US President Donald J. Trump’s decision earlier this month to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement, and to shift toward a policy of renewed sanctions and confrontation, will make the future of the Middle East even more uncertain. The signs in the weeks since have not been encouraging.
Trump’s decision cannot be justified by any breach of the agreement on Iran’s part. It is, rather, a return to the old, largely unsuccessful US policy of confrontation with Iran. The only difference this time is that the Trump administration seems determined to go to the brink of war – or even beyond – to get its way.
If the administration has any plans for keeping Iran’s nuclear program in check in the absence of the nuclear deal, then it is keeping them a secret. Judging by some of the administration’s rhetoric, it would appear that airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities are on the table. But bombing would only delay Iran’s nuclear programme, not stop it. Would Trump then consider a massive ground war to occupy the country and topple the regime? We know all too well how that strategy worked the last time it was tried.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concluded by Iran and the US, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China, plus Germany and the European Union, was not intended only to prevent a regional nuclear-arms race or a military confrontation. It was also supposed to be the first step toward creating a new, more stable regional order that would include Iran.
The old order was established by the World War I-era Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, which largely created the national borders that exist in the region today. A century later, it is clear that the old order has become obsolete, given that it no longer provides any semblance of stability.
Instead, the most important regional players – Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – have all been vying for influence in the war in Syria, and collectively sliding toward a hopeless conflict for mastery of the entire region. Because no one country is strong enough to eliminate or subdue the others, this escalating struggle promises only years, if not decades, of war.
The region’s instability can be traced back directly to the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. With the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iran suddenly gained an opportunity to pursue a kind of quasi-hegemony in the region, starting with its Shia-majority neighbour. And after a series of mistakes by the West in Syria, Iran was able to establish an unimpeded presence stretching all the way to the Mediterranean.
This is the backdrop against which the JCPOA was negotiated. The deal was meant to reintegrate Iran into the international order, thereby encouraging it to play a more responsible regional role. But Trump’s decision has foreclosed that possibility, leaving Iran’s future role in the region an open question. Make no mistake, though: one way or another, Iran will remain an integral part of the Middle East. It is an ancient civilization that cannot simply be side-lined or ignored, unless one wants to invite even more chaos.
Having abandoned the framework for influencing Iran by diplomatic and economic means, the Trump administration’s only alternative now is regime change. Clearly, White House hawks such as National Security Adviser John Bolton have not heeded any of the lessons from the US debacle in Iraq. Given the failure to bring stability to that country or to Syria, it should be obvious that escalating a confrontation with a much larger country like Iran has little to recommend it.
Unfortunately, the JCPOA probably cannot survive the reimposition of US sanctions. European firms are not going to forsake the much larger American market just so that they can maintain ties with Iran. And once Iran loses its economic lifeline from Europe and other parts of the world, it might well decide to restart its nuclear program, or even to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, raising the risk of war.
Moreover, Russia and the US are further undermining non-proliferation by modernising their nuclear arsenals. Where once their leaders talked about mutually agreed arms reduction and verified disarmament, now they are more interested in miniaturized nuclear warheads that can be used as bunker busters.
When the world’s two leading nuclear powers behave like this, the prospect of another major war in the Middle East becomes all the more terrifying. After all, with Russia’s deeper involvement in Syria, the risk of a clash between Russian and Western forces in the region has already been growing. And it is not as though Russia would simply give up its new position of strength by abandoning Iran now.
None of this bodes well for Europe, which will be directly affected by an escalation of tensions in the region, owing to its geographic proximity and historic obligations to Israel. In the event, the EU would have to lead on finding a negotiated solution that addresses both the hegemonic intentions of regional players and the issue of nuclear- and conventional-arms control.
For now, Europe must assert itself as a voice of reason, by holding firm to the idea of a peaceful reordering of the Middle East – regardless of how difficult this task may seem at the moment. Europeans know all too well the consequences of endless hegemonic struggles. The EU was established as a response to a century of war and terror that brought Europe to the brink of self-destruction. The lesson since then has been clear: only reconciliation and cooperation can ensure a peaceful regional order. Trump’s way – hegemony – means chaos.