As war rages in Ukraine, another conflict is ready to explode in the Middle East as the US and its allies confront Iran over its nuclear programme, supply of drones to Russia, and repression of anti-government protests.
If the US or Israel were to attack the main Iranian nuclear facility producing weapons-grade nuclear fuel, Iran would most likely retaliate by using its drone and missile arsenal to close the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, through which tankers daily carry almost a fifth of the world’s oil and gas.
The confrontation escalated sharply this week when Iran announced that it intended to make near bomb-grade nuclear fuel at its Fordow plant, located inside a mountain to protect it from bomb and missile attack. Iran decided to ramp up its nuclear programme after the failure of talks to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal agreed in 2015 by President Barack Obama but denounced and dropped three years later by President Donald Trump.
At the heart of the agreement was a far-reaching reduction in economic sanctions on Iran in return for international monitoring of a reduced Iranian nuclear programme, which Israeli and Western leaders say is aimed at producing a nuclear bomb.
The escalating crisis is a resumption of the confrontation three years ago between the US and Israel, on the one side, and Iran, on the other, that almost led to war. Under pressure from sanctions and threatened by military assault, Iran launched a highly successful drone and missile attack on Saudi oil facilities that briefly cut its oil output by half.
Iran was held responsible for explosions damaging oil tankers anchored at the mouth of the Gulf, and for guerrilla actions against US troops in Iraq. Trump retaliated by ordering the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, in charge of covert Iranian operations abroad, who was killed in a drone strike in Iraq in early 2020.
Resurrecting the nuclear deal
The US-Iran military conflict came close to an all-out war, but de-escalated sharply with the replacement of the aggressively anti-Iranian Trump by President Joe Biden who reopened negotiations for resurrecting the nuclear deal. Attention was diverted away from Iran by the Covid-19 pandemic, the US competition with China, and the war in Ukraine. As recently as September, Iran appeared close to a new agreement on the JCPOA but asked for guarantees that the US would not unilaterally withdraw again.
Yet the failure to agree a nuclear deal is only one of a series of separate and unrelated events that have heated up the Iran crisis over the last two months, making it more explosive than ever. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had been in the forefront under Trump, pressing for an attack on Iranian nuclear plant. After decisively winning a general election on 1 November, he is returning to power in Jerusalem at the head of the most hawkish and right-wing government in Israel’s history.
Always an opponent of the JCPOA, he is likely to put pressure on the US for military action against Iran. Israel and the US have both reportedly trained for an air strike against Iran and Netanyahu came close to ordering one.
A drone super-power
Two other coincidental developments are further poisoning relations between Tehran and Washington. Faced with the air superiority of the US and its allies in the Gulf, Iran turned itself into what has been described as “a drone super-power”, but the world only took on board the effectiveness of these cheap precision-guided missiles when Iran exported them to Russia for use against Ukraine.
Since October, they have partly destroyed Ukraine’s electrical system, depriving much of the country of heat and light. The surprise emergence of Iran as a significant player in the Ukraine war soured even further, if that were possible, its already toxic relations with the West.
A final ingredient super-charging the growing crisis is the protest movement in Iran, which shows no signs of dying away, despite extreme repression leading to the killing of 305 protesters including 41 children according to Amnesty International. The protests are more broadly based than in the past and the collective punishment of protesters serves only to produce more martyrs. The refusal of the Iranian football team to sing their national anthem in Qatar shows the extent and determination of the opposition.
Tanker traffic from the Gulf
But it is still too early to know if it is destabilising the regime and how far the government could successfully appeal to national solidarity in the event of a crisis with the US, and seek to demonise demonstrators as the proxies of foreign powers.
Vocal and irrepressible popular dissent will weaken the Iranian regime, but in other respects it is stronger than it was during the last near war. The price of oil and gas is high and the stoppage of supplies from the Gulf oil states on top of the loss of those from Russia would have a crippling effect on the world economy. Iran is better than before in stopping tanker traffic from the Gulf by the use of drones and missiles in large quantities against which there is no totally effective anti-aircraft defence.
Western and Israeli leaders have long argued that Iranian possession of a nuclear weapon would alter the balance of power in the Middle East. This is true enough, although US intelligence reportedly believes the Iranian leadership has not yet decided if it wants to build a nuclear weapon. So far, the mere threat of doing so has served it as a useful bargaining chip in negotiating with the US and its allies, whom Iran sees as irremediably hostile.
Paradoxically, the balance of power in the Middle East and the rest of the world has changed, but not because of the acquisition of nuclear weapons. As shown by attacks in the Gulf in 2019, and in Ukraine since October, middle ranking states like Iran and Turkey, and even very poor ones like Yemen, now enjoy a much more level military playing field with powerful states like the US, Britain or Israel. Air superiority no longer means control of the skies, which is a game-changing development.
But how far are those who decide on war or peace in the Middle East aware that the game really has changed? Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and UAE realised after the last US-Iran clashes under Trump that they were all too likely to be collateral damage in any American or Israeli attack on Iran. Biden already has his hands full with the war in Ukraine. Israel should know that Iran would find some asymmetric way of striking back at it.
As with Ukraine, the self-interest of all sides should prevent the crisis over Iran turning into a shooting war – but that does not mean it will not happen.