While diplomats on both sides repeated that their respective countries do not want to go to war – Mike Pompeo keeps on repeating that President Trump does not want a war with Iran and that the maximum pressure policy is working, and most recently Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that “It is important for everybody to realize that Iran does not seek confrontation” – risks of direct confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, with an increased European involvement, are reaching new levels.
On July 4, British marines and police authorities of Gibraltar, a territory of the UK, seized an Iranian supertanker, the Grace 1, purportedly en route to deliver about 2 million barrels of Iranian oil to Syria. Gibraltar asserted that it acted on request of the UK, on the grounds that oil shipments to Syria violated EU sanctions on the Assad regime. In an apparent retaliation, Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRCG) seized a British-flagged oil tanker “for failing to respect international maritime rules”.
Following this latest escalation, the UK plans to deploy a European-led naval force to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, a plan to which France would have agreed to contribute to, adding to the U.S. plan to escort tankers and as such further militarizing the already extremely tight Strait of Hormuz.
Hormuz is not the only flashpoint
Tensions are not only escalating around the strategic strait but across the entire region; on July 19, in Iraq, an apparent airstrike on a warehouse in the eastern part of the country has killed two Hezbollah fighters and injured some Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps members. According to the head of the Council of Arab tribes in Iraq, the strike targeted a Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) warehouse with ballistic missiles from Iran destined for its allies in Iraq. In Yemen, the Houthi movement recently announced the collection of 300.000 US dollars in support of the libanese Hezbollah and the military branch of the Houthis boosted its drone attack campaign against strategic targets in Saudi Arabia.
As a result, for most political and security analysts in the region, the level of risk is rising and the region is heading towards escalated tensions and the potential for conflict, which at its peak could be an outbreak of war or direct military friction. Any confrontation between western powers (most likely supported by Saudi Arabia and a few other Arab countries) and Iran would have massive repercussions across the entire region; to illustrate the likelihood that any U.S. war with Iran would engulf the entire region, in mid-July, Iran and its allies sought to highlight these risks and Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah warned that his group, which has over 100,000 rockets and missiles arrayed against Israel, would join Iran in any war against the United States.
Humanitarian consequences of a new regional conflict would be disastrous in a region which is already on the brink of collapse due to the multiplicity of conflicts – Iraq, Syria and Yemen – which led to unprecedented movements of populations within the concerned countries, within the region and up to western countries.
The Middle East recomposed by decades of war
Further escalation between US forces and Iran, together with their proxies, would impact a population already fatigued by war. An estimated 40% of the world’s 68 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are either in or from the Middle East, even though the region totals 5% of the world’s population. Syria, Yemen and Iraq face major challenges in resettling the millions of refugees and displaced people, an impossible task in Syria where conflict is still raging in the north west pocket of Idlib and in Iraq due to scale of destructions and political structural problems. Still in Iraq, some of the 3.3 million displaced people have begun to return but the country must figure out how to welcome back religious minorities, such as Christians and Yazidis, who were removed from their long-time homelands. Yemen, with 2.1 million displaced, faces one of the most horrible famines of our time, maybe of the last few centuries according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and would not support an additional conflict dynamic. As some 6.7 million people are in need of assistance, any new conflict would likely exacerbate their needs and could trigger new internal displacements.
The US-led Iraqi invasion, whose financial toll has exceeded $2 trillion in the US and at least that much in its adverse economic impact on the affected countries, led to the deaths of over 600,000 Iraqis, largely destroyed the state structure and much of the country’s infrastructure, resulted in devastating immediate and long-term impact on the health of people and the environment, directly contributed to the rise of the Islamic State and its occupation and destruction of a huge swath of Iraq and neighboring countries (especially Syria). A direct confrontation with Iran in the current regional circumstances would most probably have the same effect but multiplied by the number of countries affected.
Drawn into chaos
In Iraq, such confrontation would further antagonize a society already fragmented along religious lines leading to conflict between militias that the current government is desperately trying to bring back under its control; a conflict that would lead to new displacements of population towards Jordan when the country is already struggling with Syrian refugees. Syria would most probably see clashes between pro-Iranian militias and US forces in Deir Ez Zor region, adding more destruction and suffering to a conflict which has already lasted for more than eight years. Lebanon could be drawn into an Hezbollah/Israel conflict and potentially into a new civil war. Israeli populations would not be spared considering the current arsenal of Hezbollah and Hamas in the Gaza strip. Yemen would most probably fall into a new level of famine and devastation as the UN Special Envoy has recently warned.
Such a conflict would undoubtedly lead to a horrific toll of dead and injured as demonstrated by the previous and on-going conflicts in the region; major environmental destruction, large scale forced migration across the region amplifying pressure on countries such as Jordan and Lebanon which are already hosting millions of refugees; world-wide recession as such confrontation would affect oil production in Gulf countries and oil exportation, this most probably combined with a financial crisis. In the end no one would be spared.
Seventeen years ago, a $250 million war game conducted by the US military pondered the same possible conflict. That exercise, conducted in the lead-up to the American invasion of Iraq, simulated a war in the Persian Gulf, where American troops were promptly defeated. Nineteen US ships sank, including an aircraft carrier, according to political scientist Micah Zenko, who highlighted the war game in his book, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy. Nearly two decades later, the circumstances have changed but the potential cost for the US and the world of another Gulf War remains high.
In the short term, it seems unlikely that the above worst case scenario of a full scale war involving all countries in the region will materialize, especially considering on-going diplomatic efforts, but incidents between parties are increasing and becoming more impactful, particularly in the Middle East. In such circumstances we should all have in mind what could be the catastrophic consequences of a geopolitical miscalculation or a misjudgment.