If the arrests of 10 members of an alleged Iranian-trained terror cell in Saudi Arabia on September 23 ever feature in a movie, no director could resist intercutting footage of the raids with the speech that, by coincidence, was being given by King Salman on the same day to the General Assembly of the United Nations.
Even as arms and explosives were being seized at two locations in the kingdom, the king was appealing to the international community to seek “a comprehensive solution” to the threat posed by Iran to peace and security throughout the region. The king reminded the general assembly of the litany of crimes committed by Iran and its proxies – the Houthi rebels, whose actions, directed by Tehran, were responsible for the “political, economic and humanitarian crisis from which the fraternal people of Yemen are suffering,” and Hezbollah, whose “hegemony… over the decision-making process in Lebanon by force of arms” was ultimately to blame for the catastrophic explosion at the port of Beirut. And last year, the king reminded the delegates, Iran had targeted Saudi oil facilities “in blatant violation of international laws.”
The international community has worked for years to persuade or cajole Iran into joining them as a constructive member, but last month’s arrests in Saudi Arabia served as a grim reminder that Tehran is determined to persist with the campaign of violent insurrection that has blighted the region for decades.
For its part, said King Salman, the kingdom’s hands had been “extended to Iran in peace with a positive and open attitude over the past decades” in a bid “to seek ways to build relations based on good neighborliness and respect.” But all this, he said, had been “to no avail.” What, then, might be the “comprehensive solution” for which he was calling? What, exactly, can be done to end Iran’s four-decade run as the world’s pariah state?
For hawks in the US, in Israel and in some Arab states, the solution is as clear as it would be disastrous – war. All-out conflict with Iran is a scenario with which right-wing Western think-tanks have been toying and the Pentagon has been gaming for years. The Trump administration has also stoked tensions by abandoning the internationally agreed nuclear deal with Iran and ramping up sanctions.
War with Iran always feel close. In May last year, as tensions mounted following attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman, US warships were dispatched to the Gulf and leaked details emerged of plans for a deployment of US troops to the region on a par with the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Trigger fingers were itching. In June last year, the US came close to launching airstrikes against Iranian targets when Iran shot down a US drone; American aircraft were in the air when Trump called off the retaliation at the last minute. The assassination in January of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, however, was a reminder that violent action remined a key component of the US playbook.
And then, in August, the UAE, followed by Bahrain, revealed that it was normalizing relations with Israel.
Seeking a resolution to the Israel-Palestine problem was not, however, the only motivation for the historic move. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said it was the specter of Iranian aggression that had prompted the UAE to re-examine its relationship with Israel “with fresh eyes.”
The announcement left a big question hanging in the air: would Saudi Arabia, the largest and militarily most powerful Arab state in the Gulf, follow suit? King Salman’s speech at the UN offered no clue. But if Saudi Arabia did join the new gang, the coalition of nations aligned against Iranian hegemony would be large and formidable indeed.
There is, of course, strength to be found in numbers. But despite all Iranian provocation, the region’s new-found solidarity, with or without Saudi Arabia, must not be allowed to evolve into an enthusiasm for military aggression, even with the prospect of backing from America’s military might.
Few in the region need to be reminded of the fallout from the 2003 invasion of Iraq; the consequences continue to haunt the region today. And Iran is not Iraq. Iran is a country of 80 million people steeped in martial lore, with half a million troops under arms. It is bristling with missiles capable of reaching every capital in the region and psychologically, Iran has its back to the wall. In an out-and-out war, Iran would not yield before it had dealt out destruction to its neighbors on a terrible scale. Millions would die, on both sides of the Gulf and beyond, economies would be crippled and regime change would be a long, bloody and hugely costly affair.
Of course, Iran cannot be allowed to go on disrupting life in the region. But the remarkable union between the UAE and Israel demonstrates that even the most seemingly intractable problems in this most chronically divided part of the world can be solved ultimately without resort to force of arms.
Together, Israel and the Arab world are undoubtedly stronger. For the sake of the entire Middle East – including the millions of people in Iran hoping for better days ahead – it must now be hoped that this strength will manifest itself in wisdom and a desire for rapprochement, and not for war.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.