The region is turning into a theatre of operations with the steady increase in military drills. The Gulf, in particular, has a busy schedule of military drills. In March, Saudi Arabia stepped up military drills, conducting four military exercises, namely an air drill with Greece (Falcon Eye 1 at Souda air force base), a ground drill with the US in the northwestern region (Hawk’s Claws -3), a joint maritime drill with France (Shark-21), and a naval drill carried out with Sudan in the Red Sea (Al-Fulk 4). Similarly, Bahrain conducted the “Dawn of Storms” naval military drill, and the UAE carried out the “Desert flag 2021” air drill.
The common thread between these Gulf drills is the US being an active participant in all of them. In addition, the US carried out a separate joint drill with France, Japan, and Belgium in the Arabian Sea and the Sea of Oman, while simultaneously joining military exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, and maintaining the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower docked in Crete. The US expanded the geographical scope of war games, moving from the Gulf to Africa and conducted a military drill with Morocco and another with the Egyptian Navy Southern Fleet in the Red Sea, which was followed by Cleopatra 2021, a naval military exercise.
Since the First Gulf War, the region had never seen this increasing number of military exercises. And with 10 military drills being carried out simultaneously, a pertinent question arises here: could the region be preparing for war?
Across all Middle Eastern theatres of operation, the American military deployment seems to be the most revealing, extending from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf across the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Sea of Oman, carrying out ground, navy, and air military drills. In addition, the US abruptly reversed its decision of withdrawing the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower, and re-deployed it to the Souda Bay air force base in Crete, where military drills involving Saudi Arabia were conducted. Also, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle was deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean, along with the USS McCain destroyer, the Belgian frigate Leopold, and the Japanese destroyer Ariake.
Rehearsing for war
This unprecedented regional situation seems like a “rehearsal for war”. The increasing number and the wide scale of military exercises send out unmistakable signals, the most telling of which was the biggest military exercise named “War in the Arabian Sea” which definitely makes it clear that the region is preparing for a war, particularly if we take the following indicators into consideration:
Waving the flag of war: Adopting classical deterrence methods along with military deployment and occasional military exercises didn’t seem to have deterred Iran as evident by its constant targeting of Saudi Arabia by supporting the Houthi militias who launched strikes on Aramco’s facilities in Dhahran, Dammam, and Khobar and carried out drone and ballistic missile attacks on Port of Ras Tanura, the largest oil port, which they followed two weeks later by another strike on Riyadh oil refinery causing the USA to “lose patience”, to use the words of Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State. The ceasefire initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia (on 22 March 2021) and rejected by Houthis seemed to have been a next-to-last step before waving the war flag. It should be pointed out that Saudi Arabia has carried out military drills in the Northern region, which may suffer attacks from Iraq. Also, Saudi Arabia conducted joint ground, maritime, and naval military exercises with the UAE and Bahrain across the Arabian Gulf along with drills conducted south of the Red Sea.
Brewing international alliance: In addition to the Gulf forces (Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain) jointly setting their theaters of operations, the United States is actively bringing new partners (Japan, Belgium, and South Korea) into the war theatre. The involvement of these countries is highly significant: Belgium and France taking part is symbolic of a European engagement while the participation of South Korea, Japan, and India indicate a war under a US-led world alliance.
A multi-front war: With this heavy military drills schedule in the Middle East aimed at placing forces on war footing against Iran on various fronts, Iran is expected to launch multi-front attacks through its proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria, noting that most of the tools employed in the current mobilization are defensive including aircraft carriers, fighters and destroyers capable of targeting a wide range of objectives in the region. With this activity in the “Arabian Sea”, it seems that no force deployment in the Gulf is planned as has been the case in the previous Gulf wars. Force deployment in the Gulf would make it battered by a barrage of Iranian missiles.
Failing to make do with strategic alternatives, the US and its allies have raised the escalation against Iran. Last year, the Gulf witnessed the largest spread of an aircraft carrier in the Gulf. At that time, war tools did exist then but the war option wasn’t there. Yet, it came to the forefront as is evidenced by parties waving the war flag with Iran not reciprocally taking a step to return to the nuclear pact. The war option seems to be on the table now but the war will not definitely break overnight, given a number of indicators, including:
The Arabian Sea set as the main theater of operations indicates that we are expecting a war of missiles and long-range fighters. Force deployment in the theater of operations as previously described reflects a high level of preparedness yet tempting fate particularly with Iran’s deploying missile bases along the Iranian coast lying across advanced attack lines deep in Sirik, and revealing of its second underground “missile” base, let alone its deployment of a multi-layer defense system at the air defense headquarters. Iran’s high preparedness indicates it equally expects wide strikes form Gulf countries to which Iran will retaliate with a missile and drone barrage, that have a wide range of operation and can target many objectives in the Gulf area, not to mention its tremendous naval force.
Although Iran turned a deaf eye to the strategic options put forward by the USA and KSA, Sino-Russian efforts are underway to thwart the war scenario. To that end, China proposed organizing a regional security dialogue forum but with the US returning to the nuclear agreement (5+1). Also, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, amid these military drills, embarked on a Gulf tour followed by a visit to China.
On whole, all options are on the table – war and the proposed settlement included. Which option will be chosen will depend on the next step i.e. ability of parties to practice self-control or act cautiously. Iran launching another strike against Saudi Arabia would trigger the war. And if Iran wants its settlement proposal to move forward, it should step up to the plate. Rejection of the Saudi initiative could have been a not-favorable decision but it won’t be the spark to trigger the war; however, Iran should at least take the initiative of de-escalation so that things don’t go haywire, leaving the region in an all-out war in which all parties will pay a hefty price.