Will Gulf Tension Spark an All-out – or Even Nuclear – War?
Intense fear and high tension are rapidly descending on the Persian Gulf region, as the chances of a new — and potentially nuclear — conflict are gaining momentum. The rising tension comes following a series of military mobilization steps leading to a major military buildup.
US and Israeli Nuclear Subs Join Armada off Coast of Iran
Both US and, for the first time, Israeli nuclear submarines have joined in the growing armada off Iran’s coast.The buildup comes in anticipation of a long-threatened Iranian retaliation marking the first anniversary of the US-led assassination of Iran’s top military commander General Qasem Soleimani along with his Iraqi comrade-in arms Mahdi al-Muhandes. The US killed Soleimani and al-Muhandes in a drone attack near Baghdad International Airport a year ago.
Possible Iranian retaliation is also expected for the recent assassination of nuclear program head Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near Tehran earlier this month. The sophisticated operation was carried out utilizing state-of-the-art technology, and is widely believed to have been carried out by the Israeli Mossad.
Tehran’s first retaliation came with launching a dozen high-precision missiles that destroyed the American wing of Ain Al Assad air base near Baghdad a few days after Soleimani’s assassination. However, Tehran maintained then that “this missile attack was only a message by fire, and the beginning of its revenge for the murder of its top strategist and military figure.”
‘Doomsday Scenario’ Can’t be Ruled Out
Iran’s Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders and spiritual leaders have threatened to make “the perpetrators of both assassinations pay an extremely high price for their crimes.” Hence, the Gulf region as well as Tehran’s adversaries, — mainly Israel and the US but also their regional allies including those who have recently normalized relations with Tel Aviv, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — are on tenterhooks awaiting a potentially imminent Iranian response.
Although scenarios for the Iranian retaliation vary in scope and dimension, the ongoing military buildup in the Gulf off Iran’s coastal line — which includes Israeli nuclear Dolphin submarines could easily develop into a major and catastrophic conflict. Many believe the armada is nothing but a show of force to deter Iran from striking back, but it could spiral out of control. Although pundits claim that nobody wants a “doomsday scenario,” the consequences of which are horrifying, it’s clear that this situation could become worse very quickly.
‘Even Finely-Tuned Actions Can Have Unintentional Repercussions’
Crisis Group President and CEO Robert Malley addressed the UN Security Council last October and explained how increasing tension in the Gulf region could trigger an all-out conflict nobody wants:
“The region-wide conflict that now looms largest across the globe is a conflict nobody apparently wants – a conflict triggered by tensions in the Gulf region. Conditions for a war that would affect not just the Gulf but the broader Middle East are arguably riper than at any time in recent memory and could break out in any of a number of places – in the strait of Hormuz, Iraq, or Yemen,” Malley explained.
“It is far from inevitable; none of the parties wants it, and so far, all have for the most part shown the ability to calibrate their actions to avoid an escalation. But even finely-tuned actions can have unintentional repercussions. Several times over the last two years – most notably the attacks on the Saudi Aramco facilities and the killing of General Soleimani – a regional conflict has seemed possible,” he added.
Is Malley Right That Conflict ‘Serves No party’s Interests?’
Although Malley and other pundits believe that conflict is not in any party’s interest, the geopolitical calculus has changed dramatically following the recent assassination of Fakhrizadeh.
Previously, Malley asserted that conflict “serves no party’s interests. Not those of GCC countries such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the UAE, who have seen commercial vessels and their territory targeted by attacks they and others strongly suspect originated from Iran. Not those of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has found itself the victim of a ferocious pressure campaign that has inflicted clear harm to its economy and its citizens’ well-being, and which cost them one of their most important leaders due to a US strike. Not those of the United States, none of whose stated objectives in violating the JCPOA has been fulfilled and whose personnel in Iraq are now under threat. Not those of third parties who wish for a stable Gulf region for strategic or economic reasons. And, perhaps most importantly, not the interests of the region’s citizens.”
If Iran Strikes Here’s How the US and Israel are Likely to Respond
Palestinian writer and analyst Ihab Zaki looks at the latest development in the Gulf from a different perspective, writing that: “the proximity of Israeli military units to the Iranian border is not a threat but an opportunity, as they become closer to Iranian firepower. Hitting them becomes far easier and less costly than if they were in the waters off Haifa, for example.”
As Zaki notes: “one Hezbollah anti-ship C-802 missile during the July 2006 Israeli aggression against Lebanon, struck and damaged the jewel in the crown of the Israeli navy, the battleship Hanit, a Sa’ar 5-class corvette. As a result, the whole Israeli navy was neutralized and excluded from that war. Not knowing the quantity nor quality of what Iran has held up her sleeve, both Israel and the United States have little choice but to wait and anxiously prepare themselves for the upcoming Iranian retaliation”, Zaki maintained in an Observerme article published this week.
In a New York Times article published last month and updated December 9, David Sangar underlines the three main incidents that make an Iranian response inevitable:
“First came the killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Suleimani, the Iranian commander who ran the elite Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps…Then, in early July came the mysterious explosion at a centrifuge research and development center at Natanz, a few hundred yards from the underground fuel-production center that the United States and Israel attacked more than a decade ago with a sophisticated cyberweapon”. Sanger added.
“And now the killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh, a shadowy figure often described as the Iranian equivalent of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who oversaw the Manhattan Project more than 75 years ago in the race for the United States to develop the world’s first nuclear weapon.”
Should Iran go ahead with its military threats against the killers of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh, a carefully devised bank of targets will have been meticulously chosen among a wide range of potential targets scattered across the Gulf region, including US land and marine bases in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and possibly Al-Aideed, America’s largest base outside mainland USA.
Petrochemical plants in Gulf nations proven to have facilitated the assassination of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh are also potential targets for Iran’s long range and lethal missile arsenal. Such a major dramatic decision should be carefully thought out, given the devastating US and allied response that is certain to follow, especially with B-52s and nuclear submarines now lurking in close range of Iran’s land and maritime targets.
The Trump War Camp Versus Iran and Allies
Although many experts have been warning of a last-minute doomsday adventure by departing US President Donald Trump — who scrapped the 5 plus 1 nuclear deal with Iran and has been adamant in getting the Pentagon’s approval for a massive, even nuclear, operation against Iran’s key nuclear and missile facilities — the catastrophic and unpredictable consequences of such a scenario that would have devastating impact far beyond the Gulf region itself make it unlikely that even Trump will go that far.
Israel raised the stakes and heightened tension even more by launching a missile strike from one of its battleships off the Lebanese coast on Christmas Eve, targeting a research facility near Mesyaf, Hama, in central Syria. Most of the missiles were intercepted and destroyed by Syrian air defense batteries before they could reach their intended targets. This attack on Iran’s close ally could be a sign of things to come.
Nonetheless, Iran will not be fighting it alone in any such Armageddon scenario that threatens to turn global stability and security upside down. An Iranian response would be certain to destroy significant portions of Iran’s bitter enemy, America’s “spoiled child” and national forward operating base for strategic military operations, namely Israel.
Iran’s response will inevitably be joined by Hezbollah’s massive rocket and missile arsenal believed to be well over 150,000 including recently acquired high precision munition and advanced attack drones as well as possibly Syria. Likely key Israeli targets for any large-scale Iranian retaliation if the conflict develops into an all-out regional war, include Israel’s key Dimona nuclear reactor and complex, the Shimon Perez Nuclear Research Centre in the Negev desert, and Haifa’s petrochemical facilities among other strategically important targets.
Tehran Warns Trump of any Last-minute Strike
Warnings have been issued by Iranian military as well as military officials following a wave of heated rhetoric and unproven accusations from Washington. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has warned Trump against any act of last-minute adventurism against Iran before he departs the White House, tweeting that “@realDonaldTrump uses a worthless photo to recklessly accuse Iran,” after Trump claimed Iran was behind a rocket attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad late last Sunday causing little material damage but no casualties.
“Last time, the US ruined our region over WMD fabrications, wasting $7 TRILLION & causing 58,976 American casualties,” Zarif said, pointing to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States. “FAR WORSE this time,” Zarif warned. “Trump will bear full responsibility for any adventurism on his way out.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Commander of the IRGC Quds Force stressed that harsh revenge awaits those behind the assassination of Soleimani. Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi told reporters Friday that the massive funerals for martyrs Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes and the retaliatory missile attack on the US military base of Ain al-Assad were the two slaps that the US has received in the face from Iran, but they will not be the final word.
“Those were only slaps, while the harsh revenge will [still remain to] be taken,” Hejazi was quoted by Iran’s Tasnim news agency. Hejazi also warned that “those who ordered and perpetrated the assassination attack will pay the price,” adding that “the Islamic Republic will decide how and when to settle the account based on circumstances and the situation.”
Are We Headed into a Geopolitical Catastrophe?
Although Tel Aviv does not officially acknowledge possessing any nuclear arms and has declined to join the Nuclear Arms Non-Prefiltration Treaty, it had been widely estimated — and later confirmed and exposed by former Israeli nuclear technician and whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu among others — that Israel hoards an arsenal of over 250 nuclear bombs as well as an array of tactical nuclear warheads mounted on missiles, warplanes and submarines.
Unconfirmed information circulating this week said that the current US Navy formation — which has deployed its Virginia nuclear submarine with some 150 Tomahawk missiles onboard in the Gulf not far from Iran’s coastline — has in fact prevented the Israeli Dolphin nuclear submarine from actually entering the Persian Gulf itself. However, two Israeli nuclear subs are believed to be lurking in the ocean nearby in case an emergency arises.
With all reservations, implications and potential worldwide ramifications that make a “doomsday scenario” a rather distant possibility, escalating tension and newly-forged alliances in the Gulf and across the Arabian world still make it a possibility that cannot be completely ruled out.
As the world finishes celebrating Christmas and brings to a close months marred by a lethal pandemic across the four corners of the globe, the last thing the peoples of the Middle East and beyond want is yet another conflict, let alone a nuclear one. The biggest fear remains that some trigger-happy maniacs somewhere might decide to usher in the New Year with a mushroom cloud.