Frantic last-minute initiatives by European leaders hoping to coax Donald Trump into salvaging the Iran nuclear deal resemble desperate attempts to rearrange deckchairs on an already partly submerged Titanic.
President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals to insert beefed-up language about ballistic missiles and impose tougher penalties for non-cooperation ignore the crushing reality that this deal’s shortcomings have materially contributed toward destabilizing the Middle East. The 2015 deal neutralized all meaningful international leverage for preventing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from meddling in Arab states. As a consequence, Tehran’s aggressive regional policies have expanded exponentially.
The deal has allowed disparate Tehran-sponsored Iraqi militia forces to be radically expanded into the Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi umbrella force of around 140,000 fighters. The Hashd today wields de facto military control of much of Iraq, while seeking to win the upcoming elections and impose its choice of prime minister.
The IRGC in Syria has established multinational paramilitary forces (including Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Lebanese), which have kept Assad in power at the cost of Syria becoming an Iranian protectorate.
Minority Houthi paramilitaries have benefited from Iranian weapons and training to overrun much of Yemen, staging missile attacks into Saudi territory and allowing Iran to encircle the GCC region.
Iran-based Bahrainis have run a terrorist campaign, in which Iranian munitions were used to murder two dozen policemen. Hundreds of Bahraini militants traveled overseas for training by Iranian proxies, aspiring to establish an “Islamic Republic of Bahrain” along Iranian lines.
And Hezbollah has increased its stranglehold on the Lebanese state; sent its forces into Syria; recklessly taken the nation to the brink of a new war with Israel; and now aspires to consolidate its influence in forthcoming elections. Iran is also meddling throughout Central Asia, notably in Afghanistan with increased support for insurgents.
Such brazen expansion of activity by an emboldened Tehran would have been inconceivable without the disintegration of containment efforts resulting from Barack Obama’s overtures. The financial dividends from the easing of sanctions were furthermore invested in these overseas adventures, giving rise to justifiable anger among impoverished Iranians at their nation’s wealth being squandered on bankrolling regional terrorism.
The US must find a strategy to combat the multifaceted geostrategic threat posed by an emboldened and unconstrained Iran.
The legacy of sanctions has itself been problematic. Just as Saddam Hussein, during the 1990s, enriched his regime through the resulting black market in oil and goods while Iraqis starved, the IRGC became immensely rich through cross-border smuggling in weapons, oil, drugs and other necessities, laundering billions through regional banks and front companies. Sanctions favored hardliners who thrived on the climate of conflict.
If Trump tears up the deal without spelling out a tough program of deterrence, the result may be to exacerbate the regime’s aggressive policies. Principle recourses for retaliation would be through regional assets, including terrorist proxies in Iraq and Syria, which have regularly threatened to attack US forces. Iran has likewise made unsubtle threats about attacking US forces in Bahrain or striking elsewhere in the Gulf. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has a long record of terrorist attacks against Western interests around the world.
Prior to 2015, Israel repeatedly threatened to unilaterally bomb Iran’s nuclear program out of existence. Tel Aviv today faces the additional provocation of Iran-backed militias patrolling the Golan Heights and a resurgent Hezbollah. A reinstatement of Iran’s nuclear program would be seen by Israeli generals as an additional threat, setting the stage for an apocalyptic confrontation played out across an already shattered region.
Despite being mortal enemies, Iran and Israel aren’t so different in their methods of stealing Arab lands: Israeli officials use administrative pretexts to uproot hundreds of olive trees and dispossess Palestinians who have farmed the land for decades, while Hashd proxies burn and pillage Sunni villages across central Iraq. The cumulative impact of such acts of brutal attrition, day after day, year after year, is that, without the world noticing, these occupying forces ultimately come to dominate the land in its entirety.
Iran has little interest in basket case states like Yemen and Syria for their own sake. Dominance of these territories, in parallel with the expansion of its military and WMD capabilities, is about Iran gaining a dominant global posture, allowing it to threaten Western and GCC states with impunity. The use of cyber-warfare, and encroachment into global trade chokepoints, like Mandib, Hormuz and the eastern Mediterranean, are additional manifestations of these aggressive transnational ambitions.
The potential for an imminent breakthrough in North Korea’s nuclear program is a reminder that even crazed megalomaniac dictators are essentially realists when it becomes a question of survival. Kim Jong Un saw the very realistic threat of a nuclear confrontation with the US, which he and his regime had little prospect of surviving. Kim responded with the offer of talks toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The surprisingly strong chemistry between North and South Korean leaders during last week’s talks is testimony to the genuine political will for achieving peace — this is particularly pertinent given Pyongyang’s past role in exporting nuclear components to Iran, Syria and Libya. Successful conclusion of these efforts would furthermore offer momentum for confronting Iran.
As with North Korea, Tehran must be forced into a comparable position where, for its existential survival, it is compelled to abide by international norms. Enough of playing nice; enough of sticking-plaster solutions and burying our heads in the sand pretending that the 2015 deal solved everything. If not faced with a robust program of deterrence, Iran has little to lose by retaliating aggressively to the demise of the nuclear deal and taking its nuclear program out of mothballs.
Trump may be right to describe the deal as a colossal failure. However, the onus is now on his administration to deliver a strategy to combat the multifaceted geostrategic threat posed by an emboldened and unconstrained Iran. Are world leaders up to the challenge of preventing Tehran from completing its transition from regional irritant to global menace?
Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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