Who Wants War with Iran?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

May 25, 2019

Last week’s sabotage of oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz and a recent drone attack on a Saudi oil refinery by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have increased talk of war with Iran in regional dailies. Though neither the United States nor Iran appear too enthusiastic to fight such a war, they may still be stumbling towards it. Many regional observers and editorials still express, at least publicly, a clear preference for de-escalating the conflict. But some regional hawks have begun openly calling for military-backed regime change and are urging the U.S. president to push a hard line. For the time being, a military conflict may be unlikely, but the odds of it staying that way are diminishing with each passing day of brinkmanship.


Matters took a turn for the worse last week after a Saudi oil facility was targeted by the Yemen-based Houthi rebels, an act which the Gulf News editorial characterized as a “terrorist attack [and] a matter of grave provocation. The assault on two vital pumping stations and a key pipeline between the Eastern and Yanbu province by drones carrying explosives is by all definitions certainly a reprehensible act of terrorism. The attack, claimed by Iran-backed militias on an Al Houthi-run TV channel, clearly shows the urgency to step up efforts to tackle terrorism in the region. It is an attack not only on Saudi Arabia but also on the stability and security of the region. Such a brazen terrorist act also threatens the world’s energy security — something very vital to global trade.”

Following last week’s events, another regional editorial, this time by UAE’s The National, called for a return to some measure of restraint, while highlighting Iran’s alleged destabilizing role in the region: “After a turbulent week, with tensions between Iran and the US reaching new heights, it seems we are on the brink of a precipice. Tehran has wreaked havoc across the region – from Yemen and Iraq to Lebanon and Syria – after effectively being handed billions of dollars with the flawed 2015 nuclear deal and expanding its military presence in a number of Arab countries…. Recent fake news reports, from the exodus of oil companies from Iraq to rocket attacks on US bases in the country, add to a heightened sense of uncertainty. At this tense moment, all sides must exercise restraint and choose their words wisely, avoiding ‘accidental’ conflicts that could easily get out of control.”

Asharq Alawsat’s Ghassan Charbel is even more explicit in his criticism of Iran, suggesting face-saving diplomatic talks are the only alternative to Tehran’s military defeat: “The current crisis in the Gulf is not a passing development. It cannot be written off as simply a standoff between Washington and Tehran. It is also a deep crisis between Iran and its neighbors. This is how local and regional affairs become intertwined with international ones. It is not enough to announce that no one wants to head to war. Underneath it all lies a difficult and deep problem that creates crises. It can be described as the difficulty of reaching an understanding with the current Iranian regime…. Altering the military balance on the ground in the region places before Iran a clear choice:  It can either continue to take major risks or open channels to return to the negotiating table with fewer illusions.”

That sentiment is echoed also in a recent Khaleej Times editorial which asserts that given Iran’s current economic circumstances, a military conflict would prove costly and ultimately destructive for the country: “The question is whether Iran wants to fight. Should it fight when its people are suffering from food scarcity, a result of sanctions imposed by the US as punishment for its role in exporting terror? Iran cannot export oil and is in dire need of investment to bring to life its flailing economy. Truth is, it cannot afford a fight which it cannot win. The solution is staring the regime in the face – de-escalate and open channels of communication with Gulf countries and the US. War is not the answer for Iran.”

However, not everyone is optimistic about deescalation attempts by Iran and the United States. As this editorial by Jordan Times points out, “this de-escalation mode by both sides does not eliminate the causes that brought the two sides to the brink of a war…. The follow-up attack on oil installations in the middle of Saudi Arabia by Houthis a few days ago contradicts the cooling off words of Iran that it does not seek a conflict with the US. Actions speak louder than words, and until the anti-escalation rhetoric is backed by deeds on the ground, the possibility of a major military conflict breaking out between the US and Iran remains high. Such a high probability remains real for the time being, unless bona fide diplomacy replaces war preparations.”

Additionally, in what marks a significant change of tone from last week, Khaled M. Batarfi’s op-ed for the Saudi Gazette raises the real possibility of a military conflict aimed at bringing about regime change in Iran: “The hotheads in Tehran have done it again! After attacking four oil tankers off the coast of the Emirates near the Strait of Hormuz and oil installations in Riyadh and Yanbu, their militias have bombed the US embassy in Baghdad…. if Iran chooses the hard way, then it makes sense to wait for the right moment to teach it a good lesson, once and for all…. Hopefully, this time we will finish the job, regardless of naive objections, turning Iran into a peaceful, normal member of the world community. Then, we will help them focus on rehabilitating their nation into the civilized force that its people and the world need it to be.”

Of course, for such hawkish threats to be credible, regional countries would need American support, which is why, in an op-ed for Arab News, Mohammed Al-Sulami warns the U.S. administration against “falling into Iran regime’s trap”: “The Iranian regime’s strategy is clear — it is based on procrastinating until the 2020 US elections in the hope of a more friendly president coming to power. In the meantime, the regime seeks to keep the door open for possible negotiations to ease sanctions and pressures as a tactical maneuver. Any efforts by the Trump administration to reach a better deal with Iran’s regime could result in Washington falling into Tehran’s trap, with Khamenei’s regime offering no substantial concessions.”

As the likelihood of a military confrontation increases, other countries in the region are assessing their exposure to the conflict. Writing for the Yedioth Ahronoth, Alex Fishman warns that Israeli policymakers “must prepare for a gradual escalation, in which it, too, will likely to find itself involved in some way…. According to Israeli assessments, there are at least four scenarios for a possible Iranian attack in Israel. The most likely scenario is the launch of missiles from Iraq…. Just as they didn’t hesitate to use the Houthis in Yemen against the Saudis in order to fan the flames of the crisis with the Americans, the Iranians will likely try to ramp up tensions against Israel in order to speed up international intervention over the death blow that the U.S. has just dealt their economy.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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