go on the offensive. Preemptive actions from both sides might serve as triggers.

Iran’s hardline factions might decide that Trump is unwilling to retaliate further due to the political constraints of the 2020 presidential elections, and opt for more confrontational strategies; more so if the regime perceives a showdown as an existential threat. Perhaps. For all the bluster and theatrics, Donald Trumps’ unpredictable management style has so far been unwilling to take decisive action. But Teheran could be wrong. The standoff has fortified the warmongers on both sides, and there are sufficient hawks in the US administration and Congress itching for a confrontation.  

A tit-for-tat escalation could soon lead to major US attacks on wider Iranian targets. Overwhelming US firepower would devastate Iran’s conventional military capabilities and energy infrastructure, also targeting its nuclear installations. But Teheran has proven to be a resourceful and determined adversary. Its military is not all obsolete. Iran does possess sophisticated air defenses and air denial capability that can hamper US air strikes. It would mobilize its proxy militias in the region to attack US targets. It could even up the ante and strike at US allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council. With the remnants of its naval forces and arsenal of missiles and mines, Iran could still besiege the Strait of Hormuz, paralyzing a strategic gateway through which 20% of the world’s oil passes. A war would have devastating economic and energy repercussions, both regionally and internationally. The price of oil would rise indefinitely. A major global recession would almost certainly ensue.

The most extreme and dangerous scenario, a drawn-out war involving a US invasion of Iran and regime change, is highly unlikely. It would involve the unsustainable massive transfer of troops and materiel to the region and a long-term military presence in the country to subjugate dissent. The memories of Afghanistan and Iraq still loom fresh in the country’s psyche, and neither the US public nor President Trump seem so inclined – albeit each one for different reasons.

Still, an escalation could also have profound and unintended political ramifications in the region. Iran has displayed considerable ability in managing the vehement factional rivalries that constitute one of its deep-rooted traits. But warfare could change all that. Though a more conciliatory regime is a possibility, a more probable scenario is the consolidation of power in the hands of the IRGC, perhaps even leading to an overt military dictatorship. A global recession would be accompanied by regional geopolitical turmoil as a weakened Iran lashes out.

A Levantine war

Israel’s enduring enmity with Iran and Hezbollah is existential in nature. The expanding Shiite Crescent now provides Iran with more secure supply lines through Iraq and Syria all the way to Lebanon – a development that directly threatens Israel’s’ security. Tel Aviv is wary of Hezbollah’s increasing sway in Lebanon, but it’s in Syria where the threat perception is mostly centered. An engulfing war in the Levant represented one of the greatest geopolitical risk factors of 2018, and would most likely involve a forceful Israeli military response to a sense of encroachment by Iran and pro-Iranian militias.  Israel’s red lines include the establishment of permanent Iranian and Hezbollah military bases in Syria; the continued construction of weapons factories, including precision-guided missiles, by Iran in Lebanon and Syria; and the amassing of Shiite militias and IRGC forces along the Golan Heights.

Both sides are already involved in a covert war. Over the past few years, Israel has launched numerous airs strikes inside Syria against Hezbollah and Iranian supply convoys and weapons sites. The aim is to disrupt their preparedness in case of conflict, and particularly to diminish the threat to Israel posed by the amassing of missiles close to its borders. Iran and Hezbollah, for their part, are building bases near the Golan Heights. It’s this constant prodding, this testing of each other’s limits, that might eventually trigger a full-fledged conflagration. With Iran and Hezbollah intent on broadening the construction of missiles factories as a way to deter Israel, including several underground facilities in Lebanon, an outbreak of hostilities is a possibility.

Israel is preparing for such an eventuality by deploying a sophisticated anti rocket system, and staging the largest military exercises in two decades. Contingencies contemplate both an attack on Hezbollah inside Lebanon, and a large scale military offensive in Syria. The scenarios mostly imply a confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah and other Shiite militias, as IRGC troop strength in Syria is limited. Still, the IRGC has already said it will intervene in any future confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah.

Israel is the regions’ military hegemon. It would not lose a war against Iran and its network of Shiite militias. But, just as in its 2006 war with Hezbollah, it might not win one either. Hezbollah is no longer just a militia. Due in large part to Iranian training and funding, it has become a formidable fighting force capable of brigade-scale engagements, with a large and sophisticated stockpile of missiles. Even though it sustained several thousand casualties in the war in Syria and suffers from depleted resources, the operational experience Hezbollah has acquired has made it battle hardened and confident. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely it would choose to withstand an Israeli assault head-on, opting instead for the successful guerilla tactics of the past; tactics that also include launching missiles at Israeli military and civilian targets.

A confrontation would likely be short-lived, with Israel – whose army is not geared for large-scale foreign deployments – averse to getting bogged down in a debilitating war of attrition. Israel has long indicated that in any future confrontation it would apply the Dahiya doctrine, basically the overwhelming use of force to destroy the civilian and government infrastructure of hostile regimes. This would imply that though Hezbollah might try and attack Israel directly from Syria to spare its Lebanese Shiite constituencies from bloodshed, Israeli doctrine would entail a devastating expansion of the conflict.  Iranian objectives in Syria would also be targeted, both military and economic ones that benefit from lucrative reconstruction contracts to Iranian firms.

Due to its dependency on Iranian and Shiite militias for its survival, it’s likely that the Syrian regime  will also get involved. Outside powers might also intervene. The US has contingency plans for a joint US-Israeli military response to an Iranian missile attack on Israeli territory. Russia will probably use its considerable regional influence – even though it supports the Syrian regime and is allied with Iran, it also maintains good relations with Turkey and Israel – to broker a cease fire.

From proxy war to just war: Iran-Saudi Arabia

The prospect of war between the two regional powers was in the spotlight in late 2017. Even though it has since subsided, tensions remain and could erupt at any moment. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is partially sectarian, but mostly geopolitical. Teheran wants to expand its influence in the Middle East and acquire strategic depth; Riyadh is intent on containing it and preserve its position as the status quo power. Both are already involved in proxy wars that span the Shiite Crescent and Yemen. Teheran’s comparatively advantageous position vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia in these localized conflicts would preclude it from initiating a direct military confrontation. By developing nimble strategies that exploit the regions’ inherent turmoil and sectarian tensions, the Islamic Republic has obtained high returns with minimal investments both in matériel and personnel.

But were there to be an open confrontation, it would probably be due to an escalation of tensions, and not an unwarranted attack by either one. An Iranian-provided missile launched by the Houthis successfully hitting a major Saudi city and causing high casualties, say, or continued Iranian meddling in the monarchy’s oil rich and strategic Eastern Province – whose population is majority Shiite – could serve as triggers. Still, the impetuous conduct of the young Saudi Crown Prince is also of concern, as can be seen in the kingdoms’ adventurism in Yemen and Qatar.

The war would be fleeting but potentially devastating. Saudi Arabia possesses both a technological and tactical advantage. The Sunni monarchy is a major global arms purchaser with a defense budget five times that of Iran. Its arsenal of sophisticated weaponry includes the best money can buy. Initial developments would be fairly predictable. It would not be a territorial war, as there is no common land border and Iraq serves as a determined buffer State. A naval confrontation would be restrained as both navies are limited in size and reach.

It would most probably end up being an air war, with Saudi Arabia’s fleet of advanced US and British fighter planes dominating the skies and penetrating deep into Iranian territory. The air battle could swiftly become an economic war, with both countries targeting each other’s vital infrastructure. The Saudis and their Gulf allies are capable of causing considerable damage to Iran’s port facilities and its energy and other key industries. But Teheran would retaliate with a barrage of rockets and missiles that could overwhelm Saudi defense systems, targeting oil installations and export infrastructure as well as vital facilities such as desalinization plants and electric grids in urban centers. IRRC speedboats and mini submarines could also launch swarming attacks against Saudi shipping and port facilities.

Even though the Saudis would theoretically come out on top, Iran has a much larger capacity to destabilize Saudi Arabia domestically, either during the conflagration or subsequently. It could do so by increasing support for the disenfranchised Shiite community in the kingdoms’ Eastern Province, or for the Saudi Houthi community living along its southern border with Yemen. Nevertheless, the economies of both countries are highly dependent on the oil and gas industries, and thus considerably vulnerable to aerial attacks. The damage to each other’s energy installations would hamper production and exports. Both economies would suffer.

What’s apparent in the above conflict scenarios is that there doesn’t seem to be clear cut victors. All sides would come out debilitated, one way or another. What’s also apparent is that the conflicts would quickly transcend the battlefield. Whether through the Dahiya doctrine; the random launching of a barrage of missiles by Hezbollah into Israel; or the targeting of civilian infrastructure in a Saudi-Iran war, the casualties would most likely include a disproportionate number of civilians.  

Nobody really wants another war in the Middle East.  Mutual containment and mutual deterrence by all are the best options for now.

Image credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Scott Taylor (via Wikimedia Commons). The image is in public domain in the United States. 

The views and opinions expressed in this articl are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.