Iran and the U.S. play nuclear poker in the Middle East

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ruled out any talks with the Trump administration and has aligned himself with the country’s hardliners (source: dpa)

On May 8, President Donald Trump announced that the United States was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Sanctions against Iran, which had been suspended after the deal was signed, were reinstated on August 6. Though there were periodic signs of willingness to negotiate on both sides, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual and political leader, put an end to that hope on August 13 by ruling out all talks with Washington. Observers have compared the escalation to developments in the U.S.-Iraq conflict, which led to war between the two countries in March 2003.

However, the picture at the local, regional and international levels is far more complex now than it was then. The following factors are at play:

The future of the Iranian regime
The conflict between Washington and Tehran is escalating at a time of marked political and social tensions in Iran. That might inspire Washington to use the conflict over the nuclear deal as an instrument to effect regime change.

The conflict between Israel and Iran
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has always maintained that the JCPOA poses a threat to Israel’s security. That sense of threat has been fueled by the growing Iranian military presence in Syria. In recent months, Israel has demonstrated its determination to attack Iranian military facilities and troops on Syrian soil wherever it sees fit. Prime Minister Netanyahu has always stressed that Israel is keeping all options open, including in terms of the Iranian nuclear program. President Trump’s aggressive stance on the nuclear program has the full backing of Jerusalem.

The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and its allies
This conflict forms part of a battle for regional supremacy. Since 2015 it has been waged chiefly as a proxy war in Yemen. Soldiers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are engaged in the war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Shared hostility toward Iran has resulted in a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. That has created an Arab-Israeli “camp,” which is led by Washington and is jointly opposing Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz

Concerns about energy supply from the Middle East
Once the next round of sanctions announced by President Trump comes into effect at the start of November, Iran will be fully cut off from selling its oil and gas. In a speech on July 22, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz (the world’s most important oil transit choke point) if the U.S. goes ahead, adding, “There are other ways of blocking oil exports. Hormuz is not the only transit route. There are others.” A few days later, the Yemeni Houthis fired on oil tankers in the Bab el-Mandeb strait between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Some oil exports are routed through that waterway.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians
Recent months have seen persistent clashes between Israel and residents of Gaza, resulting in the death of some 140 Palestinians. The cause is the economic plight of the population of the Gaza Strip, exacerbated by Washington’s announcement that it will make a huge cut in funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). If tensions between Iran and the U.S. escalate, Tehran and its ally, the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah, could use the situation in Gaza and the frustrations of Palestinians to put pressure on the American-Saudi-Israeli alliance.

The dispute between the U.S. and the EU on the future of the Iran nuclear deal
The European Union has made clear that it remains committed to the deal and will not join the American sanctions against Iran. These fresh tensions deepen the rift that has emerged between Brussels and Washington over political, security and economic issues since the Trump administration came to power. In the game of poker over the nuclear deal and the sanctions against Iran, the EU has worse cards, since more and more international corporations are opting not to do business with Iran. The conflict with Washington is a test for the independence and credibility of European policymaking.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani makes a speech at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (C) is increasingly isolated, and there is open speculation that the military could engineer a coup to oust him (source: dpa)

The outcome of the dispute will also affect the Iranian government’s position. Strong, credible European policy in a time of crisis will give rise to hopes in Tehran that the effects of the American sanctions can be limited. While those hopes remain alive, Iran will abide by the nuclear deal. For President Rouhani’s government, the EU is an important card in the domestic power struggle with the hardliners, who want to end the deal and are seeking a showdown with Washington.

The future role of China and Russia in the Middle East
Moscow and Beijing have stated that they will ignore the American sanctions and will maintain their economic relations with Tehran. As a result, not only is Iran drawing closer to Russia and China, but the West – specifically Europe – is losing influence in the Middle East overall. Since the two regions are neighbors, that development would have significant consequences. Europe would carry less weight when it comes to dealing with issues in the Middle East that directly affect it.

Iran’s domestic situation

Domestic developments in Iran have a huge impact on this complex situation. The Islamic Republic is facing its greatest crisis since the death of its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989. The vast majority of the population is in dire economic straits. Members of the middle and lower classes, in both urban and rural areas, are holding demonstrations to voice their dissatisfaction with the country’s economic, social and environmental problems. Increasingly broad sections of society are turning their backs on the system of the Islamic Republic. President Rouhani has been unable to keep to his election pledges and has failed to implement any political or economic reforms since his reelection in May 2017.

Mr. Rouhani’s foreign policy has also come under fire. Citizens are questioning whether the country’s costly engagement in Syria makes sense when the government cannot lift its own population out of poverty. As a result, the political, institutional and ultimately the ideological foundations of the Islamic Republic are being called into question.

The hardliners denounced the nuclear deal as the root of all Iran’s problems

Even before the announcement of the U.S. sanctions, the hardliners denounced the nuclear deal as the root of all Iran’s problems and demanded the country’s withdrawal from the agreement. It was one of the key points of their criticism of President Rouhani. President Trump’s policy plays right into their hands. By rejecting all talks with Washington on the nuclear deal, Ayatollah Khamenei has aligned himself with the hardliners.

That step further undermines Mr. Rouhani’s position and makes him a lame duck. Some of the president’s supporters have abandoned the illusion that he represents a better option for the country’s future.

Scenarios

Given the complexity of the conflict over the nuclear deal, it is difficult to identify solutions or outline possible scenarios. Iran will not allow itself to be pressured by the Americans into renegotiating the JCPOA under any circumstances, whether under President Rouhani or a different government. Given his criticism of Mr. Rouhani’s economic policy and under pressure from public protests, Ayatollah Khamenei could replace the current president with a figure who supports his own economic views. There is open speculation in Tehran about the Revolutionary Guard Corps seizing power if the public protests call the Islamic Republic’s political system into question. The claim that the opposition is the agent of a regime-change policy sponsored by Washington could be used to justify a coup.

Nevertheless, Tehran will seek to maintain a dialogue with the international community. The Iranian leadership is pinning its hopes on the EU. Brussels and Tehran have stated that they remain committed to the nuclear deal. Iran is now testing how determined the EU is to find a way out of the impasse. Numerous international corporations have already stopped doing business with Iran to avoid U.S. sanctions. However, EU-brokered talks cannot be ruled out. To lend weight to its position in the dispute with the U.S., the EU could try to bring in Russia on its side.

Iran’s missile program lends weight to worries about the military dimension of its nuclear ambitions

A particularly sensitive factor is Iran’s effort to push ahead with its long-range missile program. This lends weight to worries about the military dimension of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and gives Israel in particular (as well as Saudi Arabia) reason to feel threatened by Iran. Negotiations on the Iranian missile program would reduce concerns in some Middle Eastern capitals about the nuclear program and could enable renegotiation of some agreements, including those that form part of the nuclear deal, without a loss of face.

Given how interrelated the conflicts are, military steps – regardless of who takes them or where – would generate unpredictable chain reactions affecting the political and economic situation in the Middle East and the international community as a whole. Based on experiences ahead of the 2003 Iraq War, it cannot be ruled out that President Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal is a precursor to war. In contrast with Iraq, whose dictatorial regime was largely isolated, Iran’s influence extends deep into the entire region, from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Peninsula. All parties would be losers in a war.

Negotiated solution

That is why the current situation also represents an opportunity, by heightening awareness that a solution to the numerous conflicts can only be reached through negotiations among all key players in the Middle East. In view of the historical and geographical circumstances, Europe and Russia have an important role to play as brokers.

The era of U.S. policymaking in the Middle East, which began under the highly specific historical circumstances following World War II, is drawing to a close. Former U.S. President Barack Obama initiated that withdrawal, though he did not always have a lucky hand. In its own erratic way, President Trump’s approach also confirms the trend. His Middle East policy during the first half of his term bears little relation to a sound assessment of the reality in the region and American interests. Instead, it shows how far removed the U.S. has become from the forces and players that now seek to determine the future of the Middle East.

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