As soon as US President Donald Trump chose to back away from the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program on May 8, a series of strikes were launched against Iranian detachments serving in Syria by the Israel Air Force. It has now become clear that the US and Israel are forcing the issue of eliminating Iran’s presence in the region, primarily in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, with a subsequent goal of undermining the stability of the Islamic Republic of Iran itself to the point of achieving regime change in Tehran.
While Washington and Tel Aviv are advancing their agenda swiftly but cautiously, they seem to be fully aware that the joint war effort of the Pentagon, Israel and a handful of Arab satellite states will score Washington no victory in a direct military confrontation with Iran, as it’s pretty much out of reach. Iran is too large a country with an equally large and determined population along with a well-trained, massive military. There’s also no doubt that an invasion of Iran will trigger a number of small local wars: in Lebanon, where Hezbollah could launch a a successful invasion of northern Israel; a new civil war in Iraq; an internal feud in Saudi Arabia, where the Iran-leaning forces in the Eastern Province and Najran are prepared to stage uprisings against the ruling Al Saud clan, as well as the potential toppling of the royal family by the Shia majority in Bahrain; and a new round of conflict in Yemen that will inevitably reach the territories of Saudi Arabia.
No matter how Washington advertises its military might, it’s clear that America’s armed forces are not up to the task, let alone Israeli. As for the petty armies of the Arabian monarchies of the Persian Gulf, they will be defeated and dispersed in their first engagements with regular Iranian troops, especially if Shia forces from other states arrive to support Tehran’s cause. Neither Trump nor his adviser, nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu do not appear to be particularly cunning strategists. So there’s no telling if these two circles of interests will commit political suicide by triggering a massive regional war that will permanently damage the interests of all involved in.
At least a couple of days later Trump stated that he was ready to offer Iran a new deal. Indirectly, Trump repeatedly cited the example of North Korea in recent days, which, in his opinion, did the right thing by carrying out peace talks. Yet, in this particular case it was obvious that it was a flawed example, since it was Kim Jong-un who was the initiator of the crisis, and it was Kim who then decided he was in a mood to negotiate, which eventually resulted in a loss of face for the US. However, Iran sees no flaws in the agreement concluded in 2016, it is Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh who do. Therefore, the sitting US president initiated a crisis that Tel Aviv and Riyadh likewise sought, by arguing that they’re going to be at a forefront of any future conflict.
As Israeli national interests are affected by what is happening in Syria, Netanyahu spares no opportunity to demand Washington’s actions in the region. Iran is not at all prepared to review the terms of the nuclear deal, since back when it was still being negotiated it required a series of concessions from the ruling elite. Back in 2010, Israel was prepared to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities with Saudi Arabia announcing its intention of opening its airspace for Israeli warplanes. But then US President Barack Obama was able to temper the bellicose fever of Tel Aviv. These days the situation doesn’t look that dire for Tehran, as it has enough economic resilience to weather new concessions if he chooses to do so.
The largest challenge for Iran today are the two proxy wars that it is forced to wage: one in Yemen and one in Syria. These wars have proven to be an insufferable burden for Tehran, as by this point it time it must borrow funds from Russia to carry on waging these wars, and, apparently, will have to borrow more in the future. At the same time, the outcome of these wars are extremely still uncertain. The war in Yemen for Iran is unpromising by definition. However, the reasoning behind its support of the Yemeni resistance movement lies in the number of problems that it can create for Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula, which is extremely sensitive for Riyadh. The kingdom, assembled from the rags of historical regions across Arabia, remains extremely vulnerable, as it manages to sustain its inner equilibrium through allowing tribal elites to play a part in the kingdom’s internal political life, while resources are being distributed between fractions. However, the so-called Asir region is a completely different matter, as it was stolen through brute force from Yemen and then annexed. At the same time, the importance of the region for Saudi Arabia is extreme, as it serves as a barrier that protects the Hijaz regions that is a home for the two main shrines of Islam in Mecca and Medina from militant Yemeni tribes. The control of these made Saudi Arabia the ruler of the entire Arabian Peninsula. However, Hijaz is ruled by tribes that are renegades in nature, and may be inclined to initiate their secession from Saudi Arabia on their own due to a variety of reasons.
Tehran was right in its calculations that the conflict in Yemen will pose a threat to Saudi Arabia, in fact it was very rational in that respect, but it failed to take one fact into account. Yemen is a political swamp where a great many of political forces have drowned. But for Yemenis themselves, no one can really manage this state, while the traditional conflict between the south and the north is truly never-ending. You can start your game there, but you won’t ever be able to get out.
Those who have been following geopolitical events over the years likely remember that at some point in time the Soviet Union chose to abandon its stakes in this country which proved to be an extremely wise decision, even in spite of the fact that this country has always been of critical importance for great powers as it provides control of the world’s most important sea routes through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. The Saudis have been approaching the conflict rather cautiously too, as formally it pretended to be a part of a broader coalition led by the UAE.
One way or another, there’s no denying that the war in Yemen is an endless affair. So one’s participation in it is a matter financial backbone a country has and in this regard the capabilities of the Arab monarchies look much more potent than Iran’s. So Iran is bleeding its own economy dry by investing in a war that provides no return on investment. But what is even more important is that those resources are being wasted, since even if the Houthis prevail, they are likely to send the Iranians away in order to get Riyadh behind the negotiation table. Iranians, for sure, are fully aware of this fact but the current situation forces them to remain involved in this extremely hopeless undertaking.
The war in Syria is looking much more promising for Iran, but equally protracted. Its proxy forces are ironically facing the exact same problems ISIS face back when it held large swaths of Syrian territory. Strangely enough: as proxy forces, Iranians are capable of exercising control over vast territories, but are still unable to effect an overall victory. That is precisely why back in 2015, Iranian general Qasem Soleimani did all he could to lure Moscow into entering Syria by cleverly depicting the brilliant prospects of this enterprise, including the prospects of a pipeline project that will bypass Turkish territories. This resulted in Moscow bringing air superiority along with it to Syria. Now Tehran seeks to maintain Russia’s presence in Syria for as long as possible.
By bringing Russia’s Air Force along with it, Iran has secured a guarantee that its forces will not be defeated by the opposing proxy forces. But they remain vulnerable to Syria’s larger state enemies nonetheless. And Israel is all too willing to demonstrate that by mercilessly bombing Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria, thus preventing Tehran from establishing a regular presence there. Iran cannot bring its regular forces to Syria, even if it wanted to. But it is impossible to supply the army along the fragile Euphrates corridor, while any of its bases might be immediately hit by Israeli, Saudi or US air strikes. Iranian proxy forces can be pretty effective during ground engagements but they cannot effect a total victory. There’s an option for them to wage an endless war, but it drains resources Tehran is running short on.
It’s clear that Trump noticed a vulnerable spot in Iran’s strategy: the imposition of sanctions would hamper Iran’s ability to maintain the ongoing wars in Yemen and Syria at current levels. And Russia can not indefinitely provide loans to Tehran for it to wage never-ending wars. So it’s clear that Trump is planning to starve off Iran through unprecedented sanctions even in spite of the opposition of the European Union. When Iran is done waging its two wars, then Trump will be able to lead an axis of obedient regional states, a long time in the making, against Iran. And once Iran is bombed into oblivion, Russia and China will find themselves next in line. Still, Trump offers an alternative to review the deal or scrap it completely. He does not lose anything should the first course of action be chosen.
While Tehran is still in a position to make decisions, it doesn’t have many options to choose from. Should the deal be reviewed or should it choose to take a last stand, there will be little to no difference for it and for Russia. However, it’s clear that should Iran go down, no outside player will be able to influence events in the Middle East but for Washington, especially in Syria, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula.
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”