For much of this year the world has been fixated by fears of nuclear Armageddon erupting over North Korea.
But over the past 48 hours, alarming developments in the Middle East remind us of the even greater likelihood of conventional warfare on a cataclysmic scale in the region.
Now that its heavyweights — Israel and Iran — have traded blows for the very first time, we ignore that threat at our peril.
After 20 Iranian rockets were fired from Syria at military positions held by the Jewish state on the Golan Heights, Israel responded by launching dozens of missiles at Iranian forces in Syria early yesterday.
They hit a radar station, air defences and an ammunition dump — killing at least 23 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which is based in the UK.
Iran’s rockets — fired by the Quds Force, a wing of the Revolutionary Guards — either fell short of their targets or were knocked out by Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ defence system.
This is not all-out war, but it certainly takes us to the brink.
In the Middle East, two major conflicts have been simmering side by side for years — the Arabs versus the Israelis, and the Shi’ite Muslims against the Sunni Muslims.
This week’s events seem about to drag them together into a gigantic and highly unstable flash point.
Iran, which is not an Arab nation, is the chief Shi’ite power. Since the revolution of 1979 which over threw the pro-Western, modernising Shah and imposed the harsh religious rule of the Ayatollahs, it has been spreading radicalism. The regime detests the West: it refers to America as the Great Satan, and Britain as the Little Satan.
Tanks are deployed near cows close to the Syrian border in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights on May 10.Israel's army said today it had carried out widespread raids against Iranian targets in Syria overnight after rocket fire towards its forces it blamed on Iran, marking a sharp escalation between the two enemies. Israel carried out the raids after it said around 20 rockets, either Fajr or Grad type, were fired from Syria at its forces in the occupied Golan Heights at around midnight
Iraq is dominated by Shi’ites, as indeed is Lebanon after Hezbollah, the para-military party allied to Iran and which loathes Israel, won this month’s general election.
The Ayatollahs in Iran back the Syrian government of Bashar al- Assad. Surrounded by hostile pro-Western nations, Iran needs all the allies it can find to help protect its regional interests.
Support for Syria also allows it to station forces far to the West of its own borders — closer to the Mediterranean, in fact, than it has been since the days of the Persian empire 1,400 years ago.
Those forces, as we are seeing, are within easy striking distance of Israel. But that’s only half the story. Tensions are also at breaking point between Shi’ite Iran and Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni country. The two nations have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen, with the Iranian-backed forces enjoying most of the success.
However, it is Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states which control a majority of the region’s colossal oil resources. Now, many hardliners in Tehran are saying that, with Iran’s superior military power, it could seize those oilfields if they wanted.
And the ultra-hardliners in Tehran, who are even more numerous, welcome that plan because it would inevitably bring America and its allies (including Britain) into a war they know we wouldn’t have the stomach to fight. With such immense conventional forces arrayed on both sides, Iranian military planners believe the result would, in all probability, be a stalemate. While Iran would be prepared to take hundreds of thousands of casualties, they are betting that the Western allies would not.
Trump hopes that by reimposing sanctions, he will force the Ayatollahs back to the table — and this time they will agree not only to cancel their nuclear weapons programme but also to cut back their conventional military forces and to withdraw from Syria.
That’s the goal, but the difficulties with the plan are twofold. Firstly, with America ending the trade deal, in economic terms Iran has nothing left to lose.