business

Davos Ponders a U.S.-Iran War

Forum participants from the Middle East consider a U.S. attack likely, and worry about how another conflict would affect the region's development

It's unusual to hear frank talk of war at a confab devoted to the peaceful advances of globalization. But here on Day One at Davos, war talk was in the air. War, to be specific, between Iran and the U.S.

At a morning session devoted to the Middle East, and run by prominent business and political figures from the region, an agenda devoted to the broad topics of peaceful reform was quickly overshadowed by the idea that the Bush Administration would start a war against the mullah-dominated regime of Tehran. The discussants seemed convinced President George Bush would try to checkmate Iran's hegemonic ambitions and snuff out a nascent military nuclear program. The feeling was that Bush, with little to lose politically, would unleash an attack in a final gambit to reverse America's declining fortune in the Middle East.

Scary stuff. But the participants—among them, Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the League of Arab States, and Bahrain banker Khalid Abdulla-Janahi—were surprisingly dispassionate as they analyzed the chances of such a conflict and assessed the possible impact on the region. One, businessman Khaldoon Al Mubarak of the United Arab Emirates, focused on the notable gains in economic reform and business dynamism in the Gulf states, allowing some to make progress in diversifying away from oil. He concluded that a U.S.-Iran conflict would set the clock back for the whole area. "Can we afford another war?" asked Mubarak. "Of course not. All the genies would come out of the bottle."

Alternatives to Combat?

Others offered subtler twists on the war theme. Banker Janahi posited a different scenario—that the U.S. doesn't attack. Instead, the Saudis dramatically lower the price of crude in order, said Janahi, "to bring the Iranians to their knees." (Iran's oil industry, being much less efficient than Saudi Arabia's, needs higher prices to sustain profits.) This outcome, said Janahi, would be troubling. The collateral damage to the region's economy from a Saudi oil play would be dramatic. The political fallout would be considerable too, as the Saudis would appear to be tools of U.S. policy.

Raghida Dergham, diplomatic correspondent for Al Hayat, imagined a more radical outcome. Perhaps, she said, the U.S. could simply let the Iranians inherit responsibility for the situation in Iraq. "It's a case of 'We broke it—you own it,'" said Dergham. "Iraq is far too broken for Iran to fix." That, she figured, would undermine Iran's regional ambitions better than another major war.

It was a fascinating discussion that tied the threat of war to other aspects of the Middle East's struggle to find the stable path to development. Maqbool Ali Sulta, Commerce Minister for Oman, noted the huge illiteracy rate in the region—some 70 million lack basic reading and writing skills. Such a deficit he suggested, was responsible for the radicalization of certain elements in the region, especially in Iraq—many Iraqis lacked the tools to form a rounded, accurate worldview.

Throughout the conversation, a tone of exasperation with the U.S. was palpable. Janahi pointed out that moderates in the Arab world often were mistaken by Americans as being moderate out of sympathy with the U.S. Not true: "We're moderates for the sake of our country—we put our national interests first." And, of course, the interests of the Arab world. That world right now is deeply worried about another American war in its midst.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE