IT’S perhaps the best summary yet of those who lie behind the drive to war with Iran. It was presented last month at a press conference in New York by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who described to reporters what he saw as the “four Bs”, the group of men who, in his view, were steering the United States towards another conflict in the Middle East.

And quite a line-up it is too. First there is the Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, then United Arab Emirates (UAE) leader Mohamed bin Zayed.

Third within the throng, meanwhile, is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while last but far from least is US uber-hawk himself, National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Right now, the “four Bs” must be more than satisfied with the progress they have made in shoving Washington and Tehran on a collision course that could result in a calamitous conflict that would rock the region and have global ramifications.

The National: Mohammed bin SalmanMohammed bin Salman

These past few days another senior Iranian official said that Tehran was ready for all scenarios, from “confrontation to diplomacy”, and that any conflict in the region will have “unimaginable consequences.”

For its part, meanwhile, the US State Department ordered all non-emergency staff and their families to leave Iraq, a nation on Iran’s southern border in which the Iranian Government backs various militia groups which have fought US troops before.

Britain on Friday added to the regional nervousness by warning all citizens holding dual British and Iranian nationality to avoid travelling to Iran, saying they faced an unacceptably higher risk of arbitrary detention and mistreatment compared to other nationals.

The advice came after Iran last week also confirmed it had sentenced an Iranian woman who worked for the British Council cultural agency to 10 years in prison for spying for Britain.

And just as the diplomatic tension escalates, so too does military preparations by both the US and Iran. Over the past few days the Trump Administration turned up the heat on Tehran, broadcasting a new plan to send as many as 120,000 US forces to the Middle East to counter purported “identified, credible threats” from Iran.

Such a deployment would approach the size of the American force that invaded Iraq in 2003. It comes too in the wake of Washington sending B-52 bombers along with the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier over the past weeks.

This beefing up of US military firepower has been led by the most influential of the “four Bs” in the current crisis – US national security adviser and hardliner John Bolton. The development reflects the influence of Bolton, one of the Trump administration’s most virulent Iran hawks, whose push for confrontation with Tehran was ignored more than a decade ago by President George W Bush.

The National: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

In echoes of that era, Bolton is reported to have convened a deeply unusual meeting on Iran on April 29, not in the White House but at CIA headquarters. It was a move highly reminiscent of the build up to the Iraq war, when Dick Cheney, George W Bush’s vice-president, did the same thing.

“Everyone feels the shadow of 2002–2003: The administration seems determined to find a cause for conflict; allies are aghast; the public seems disengaged,” a former senior US official was quoted recently in Vanity Fair magazine as saying after plans were announced to send US troops to the Middle East.

“It’s hard for anyone to fathom why Donald Trump would think a war of choice is a good idea, given what he’s said in the past about Iraq and Afghanistan,” said the same US official.

To that end, Bolton’s moves have also highlighted sharp divisions in the current administration over how to respond to Iran. Asked last Thursday if his administration is marching towards war with Iran, Trump offered a three-word response: “I hope not.”

Tough-talking as he has been on Iran, it’s long been no secret that Trump doesn’t like the idea of an all-out confrontation and is generally averse to foreign military entanglements.

And yet, having outsourced his Iran policy to the likes of Bolton and other architects of America’s forever wars, Trump may be stumbling towards another.

So just how real is the prospect of a US war with Iran? Is it more a case of bluster and sabre-rattling to impose pressure on Tehran rather than an actual move towards all-out conflict?

“Iran Crisis or ‘Circus’? A Weary Middle East Wonders,” was how a New York Times headline posed the question last week, examining how worried the Arab world should be.

The article’s conclusion mixed black humour with scepticism about Trump’s intentions, underpinned by a “festering worry that the escalating showdown could prove the exception to the rule, the moment when Mr Trump’s tactics accidentally tip the United States – and the Middle East – into an unwanted war.”

The National: Mohammed bin ZayedMohammed bin Zayed

Some Arab commentators quoted felt, however, that there was a genuine need to counter what they saw as “Iranian expansionism”. No doubt this will be music to the ears of the “four Bs”, who likewise see Tehran’s alliances with local armed groups and smuggling of weapons and money as a means of steadily extending its footprint across the region running through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen.

“Iran has created the atmosphere for this warmongering,” insisted one of the Arab commentators, Monalisa Freiha, an editor at an-Nahar newspaper in Lebanon.

But, she added, she had little faith that Trump’s approach would prove a successful counter to Iranian aggression.

“I don’t see a calculated war on the horizon,” she said. “But miscalculation is possible at any time.”

GIVEN the growing levels of accusation and counter accusation, threats and counter threats, it’s precisely this possibility of miscalculation that has so many people worried right now.

Just how precipitous this has become was highlighted this past week following the attacks on four oil tankers, including two Saudi ships off Fujairah in the UAE.

Currently, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Norway are investigating the attacks, which also hit a UAE and a Norwegian-flagged vessel. But according to a Norwegian insurers’ report seen by the Reuters news agency, Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are “highly likely” to have facilitated the attacks. Only last month, the US designated the entire IRGC as a terrorist organisation. Washington had previously only designated entities and individuals connected with the IRGC, which controls vast segments of Iran’s economy.

The confidential assessment issued last week by the Norwegian Ship Owners’ Mutual War Risks Insurance Association (DNK) concluded that the attack was likely to have been carried out by a surface vessel operating close by that despatched underwater drones carrying 65-110lbs of high-grade explosives to detonate on impact.

The DNK based its assessment that the IRGC was likely to have orchestrated the attacks on a number of factors.

These include a high likelihood that the IRGC had previously supplied its allies – the Houthi militia fighting a Saudi-backed government in Yemen – with explosive-laden surface drone boats capable of homing in on GPS navigational positions for accuracy. The similarity of shrapnel found on the Norwegian tanker to shrapnel from drone boats used off Yemen by Houthis was another factor.

For its part, Iran has vigorously denied US claims that it was behind the attacks, instead accusing Trump administration officials of trying to pull it into a war.

While many details about the attacks remain unclear, what has become apparent are concerns over what some US politicians and others see as the dangers posed by “inflating threats and bending intelligence” on Iran leading the US down a “path to another war in the Middle East”.

Just days ago, four US politicians sent a letter to President Trump making this very point.

The letter, from Democratic Senators Chris Van Hollen, Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley as well as independent senator Bernie Sanders, and obtained by Foreign Policy magazine, highlights the growing concern on Capitol Hill that the Trump administration might stumble into an armed confrontation with Iran.

In the letter, its co-signatories argue the Trump administration’s Iran strategy is “increasingly inconsistent and counterproductive” and express concern its assessments of threats from Iran “fit into a larger pattern of inflating threats and bending intelligence to justify dangerous, predetermined policies”.

All this has eerie echoes of those days back in 2003 in the lead up to the war in Iraq. Many point also to the fact that Bolton has form when it comes to abusing and manipulating intelligence.

Let’s not forget that around the time when the Bush administration was making the case for invading Iraq, it was Bolton that helped sell the lie claiming Saddam Hussein’s regime was building nuclear weapons.

“We saw a pattern of Mr Bolton trying to manipulate intelligence to justify his views,” former US deputy secretary of state Tony Blinken recently told The New Yorker, in an excoriating profile of Bolton in which it discusses his failure to secure Senate confirmation when he was appointed as US ambassador to the UN.

“If it had happened once, maybe. But it came up multiple times, and always it was the same underlying issue: he would stake out a position, and then, if the intelligence didn’t support it, he would try to exaggerate the intelligence and marginalise the officials who produced it,” attests Blinken.

Given Bolton’s track record, it’s perhaps not surprising that many observers view his claims about the threat Iran poses with considerable scepticism. Many European leaders and diplomats also leery of Bolton and his allies have urged the US to exercise “maximum restraint” after Washington withdrew from the landmark deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme.

The National: Supporters of Iran's President Hassan RouhaniSupporters of Iran's President Hassan Rouhani

Meanwhile, for its part, Iran must be careful not to play into the hands of Bolton and others among the “four Bs”.

Tehran’s case has not been helped following reports that Iran’s most prominent military leader recently met Iraqi militias in Baghdad and told them to “prepare for proxy war”.

According to an exclusive report in The Guardian, two senior intelligence sources said that Qassem Suleimani, leader of Iran’s powerful Quds force, summoned the militias under Tehran’s influence in Iraq three weeks ago. It was this move to mobiles Iran’s regional allies that some say prompted Washington’s robust response, fearing its interests in the Middle East are facing an imminent threat.

According to one source cited by The Guardian, while Suleimani has met regularly with leaders of Iraq’s myriad Shia groups over the past five years, the nature and tone of this gathering was different. “It wasn’t quite a call to arms, but it wasn’t far off,” the source said.

Whatever the precise reasons for the current escalation in tensions between Iran and the US, it’s this capacity to provoke and involve Tehran’s allies across the Middle East that makes the prospect of all-out war so worrying.

Just last February at a mass rally in Beirut marking the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, another of its regional allies endorsed its willingness to stand alongside Tehran in the event of war with the US.

“If America launches war on Iran, it will not be alone in the confrontation, because the fate of our region is tied to the Islamic Republic,” said Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group.

In a paper for the Brooking Institute earlier this year, former US assistant secretary of state Jeffrey Feltman described Hezbollah as revolutionary Iran’s “most successful export” and Tehran’s “multi-purpose tool.”

It’s precisely such tools that would be utilised were a full-scale war to ensue between the two nations, with the obvious disastrous implications for the Middle East and beyond.

For now, one can only hope that what we are witnessing is nothing more than sabre-rattling or geopolitical muscle flexing, and that calmer heads will prevail.

But with hawks such as John Bolton in the White House, and pro-Saudi and pro-Israeli influencers such as Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner whispering in the President’s ear, it may yet prove that the “four Bs” get their way. It’s a chilling thought given how catastrophically costly that would be.