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The war option and Iran
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 31 - 05 - 2018

There is little doubt that the Iranian regime has been a source of instability in the Middle East region since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Many peoples in the Arab region initially praised the revolt against the shah, seeing it as a reflection of popular will against a brutal dictator who built strong ties with the United States and Israel. However, such support gradually faded as it became clear that the new rulers in Tehran maintained the same Persian ambitions of Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, but under a different banner, that of the Islamic Revolution.
Oil-rich Arab Gulf countries were the ones mostly threatened by the new Iranian “Islamic” regime, which gave itself a free hand to intervene in the affairs of its neighbours on the claim of defending the rights of Shia minorities. Tehran also maintained the same imperial policies of the late shah and refused to even negotiate with the United Arab Emirates over its occupation of three vital islands in the Arab Gulf. After former US president George W Bush's disastrous decision in 2003 to invade and occupy Iraq, Shia rhetoric in Iran became dominant, especially as Washington handed over control in Baghdad to Iraqi Shia parties oppressed by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Jordan's King Abdullah was the first to warn against a “Shia crescent” led by Tehran, a new term which seemed shocking to observers when first voiced.
However, the Jordanian king's warning quickly turned into reality, especially after Iran rushed to intervene in Syria to back the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Under strong Iranian influence, Lebanon's Hizbullah sent thousands of fighters to fight in Syria, alongside Iranian forces, fuelling further sectarian conflict in the volatile region.
Right now, Iranian officials, Revolutionary Guard leaders and parliament members publicly boast about Tehran's control over four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. This is definitely not acceptable, and a serious threat to Iran's Arab Gulf neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Egypt has maintained strong ties with Arab Gulf countries in recent decades and considers their security as part of its own national security. Besides historic ties and sharing the same culture, millions of Egyptians work in Arab Gulf countries, providing vital income for the domestic economy. Egypt also depends on crucial oil imports from brotherly Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose leaders spared no effort to support the Egyptian government after the ouster of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood group in July 2013.
Despite such realities, and the serious threat to Arab security posed by Tehran, Egypt has been careful to avoid any moves likely to lead to a new war in the region, knowing that this will only result in further disasters in an already turbulent part of the world. If war breaks out, it will certainly not be limited to Iran, and the same four capitals that Iranian officials claim to control will bear the worst consequences, together with the world economy.
After US President Donald Trump's decision to pull out from the nuclear deal signed with Tehran by his predecessor, Barack Obama, and key world powers in 2015, a new catastrophic regional war never seemed closer. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has always opted to support any regional wars that will make the world forget about Israel's occupation of Palestinian and Arab territories, has spared no effort to trigger such a war.
In recent weeks, Israeli fighter jets repeatedly bombed Iranian bases in Syria, killing Iranian and Hizbullah fighters. Instead of responding directly to Israel's attacks, Iran's government opted to respond through the Yemeni front, providing more support to the Houthi rebels who have been lobbing ballistic missiles towards Saudi cities.
The rulers in Tehran have been careful not to be pushed towards a war they are not prepared for, and recognise that Trump's decision was not only related to Iran's nuclear programme, but more against its regional ambitions, and threats to Saudi security. Therefore, the door remains open to start a new round of negotiations with Iran, perhaps led by the European countries who also understand the serious dangers posed by a possible new war in the region.
The key reality is that Iran cannot have it both ways; it has to make a clear choice if it wants to maintain friendly ties with its Arab neighbours. Tehran must stop interfering in the affairs of its neighbours and stop fuelling the sectarian divide in the region. Meanwhile, the war option must be taken off the table, whether due to the massive human losses expected, or the disastrous consequences that are likely to keep the region in a state of instability for years, if not decades, to come.


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