The US-Iran Standoff Can Upset The Already Shaky Equilibrium Of The Middle East
Will reneging on the Iran nuclear deal make the Middle East any more secure?
Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain’s analysis:
United States (US) President Donald Trump could not help but go back to some of his presidential campaign promises. Among them was the abrogation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. The JCPA was signed in July 2015 between the big “P5+1” countries and Iran after protracted and meticulous negotiations. That grouping comprised the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States – plus Germany. It was then considered a near impossible feat to achieve. The aim was to bring about a control over the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology and prevent the Islamic Republic of Iran from militarising its nuclear research and development programme, which had been in place for over 10 years.
Prior to the JCPA, Iran was a virtual pariah in the international community with tough economic, diplomatic and social sanctions imposed upon it, leading to untold miseries upon its population and an inability to carry out normal economic activity. It had lost approximately $160 billion worth of trade over the last 10 years in the energy sector alone.
The countries which had opposed the deal with full vigour were Israel and Saudi Arabia, and there were enough reasons for it. The Saudis represent the Sunni pole and flag in the Middle East, although their ideology does not match that of the many other countries which also follow Sunni Islam; the Saudi strain is Salafi, which is more radical in belief and perceived as a representation of the basic thinking of Islamists around the world. Iran on the other hand, represents the Shia sect of Islam. Competition between the Sunni and Shia ideologies is the basis for most tension in the Middle East region and is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future.
With Israel, Iran’s standoff comes from its 1979 Revolution, which ushered the rule of the Shia clergy. Iran’s apparent ambition was to emerge as the leader of Islam. Israel was the unfortunate fall nation to draw the ire of the entire Islamic world due to its then – and even currently ongoing – conflict with the Palestinians over their eviction from the holy land. Iran strengthened itself militarily through a military modernisation programme in the nineties, which brought hundreds of missiles into its arsenal, some from Russia and many from North Korea. It also promoted its proxies against Israel, the prime ones being Syria and the Hezbollah of Lebanon, thus also remaining a major spoiler of the Saudi-led Sunni hegemony.
Iran’s relationship with Israel progressively deteriorated as the Iranian leadership chose to follow a stringent anti-Israel stance, including hugely emotive aspects like holocaust denial and projection of its intent to wipe out Israeli militarily. It then came to the alleged development of a clandestine nuclear military programme in two underground facilities, just after the turn of the millennium. Almost 12 years of persuasion and robust diplomacy through a regime of stringent sanctions finally led to the JCPA being signed in July 2015. Israel was unconvinced as much as Saudi Arabia that the JCPA provided sufficient guarantees against Iran secretly acquiring a nuclear military capability; both nations opposed it vociferously.
The JCPA’s strength lay in the unanimity with which the P5+1 countries had been able to hammer out an agreement and establish the most stringent monitoring systems supported by modern technology. In the eventuality of Iran failing to adhere to the accepted terms, the choice of joint military action remained open. However, while a huge trust deficit exists between Iran and the international community at large, the social and economic benefits of the JCPA are attractive for Iran. Its leadership also realises the limits of confrontation and necessity of being a part of the international financial regime; simmering discontent within the population has been reported many a time, of which the leadership is certainly well aware. The JCPA threw open the eventual de-freezing of almost $120 billion, which were unavailable for access due to sanctions. The figures remain disputed, and all frozen assets are yet to be released.
Now back to Trump’s idea that the JCPA was not harsh enough an arrangement to dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear military programme. Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump alluded to dismantling the JCPA. Under US law, he is now required to give a quarterly certification that Iran is adhering to the provisions of JCPA in letter and spirit for the Congress to allow US to remain a part of the deal. It probably hurts his conscience that he has not followed up on his campaign promise, which was ill-considered and offered no alternatives. The Republicans had been largely disturbed by the Obama administration’s disregard for Israeli and Saudi concerns and the fact that there was nothing in the deal to offset Iran’s other activities involving support to Syria’s Bashar Assad regime and the networks which support both the Hamas and Hezbollah.
A visit to Israel reveals the degree of concern that the country has about the threat from Iran. This too, is not without reason. The confrontation in the Middle East has moved beyond the traditional Arab-Israeli standoff. Israel has come to terms with almost all Arab states except Syria, but it’s the Iranian threat which remains the strongest even though there is no common boundary between them. The threats emerge from the arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles and rockets which Israel says amount to almost 130,000 under the Hezbollah alone, in South Lebanon. There is no doubt that the JCPA does not have any scope in this regard and it is this threat which brings Israel to oppose it and seek US rescindment of it.
International deals of such strategic importance have certain sanctity. They cannot be rescinded on whims and perceptions of individual leaders and their electorates. In the quest to place some control over North Korea, any rescindment of the JCPA is likely to give little joy or confidence to Kim Jong-un. Left without control, Iran too could go the same way.
Yet, it has to be admitted that it may not be the nuclear issue at all which worries Trump; it could be more the slow but effectively enhancing influence of Russia in the Middle East. That appears to be happening through Iran. In addition to it is the downslide in relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia in the latter part of the Obama administration, which Trump and his advisers may be wishing to retrieve; his flamboyant visit to the Middle East three months ago did manage to patch some of that.
Analysing President Trump’s decision, which really does not go all the way, one can only assume that geopolitics returns to play its role, as it happens in all such cases of trust deficit. First, the US leadership is still finding it extremely difficult to erase the memories of 1979. Events from history no doubt emotionally influence the present, but more than that, the relationship of US with Israel plays its role. The Israeli Defense Ministry compared JCPA to the Munich Agreement signed by the European powers with Nazi Germany in 1938. With the Syrian civil war apparently heading in favour of Assad, the Russian influence is only seen to have been enhanced. Iran’s strategic influence too has increased right through the Levant. The post-Islamic State situation in the region is anything but certain, yet clearly the Russian-Iranian axis has the upper hand. The US can ill-afford not to recreate the magic of the strategic relationship with Israel as well as Saudi Arabia, both estranged under the Obama administration.
The question is, whether by reneging on the Iran nuclear deal the Middle East can be any more secure, and can Israel be afforded more assurance of its security. If anything, a common-sense approach would reveal that using JCPA, Iran could be engaged further to be more reassured about its security. There is no doubt that at the base of it all lies the ideological struggle between Shia and Sunni Islam which, as stated earlier, is unlikely to be resolved anytime in the foreseeable future.
This struggle will continue to dominate Middle East security concerns. With this as a constant, and big-power interests likely to persist for various geopolitical reasons, does it make any sense to create another North Korea in a tinderbox region? Trump and his advisers also appear to believe in that and are apparently testing the waters by not going the full route of a unilateral pull-out from the arrangement. The other big powers, especially the European ones, do not have matching perceptions. Perhaps it is in their unity and ability to influence Trump that the stability of the deal could still remain intact.
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