Having studied Iranian politics and culture for many years, I have long been fascinated by the large role Iran has played in history. From the rise of Indo-European tribes and settlements, the people of Arya-Vaejah, as Iran is called in the ancient Zoroastrian texts, came to dominate not only Asia, but extended their empire to Greece and Egypt, crown jewels of ancient history. After the appearance of Islam, Iran quickly became a fault line between the expanding Arab world and the long-standing Persian lands, and eventually between the Turkish Ottoman Empire and Persian Safavid Iran. This fault line persists to the current day: Iran is a regional power, demonstrating a consistent ability to ward off enemies both near and far.
The concept of inevitability in examining the past or predicting the future is fraught with challenges. Indeed, ideologies usually heralded as inevitable typically end up in the trash bin of history. Very rarely is every variable discernible and often the most powerful variables in determining an outcome are the most elusive.
With that said, however, the trajectory of certain events can signal what is to come. The case of Iran is one example in which that signal cannot be ignored.
Iran’s leaders are hegemonic in their outlook; they may not want to rule the Arab world directly, but certainly want it under their control. Israel is their enemy not only in public proclamations but, more dangerously, in their minds. Iran’s conservative religious population largely shares their sentiment and for those who don’t, the state security apparatus is powerful enough to ensure dissidents are no threat to the regime’s survival.
The regime’s geopolitical aims, however, are necessary but not sufficient causes for conflict. For the rest of the equation we must look to the current configuration of state power and ideology in the region.
Iran has tried, year by year, decade by decade, to inch its way into the Arab world. Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shi’ite militias, Shi’ite dissident groups in Bahrain, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and Yemen are all well known instances of Iranian meddling in the Arab world. A less-cited instance of Iranian expansion is the vast network of front companies and logistics hubs integrated into the Islamic Republic’s paramilitary apparatus, designed to wage asymmetric warfare against global, typically civilian, targets in the event large-scale hostilities begin.
The dominant Arab countries in the region are unifying in a way never seen in the Arab world since the arrival of the nation-state system. Perhaps united by the fear of the “Arab Spring,” Egyptian and Saudi leaders are closely aligned in their hostility to political Islam, best exemplified by the theocratic regime in Iran. These two countries are leading a unified bloc of Arab states, particularly those in the Gulf, to shut down Iranian influence by any means necessary short of direct war, since Iran could militarily destroy both countries.
An assessment of the individuals in this equation are also noteworthy. Recently anointed Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) has demonstrated a reckless and expeditionary sense of Saudi foreign policy, demonstrated by his role in the Saudi war with the Houthis, the ruling Shi’ite militia in Yemen, and ill-defined support to Saudi proxies in Syria.
The eventual passing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamanei will leave Iran highly vulnerable, perhaps inducing military opportunism by Iran’s neighbors or preemptive provocations against them by the Iranian military establishment. The contrast in leadership cadres is noteworthy. Where Iran’s leaders have experience dating back to the 1979 revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and other conflagrations, the same cannot be said of MbS. Interestingly, with the rise of the new crown prince and proactive measures coordinated with Saudi Arabia’s allies against Qatar, Yemen and Syria, a region once known for snail-pace incrementalism is suddenly venturing into the world of foreign policy adventurism.
Central to this emerging configuration is Israel. Long the recipient of Arab venom, most Arab countries now share Israel’s fear of a hegemonic and militaristic Iran. The Palestinian issue is largely withering on the vine as Arab states no longer see any advantage to advocating on behalf of the Palestinians. The stewardship of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, furthermore, has gradually reduced the flame of Palestinian anger from the West Bank. Threats persist from Hamas and Hezbollah, which are aided by Tehran, but the age of liberation and nationalist sentiment is largely disappearing from the global narrative and realpolitik is forging closer relations between Israel and Arab countries.
So why does this description of the region mean war is inevitable? Israel will not disappear, nor will it accept the prospect of annihilation.
The Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, will not tolerate new prongs of Iranian expansion in their domain, and may attempt a commitment to “rolling back” long-tolerated Iranian influence in the region. Yet Iran will not change its foreign policy and military capabilities. The clerics and military leaders have no incentive to experience a change of heart, with the international community clearly indeterminate in its resolve to marginalize Iran, the effect of sanctions minimal, internal dissent suppressed and a multi-polar world with Russia and China largely unwilling to support the United States in its historical aggression toward Iran. Furthermore, the utility of spy games traditionally used to halt Iranian activities within its borders and in the region is running out.
Those with a more optimistic view of the region can argue that there are many factors holding back the region from war. Most of these assessments will hinge on how devastating the war would be for all parties involved, and for the international community. This is true, which is why this article characterizes the inevitability as unfortunate. People will suffer on all sides, but the system as it stands now and the trajectory of events charted are not sustainable.
Triggers for war are too numerous, leaders are increasingly impatient and tempestuous, and the ongoing conflicts make the fog of war too dense to detect red lines. Saudi Arabia is bolstering is weapons systems for offensive and defensive purposes, makeshift airstrips may be prepared in the Gulf to allow for a quick, stealthy air operation against Iran in the future, and Iran continues to advance its ballistic missile capabilities.
With declining US influence in the region, perhaps other global powers such as China and Russia can reign in the factors leading to war, although China’s track record with North Korea is not promising. The war will be devastating on both regional and global levels, but it will happen eventually. It might as well be on US-Israeli terms rather than dictated by the reckless or hostile powers in the region.The author has a master’s degree from the University of Chicago.