In spite of bluster from belligerent hawks in the United States and Israel, it is highly unlikely that either country will attack Iran in the near future. Israel will not dare attack Iran alone, while US President Barack Obama has made it clear — if not perhaps quite clear enough — that, after its costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has no intention of allowing itself to be pushed or pulled into another disastrous Middle East war.

The US is cutting $500 billion (Dh1.84 trillion) from its military budget over the next decade. It is trying to get out of Afghanistan without admitting defeat. Instead of ‘boots on the ground’, it is switching to cyber warfare and unmanned drones in its counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist efforts.

Instead of a hot war against Iran, the US and its European allies are waging economic warfare against Tehran with the declared aim of forcing it to suspend uranium enrichment. The undeclared aim would seem to be regime change.

On December 31, Obama signed into law a new set of sanctions against Iran’s oil exports and Central Bank. On January 23, the European Union followed suit. On the same day, the US Treasury Department announced sanctions on Bank Tejerat, Iran’s third largest bank. As the sanctions noose tightens, the Iranian rial has lost half its value since October.

Faced with this severe punishment of a neighbour, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council need to ask themselves a number of tough questions. Is the economic warfare waged against Iran in the Arab interest? Economic warfare could spark something hotter. Any conflict in the region would inevitably expose the Arab countries, their populations and their vulnerable oil terminals and desalination plants to possible attack. Arab leaders must surely be aware that if Iran is prevented from exporting its oil, it will do its utmost — as it has already threatened — to prevent its neighbours from making up the shortfall by increasing their own production. The situation is fraught with danger. Iran may well view the sanctions and the boycott as an act of war. Seething with anger at the murder of four of its nuclear scientists — widely believed to be the work of Israel’s intelligence service Mossad — Iran may well retaliate. With tensions running high, there is always the possibility of war by accident, if not by design.

Negotiations not sanctions are the way to defuse the crisis. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, has suggested renewed talks between Iran and the P5+1 (The five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany). But the declared aim of these talks is to compel Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment. Iran will not submit meekly to such diktats and sanctions. No Iranian leader could survive if he agreed to give up the right to enrich uranium for peaceful industrial purposes — as is allowed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory. The humiliation would be too great.

In any event, whereas the NPT forbids the production of nuclear weapons, it does not forbid developing the capability to do so. Experts from the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are due to visit Iran from January 29 to 31 in an attempt to resolve this and other outstanding issues.

If the western powers are unable or unwilling to start serious negotiations with Tehran, the GCC should seize the initiative and propose engaging talks itself. The Arabs and Iran have a strong common interest in safeguarding the security of the vital Gulf region. To open the way for GCC-Iranian talks, the Gulf states might pledge not to allow their territory to be used for an attack on Iran. In return, Iran might pledge not to use the Shiite communities in the region to disturb the existing political order. That could provide the starting point for closer security cooperation. Would not this be the best way to protect the region from the fallout of a possible conflict?

The region’s geography cannot be changed. Whether the Arab Gulf states like it or not, Iran is their neighbour. It has many common interests with them, as well as many trade and family ties. Both Arabs and Iranians should do their utmost to bridge the Sunni-Shiite divide. It is folly for them to allow events which happened 1,400 years ago to shape their present fears and dictate their current policies.

Israel has for years led the propaganda campaign against Iran. Its strategy has been to blackmail the US and Europe into imposing ‘crippling sanctions’ on Iran by threatening to attack Iran itself. Israel would dearly love the US to destroy the Iranian regime, in much the same way as pro-Israeli neo-cons in George W Bush’s administration managed to push the US into overthrowing Saddam Hussain. The consequences of that war were catastrophic for Iraq, for the Arab world as a whole, and for the US itself.

What are Obama’s real motives in sanctioning Iran? First, he is seeking to maintain America’s hegemony over a region rich in oil and gas. Secondly, facing an election this year, he cannot afford to let his Republican rivals accuse him of being weak in support for Israel. He needs to placate Israel’s powerful friends in Congress, in the press, in the many pro-Israeli lobbies and think-tanks, as well as in his own administration. He must do nothing to offend Jewish American donors and voters. He is, in any event, committed to protecting Israel’s regional military supremacy.

Although he may disagree with several aspects of Israeli policy and have no love for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he is obliged by US law to guarantee Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) — that is to say its military superiority over all Arab states. US arms sales to Arab countries have to be cleared with Israel, to ensure that they pose no threat to it.

Is American and Israel hegemony over the Middle East in the Arab interest? Is it not time for Arab leaders to assert their independence from these powers and distance themselves from quarrels which do not concern them?

The astonishing aspect of the present highly dangerous situation is that there is absolutely no proof that Iran has decided to produce nuclear weapons. America’s National Intelligence Estimate for 2007 and 2010 — the joint work of its 17 intelligence agencies — concluded that Iran had ceased work on developing nuclear weapons in 2003. There was no conclusive evidence that it had resumed such work. The paradox, however, is that the more Iran is threatened and sanctioned, the more likely it is that it will seek the protection of nuclear weapons.

The security of the GCC must surely lie in engaging with Iran rather than allowing itself to be sucked into a quarrel which could end in bitter tears.

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.

– Gulf News