It is a banal truth that a war between the US and Iran would be very unlikely to remain confined to these two countries, if it went beyond provocative airstrikes or limited military attacks. The regional powers in the Middle East, including those seeking to achieve a similar status, are bound together in a complex interplay of interests and relationships. The unilateral withdrawal of the US from the multilateral nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), therefore has the potential to draw not only Iran and its population, but all countries of the Middle East and Gulf region into the conflict as well. It is most obvious how much interests are interwoven in Syria, where Iran has become involved in the war using different militias and military formations. But the phenomenon is also becoming apparent in Iraq, where strong pro-Iranian factions exist and dominate sections of the security apparatus. In a departure from popular opinion, parties and movements appear to be defining themselves more as Iraqi nationalists with an explicitly Shiite identity and therefore have little desire to be drawn into another conflict.
On the other side of the regional polarisation are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which see Iran as a serious threat. Saudi Arabia is waging an extremely destructive war in Yemen with catastrophic humanitarian consequences - partly in order to confine Iranian influence to that country. And, naturally, Israel is actively conducting military attacks in Syria to block the spread and armament of Iranian or pro-Iranian powers.
With regard to Lebanon, there is a key actor missing on this list. Namely the Hezbollah, which is also a political party that increased its political influence in the most recent parliamentary elections in Lebanon (2018) and has provided a ministers and official representative of the state. At the same time, however, it is a highly-equipped military power and a party in the war in Syria for many years whose strategic involvement helped the Assad war criminal regime of 2012/2013 to survive. Listed as a terrorist organisation in the US and EU, Hezbollah sees itself as part of the pro-Iranian Shiite project, but with strong national roots in southern Lebanon.
Within this toxic constellation of dangerously critical overlapping conflicts, all eyes seem to be on developments in and around the Gulf. What will happen if the next Iranian missile is trained not on a drone, but an aircraft manned with US personnel? Or a US attack leaves a disproportionately high number of victims? Other actors could also contribute to an escalation with targeted actions such as the missile attacks launched in May and June from Yemen on an airport in Saudi Arabia that coincided with acts of sabotage on international oil tankers. Also in May, a missile was fired into the Green Zone in Baghdad. This may all have been pure coincidence, but it shows that military action does not have to be limited to Iran.
All eyes in the region on current events? Not quite all.
In Lebanon, you could get the impression that the country has nothing to do with the dynamics of its own neighbourhood. As if it were a geopolitical role-playing game the common denominator of which is the rational assessment that a regional war could only damage all those involved. Serious concerns are dismissed. But everyone in Lebanon is a ‘political guru who passionately [discusses] the conspiracy theories spread by the regional media whilst sitting on a sofa in front of the TV’, according to a Lebanese MP belonging to the government bloc speaking at an event in Beirut last week. But the perception is that these scenarios broadcast on TV have no bearing on reality.
In Beirut, there is no visible nervousness at all. There are no extra security measures, no civilian emergency exercises or any similar activities that one might connect with increased crisis preparedness. The Lebanese government is holding back with a clear stance. Its members’ interests are too different.
Syrian refugees are topic of discussion number one
If it came to a conflict that threatened any of its own vested interests or the very survival of the Iranian regime, Hezbollah would certainly be forced into hostilities against Israel or prepared for them, depending on your interpretation. The population of the largely Shiite south of the country bordering Israel would have to bear the consequences of the conflict, which would probably be calamitous. The theoretical possibility of an attack on Israel must be seen as a pillar of the Iranian policy of deterrence. It is unlikely, as the costs of a regional war would probably be very high, but it cannot be ruled out in the event of serious threats against the Iranian regime. In the last direct conflict between Hezbollah, the south of the country was destroyed, whilst other parts of the country were mostly kept out of the war.
And even so, there seems to be just one topic of discussion in Lebanon at the moment: the presence of Syrian refugees. Populist politicians making openly racist comments are starting to raise their profile within the government. Security forces are trying to carry out deportations to Syria, in breach of the constitution, as an alliance of eight Lebanese human rights organisations has reported.
For Iran’s part, there seems to be no question of a regional war that could sweep the country.
Options for action
A return to the deal currently seems unlikely. The alternative trading mechanism proposed by the EU, in particular Germany, France and the United Kingdom, the Instrument In Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), has been put into place half-heartedly and has proven ineffectual. The aim of the system was to allow European companies to maintain their trading partnerships with Iran despite American sanctions. Additionally, the EU and its Member states have little influence over the future course of the crisis.
The Iraqi government has sent out unequivocal warnings throughout the region against any spread of the conflict. In February, the Iraqi President, Barham Salih, reacted unambiguously to Donald Trump’s statement that US troops stationed in Iraq were there to ‘keep an eye on Iran’, stressing that Iraq must not be used for any other purposes. Other actors with a Shiite identity in Iraq set a great deal of store by appearing independent and not pro-Iranian. Muqtada al-Sadr, the victor in the parliamentary elections in 2018, has undergone a transformation from head of the pro-Iranian ‘Mahdi Army’ in the 2000s into a politician with a national agenda, who has even visited Saudi Arabia to demonstrate his independence from Iran. The objective of these Iraqi forces is to avoid their country becoming the theatre of a major regional war.
Other Gulf states are attempting to mediate, but mainly from behind the scenes. Having a border with Saudi Arabia, Qatar could be most likely to have a voice in Iran. At the same time, the tiny state is the site of the largest US military base in the Gulf. Oman also sees itself as a mediator. The country, which has never been particularly prominent within the region, sees its role as that of a neutral messenger between the antagonistic Arab Gulf states.
No coherent US strategy for the region
In this situation, predictions easily become pure speculation. The renunciation of the nuclear deal by the US was clearly not underpinned by any regional strategy. ‘Increasing maximum pressure’ on Iran will certainly not lead to any concessions on the part of the Iranian regime, but could possibly bring about an ongoing state of tension. Within this, a regional escalation is possible at any time – even if this is not rationally the aim of any of the actors. In parallel to these developments, the second major US initiative in the Middle East, the so-called ‘Deal of the Century’, to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was presented in Bahrain. All strands of the overall package that have so far been presented and made public are unacceptable to most of those involved and will contribute to a further hardening of positions.