No Winners in a War in Iran

March 2, 2012

Iranian naval drills. Source: RIA Novosti

At a meeting with editors of leading Western newspapers Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia will do all it can to prevent war in Iran. But is this war already inevitable?

This is the question on the minds of many in Russia and abroad. A fresh outbreak of violence in the Middle East could destabilize the South Caucasus and other post-Soviet regions. There is no such thing as a foreign war.

On March 5, 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama is due to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two leaders are expected to focus on Iran’s nuclear program and the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. Where do they see eye to eye? Will they be able to stop the Iranian crisis from developing into a military conflict, or will they choose escalation? Of course, the answer to this question does not depend solely on them.

Hell to pay

If politics were rational, it would be clear that nobody stands to gain from an armed conflict between Iran and the United States or between Iran and a coalition of states (including the United States and Israel).

War would curtail the production of oil and gas and inflate prices. This would deal a blow to the West, primarily Europe, which is already going through hard times.

Russia would also lose out in this scenario, as the West would start saving, reducing fuel consumption and buying less Russian hydrocarbons.

While the parallels are a bit artificial, but something similar took place in the 1970s.

The repercussions of that oil crisis and the Soviet Union’s collapse are still reverberating throughout many parts of Eurasia.

Military action would also hurt China, whose prosperity is largely based on the ability of the West to purchase the consumer goods China produces, right down to the souvenirs from Washington, D.C. with a “Made in China” label.

Israel stands to lose the most from a military conflict. It is still reeling from the Arab Spring and the vague prospects of Egypt and Libya’s Islamization.

Today many Arab countries and Iran are competing in a proxy struggle in Syria. Were Israel to attack Iran, this could help unify these opponents against “global Zionism.”

The odds of military action 

Iran will not gain any benefits from armed conflict, either. Combative rhetoric is all well and good, but in the event of war Iran’s infrastructure will be subject to massive strikes.

Onlookers might point out that during the long war with Iraq, the Iranians grew accustomed to the privations and casualties. But ordinary Iranians are hardly interested in going through this again. Any war is an ordeal, and Iran will grow poorer without the ability to export oil.

Regrettably, politics is not as rational as we would like it to be. Iran is too sore a subject for the United States, which cannot get over its failure in 1979. At that time it did not gain anything from the economic sanctions against Iran, which continued to develop without America and exert influence in the region. For Tehran, America is still the Great Satan.

As a result, even a minor miscalculation by either side could result in major consequences. There is not much hope that realists will gain the upper hand on either side.

It is important to prepare for negative scenarios. At any rate, nobody should hope for an easy blitzkrieg.

Russia may have to deal with an influx of refugees. It is enough to imagine that Iran may strike Azerbaijan under the pretext of fighting the Israeli-Azerbaijani military partnership and arms purchases by Baku. Do not forget that Azerbaijan borders on Russia’s Dagestan in the north.

But even if this does not happen, Baku may try to exploit the situation and speed up the military solution of the Nagorny Karabakh issue.

Avoiding war in Iran

Moscow will have to make a difficult choice given the competing groups of influence among the Russian elite. After Russia’s loss of influence in Georgia, a strong link to Armenia or Azerbaijan is not exactly in line with Russian interests in the South Caucasus.

Moscow stands to gain from positive contacts with both Yerevan and Baku, seeking a compromise on the Nagorny Karabakh issue rather than the victory of one side.

Thus, a war in Iran or around Iran will compel Russia to break all statuses-quo and seek new configurations. This will complicate matters for Russia and prevent it from resolving other no less important domestic and foreign policy problems.

These problems will not subside after the presidential election. We do not need an Iranian Spring, much less a whole year of Iran. Russia may receive some short-term gains from higher oil prices but they will not turn into a strategic success.

Regardless of how the Iranian card will be played in the foreseeable future, Russia is facing urgent challenges – rapid economic diversification, breaking its dependence on hydrocarbons, and the consolidation of a smart economy and high-tech development (not limited to Skolkovo).

It would be best if military action can be avoided in Iran. The main goal for all players – above all Washington and Tehran – is to diffuse the potential for armed conflict, turning it into a conflict of interests without extremes, or perhaps even pragmatic interstate relations. This is the only way to calm down the hotheads on both sides and move toward a resolution of urgent issues instead of escalating tensions.

RIA Novosti (www.en.rian.ru)

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