President Donald Trump called the Iran nuclear deal the “worst deal ever”. How would a cancellation of the agreement affect Iran’s power position in the Middle East?
D onald Trump rarely shies away from superlatives. On the campaign trail Mr. Trump labelled the Iran nuclear deal, a landmark agreement which constrained Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief, the “worst deal ever”.
When forced to decide for the second time since taking office whether Tehran was adhering to the agreement, he begrudgingly acknowledged their compliance, only after reportedly arguing with his top national security advisers for hours. The next 90-day period after which the president is mandated by law to assess whether Iran is in compliance will be up in mid-October.
Mr. Trump has made no secret out of his desire to find Iran in violation of the agreement sooner rather than later. The White House has reportedly pressured intelligence officials in the US to find evidence that Iran is not honouring the deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency, however, reported at the end of August that Tehran’s stockpiles of low-enriched uranium and heavy water were still below the limits agreed in July 2015.
The other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, which helped the Obama administration broker the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name of the nuclear deal, have voiced their opposition to scrapping the agreement.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in July the US has been violating the nuclear deal, also stressing that Tehran would consider walking away from the JCPOA if the costs outweighed the benefits. He told reporters it would be “impossible” to reach another deal.
“Donald Trump has been very clear that, regardless of its benefits for US national security, he is determined to walk away from the JCPOA,” says Richard Nephew, the lead sanctions expert for the US team negotiating with Iran under President Barack Obama. The Trump administration, he told The World Weekly, has two goals regarding Iran: to deliver a better nuclear deal than his predecessor, and “solve or significantly ameliorate the problem of Iranian activities throughout the Middle East”, including its support for terrorism.
These issues are also of great concern for US allies in the Middle East, like the Gulf Arab states and Israel, which see Iran as the number one destabilising actor in the region. In their view, Iran is hellbent on regional domination through its alliances with the governments in Baghdad, Damascus and Sanaa and its support of proxy forces, ranging from the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah group to Iraqi Shia militias and Palestinian Islamist movements.
An ambitious actor in a volatile region
“Iran has been a regional power for a long time now,” says Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), citing the country’s size, geo-strategic position and cultural influence.
After the 1979 revolution, which toppled Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran quickly moved from staunch ally to pariah in the eyes of the West. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia had previously been the key elements of a US strategy to bring stability to the Middle East. The new rulers in Tehran, led by late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, espoused fiery rhetoric against the Arab monarchs of the Gulf and their Western allies.
Further hostility ensued when the US, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states supported Saddam Hussein in the bloody Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, while Tehran aided Shia movements in the Gulf and beyond. Animosity between Riyadh and Tehran dates back to the days of the Shah, but many today see Saudi Arabia and Iran as being locked in a cold war, with each side aiming to expand its power across the region. Diplomatic ties were severed last year after protesters stormed Saudi diplomatic compounds in Iran following the execution of a prominent Shia cleric in Riyadh.
In August, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted as saying that Tehran and Riyadh could exchange diplomatic visits after the Hajj pilgrimage. Riyadh’s top diplomat Adel al-Jubeir, however, called Mr. Zarif’s comments “laughable”. “If Iran wants to have good relations with Saudi Arabia, it has to change its policies. It has to respect international law,” Mr. al-Jubeir said, speaking at the Saudi embassy in London this week.
With the rise of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi king’s young son, to crown prince earlier this year, Riyadh has become more assertive when it comes to countering Tehran’s activities in the region. Gulf capitals have long lobbied the US and European countries to take a tougher stance on Iran.
Part of Tehran’s alleged designs on the Middle East is a land corridor between Iran and the Mediterranean coast in western Syria. “Securing land corridors are strategically important for Iran and its allies” as part of its support for the ‘axis of resistance’ against Israel, says Seyed Ali Alavi, an Iran expert and teaching fellow at SOAS.
Such a land corridor, if fully realised, could be used to channel weapons and supplies to Hezbollah, a crucial member of the resistance axis which is fighting at Tehran’s behest in Syria to defend President Bashar al-Assad. The Mediterranean Sea would also provide another access point to international waters apart from the heavily patrolled Persian Gulf. There are fears that another war between Hezbollah and Israel could be imminent.
Hezbollah and other groups supported by Iran are listed as foreign terrorist organisations by the US and other countries, as well as the Gulf Cooperation Council. Meanwhile Tehran has accused Riyadh and Washington of having supported a Sunni insurgency in Iran.
The way forward?
In Mr. Nephew’s view, the Trump administration has manoeuvred itself into a corner wherein it is unable to reach any of its two main goals when dealing with Iran.
“The problem is that they have unnecessarily and foolishly limited their solution set, so that diplomacy and negotiations to address [Iranian activities in the Middle East] are seen as impossible,” he told TWW. By focusing on Iranian meddling in the Middle East the administration has made it “impossible” to deal with the nuclear agreement in a satisfactory way. The result, he adds, is a forced confrontation with Tehran.
Nikki Haley, Mr. Trump’s ambassador to the UN, said this week that potentially finding Iran in violation did not mean a US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. “We will stay in a deal as long as it protects the security of the United States,” she told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute.
Experts differ on what Iran’s path forward is likely to be, and what effect sanctions will have. “If we were to keep the current regime in place, I think it would have a sobering, steering effect on Tehran,” says Mr. Nephew. “Not a decisive, all-in-one hammer blow (like oil sanctions for the nuclear programme), but still one that steers Iran away from its problematic behaviour”.
Professor Adib-Moghaddam has a slightly different take, suggesting that Iran will continue to pursue its “strategic preferences”. “Unreasonable pressure”, he concludes, “is unlikely to yield any tangible results”.
With Mr. Assad regaining more territory, IS on the run in Syria and Iraq, and Houthi forces still in control of large swathes of territory in Yemen, Iran’s role as a power player in the Middle East is unlikely to change anytime soon.
For now relations between Riyadh and Tehran are still tense, and Mr. Trump’s rhetoric remains uncompromising. Consequently, a grand bargain between Iran and its adversaries seems out of reach.