There is a strikingly topsy-turvy, Saturnalian feel to recent qualifying matches for the 2022 football World Cup. Saudi Arabia (population 35 million) beat China (population 1.4 billion). Canada lead the US in their group. Four-time winners Italy failed to defeat lowly Northern Ireland.
Pursuing an unbeaten run full of political symbolism, unfancied Iran are also over the moon after subjugating the neighbourhood, as is their habit. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the UAE all succumbed to the soar‑away “Persian Leopards”.
Little, it seems, can stop Iran reaching the World Cup finals in Qatar a year from now.
Yet wait. It’s time, perhaps, for a geo-strategic VAR check. There’s a big potential snag with this particular football field of dreams: military conflict in the Gulf. A shooting war with Israel and the US would definitely upset Iran’s chances. It could wreck the whole World Cup.
War would, of course, have many infinitely more serious consequences than disruption of a football competition. Yet this dread prospect is drawing closer as a diplomatic showdown looms in Vienna.
Iran’s new hardline leadership do not regard last-gasp talks on reviving the moribund 2015 nuclear deal, which resume in Austria’s capital on Monday, as a negotiation. For them, it’s a forum for correcting past injustices. They insist that the US admit Donald Trump was wrong to renege on the deal, immediately lift all sanctions and pledge never to break its promises again. While most can agree Trump’s decision was incredibly stupid, Iran’s other demands are beyond President Joe Biden’s power to deliver.
Israel, expressing scant faith in the talks, is meanwhile making military threats. Its rightwing prime minister, Naftali Bennett, claimed last week that the Tehran regime was “at the most advanced stage of its nuclear programme”.
Bennett’s remarks appeared aimed at Biden as much as at Iran. “In any event, even if there is a return to the  deal, Israel is of course not a party to the deal and is not obligated by the deal,” he said. In other words, Israel may defy the US and go it alone. “It is possible there will be disputes with the best of our friends,” Bennett added.
While denying intent to build a bomb, Iranians point out Israel already has a formidable, undeclared nuclear arsenal of its own, which is not subject to UN inspections. This piece of hypocrisy is too often forgotten in the west.
Conveniently ignored, too, is the fact the US is spending $1.5tn on modernising its nuclear weapons. Other parties to the Iran deal – the UK, France, Russia and China – are also upgrading or expanding nukes. This hardly sets a good non-proliferation example.
In Biden’s White House, early optimism that Iran could be peacefully persuaded to halt its reportedly accelerating advance towards nuclear weapons capabilities has been replaced by gloom about the Vienna outcome.
“There are a cascading set of consequences for all of this coming undone,” a former senior official told NBC News. “I just don’t see how this comes to a happy conclusion.”
In an apparent bid to placate Israel and pressure Iran, the White House has let it be known it will consider alternatives, including military action, should Vienna fail.
A so-called Plan B reportedly includes options for additional sanctions, including on Iran’s lucrative oil sales to China; covert operations; and air and missile strikes, jointly or in support of Israeli forces.
Yet in an unusual check to Israeli security officials, Biden’s advisers are simultaneously briefing that Israel’s assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotage of nuclear facilities are counter-productive. Instead of deterring the regime, such attacks, never officially admitted, are said to have had the opposite effect, just as Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign only increased Tehran’s defiance.
The US is also privately warning that the relocation of nuclear facilities underground and improved Iranian ground-to-air and cyber defences mean military strikes may prove ineffective.
All of which strongly points to Biden adopting another, less confrontational Plan B option: an interim deal that would slow Iran’s nuclear activities and allow more extensive UN inspections, in return for limited sanctions relief.
Even a temporary pact would be a relief for worried European governments and Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia, that have been tentatively rebuilding bridges to Tehran.
For Biden, a stop-gap deal, however unsatisfactory, could defuse, for now, a regional crisis that might otherwise suck in the US, roil his domestic and foreign agendas, and further inflate global energy prices.
Viennese fudge is perhaps the best the west can hope for. Rabid hardliners in Tehran who believe Iran can weather continuing sanctions, and argue a new agreement is not necessary, will resist a compromise. Their dangerous stupidity is a match for Trump’s.
But much the same holds true for Israeli hawks who believe conflict with Iran is both inevitable and necessary for the country’s future security. In truth, this conflict, dubbed the “shadow war”, is already being fought with rising intensity.
Israel has conducted hundreds of unacknowledged air strikes on Iranian or Iran-linked targets, mostly but not solely in Syria, in recent years. Another attack near Homs reportedly killed two civilians last week.
Iran runs its own arm’s-length operations in the Gulf and elsewhere, using proxies such as Iraqi Shia militias. US officials effectively blamed Israel for provoking an armed drone strike on an American base in southern Syria last month that they said was Iran’s retaliation for Israeli strikes.
This sparring could quickly escalate into something far worse. As diplomacy nears the final whistle, restraining Israel may be as big a challenge for Biden as containing Iran. Yet if the World Cup qualifiers are any guide, Israel should tread carefully. It was knocked out this month.