Gulf Security Is Perilous With or Without a Revived Iran Nuclear Deal
Prospects for greater security and stability in the Middle East are meager with or without a new Iran nuclear deal.
Undoubtedly, the region will be better off with a revival of the accord from which the United States walked away in 2018. And a recommitment could be only days away if European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is right. Adding to the anticipation, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the United States was also “cautiously optimistic.”
Even so, the impact of a revival is likely to be limited.
It is safe to assume that the covert war between Israel, bitterly opposed to a revival of the agreement, and Iran will continue irrespective of whether Iran and world powers recommit to the deal.
The war is being fought not only in Iranian and Israeli territory and cyberspace, but also in other parts of the Middle East, including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and potentially Yemen.
Israel is, so far, the Middle East’s only nuclear state, even though it has never acknowledged its possession of nuclear weapons or signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Gulf states share Israel’s concern that the agreement, at best, slows Iranian progress towards becoming a nuclear power and does nothing to halt Iranian support for allied non-state actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon, pro-Iranian forces in Iraq, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and Houthi rebels in Yemen — or Iran’s ballistic missiles program.
However, Iran has so far refused to discuss those issues. Adding to the limited impact of a revival of the nuclear deal is uncertainty about the sustainability of the dialing down of tensions in the Middle East between Israel, Gulf states, Egypt, Turkey, and Iran.
The fragility of some of these relationships is evident in the slow progress of efforts to renew ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran; Turkey and Egypt; and differences and rivalries between various Middle Eastern players, including Turkey, Israel and Iran, and the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which also play out in countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraqi Kurdistan.
The fragility is evident in the lack of confidence complicating Russian-mediated efforts to achieve a rapprochement between Turkey and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And recent rocket attacks on a UAE-owned oil field in northern Iraq persuaded US contractors to abandon the project for a second time. Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Mitigating in favor of a firmer grounding of the reduction of regional tension are the economic and geopolitical incentives for cooperation. The understandings and agreements between all regional states, including those that do not have diplomatic relations, such as Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, is that a multilateral security arrangement would be paradigm-shifting and tectonic.
The sea change would have to be based on three principles enunciated this week by Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar regarding his country’s relations with China that are equally applicable in the Middle East: mutual sensitivity, mutual respect, and mutual interest.
The biggest obstacle to a more stable regional security architecture is the deep-seated hostility and distrust between Israel and Iran, against the backdrop of a seemingly inevitable nuclear arms race in which Saudi Arabia and Turkey would strive to obtain capabilities of their own. That race will be accelerated if efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal fail, but it will not be definitively thwarted if Iran and the United States recommit to the agreement.
In the 1980s, Iran’s leaders revived the country’s nuclear program as a result of the Iran-Iraq war. The program was originally initiated in the 1960s by the Shah, and initially put on hold in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution. However, the war persuaded Iran’s leaders that the program could be a deterrence against perceived US efforts to change the regime In Tehran. The conviction that the United States and the Gulf were seeking to topple the Islamic regime was cemented by their support for Iraq’s eight-year war in which Saddam Hussein, a no-less brutal leader than Iran’s revolutionaries, deployed chemical weapons.
The Gulf war also sparked the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program and its interest in developing a chemical weapons capability. Iranian leaders’ willingness to work with Israelis during this time suggested that they were not picky in choosing whom to cooperate with to achieve their goals.
To be sure, the knife cuts both ways. Iran’s declared ambition to export the revolution, coupled with the 444-day occupation in 1979 and 1980 of the US embassy in Tehran, was destined to provoke a response. The subsequent emergence of pro-Iranian militias in various Arab countries was part of a defense and security strategy designed to take the fight to Iran’s detractors and an effort to ensure Iranian regional influence, rather than export the revolution, per se.
The reality is that Iran is close to becoming a nuclear threshold state, and will likely become one with or without a revival of the nuclear accord. That does not mean that the agreement has become irrelevant. On the contrary, the nuclear deal’s fate, no matter how flawed or problematic it may be, will shape regional security in the foreseeable future. It will determine the environment in which confidence can or cannot be built, and understandings can be achieved on sensitive issues. A realistic assessment of what is possible could help kickstart a process to create a more sustainable basis for a dialing down of regional tensions. One such assessment would be a realistic evaluation of military options to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.