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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Iran nuclear deal: a thought-out strategy is still lacking

Fresh thinking about Iran’s role in the region, especially given the heightened fears of the threats emanating from Iran and its proxies, might prompt a new approach, says Hassan Hassan

US President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani giving separate statements / Reuters
US President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani giving separate statements / Reuters

Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal could have an under-appreciated disruptive effect. The deal and the circumstances that led to it had long framed discussions about how the United States should handle the growing influence of Iran in the Middle East. Whether one agreed or disagreed with it, the deal existed as a cogent strategy for dealing with the Iranian threat.

The debate was restricted to a single motion, with two opposing camps. One camp was with it and the other was against it. Now that the deal is out of the way, as far as the US is concerned, serious discussions about an alternative policy could emerge. Indeed, if seen in the context of recent discussions in Washington and brewing changes in the Middle East, the move could widen the US aperture for how to approach Iran’s expansion.

For now, the decision by Donald Trump to pull out was mostly personal. The American president summed up his intention by a key sentence during his speech yesterday: “When I make promises, I keep them.” He had promised during his election campaign to withdraw from the deal and he delivered. Beyond that, a thought-out alternative strategy is still lacking.

After withdrawal, the US is poised to increase pressure on Iran through more sanctions. This scenario is hoped to punish the Iranian regime or to diminish its ability to provide for its citizens, which would in the process increase internal pressure against it. The Trump administration might find this path satisfactory, having undone Barack Obama’s single most important foreign policy achievement.

Or it could be pushed to do more. This scenario is particularly possible as the withdrawal comes amid a number of developments.

The first one is that Iran is increasingly becoming a problem for Israel in Syria. Frequent Israeli attacks against Iranian targets are symptomatic of growing fears in Israel as well as in the US about the future of Tehran’s presence in Syria and other countries in the region. This fear also ties in with the US presence in eastern Syria, which generals and officials envision to remain for the foreseeable future.

Israel’s attacks against Iranian targets will no doubt become the new norm in Syria, and the US policy will, at least in part, take the Israeli fears into account. There is even chatter among Syrians that such attacks could be welcome in some circles close to the regime in Damascus, as the war against Bashar Al Assad abates due to perceived Iranian dominance at the expense of the regime’s traditional upper echelons.

Even before the withdrawal from the nuclear deal, policy discussions on Syria involved plans to counter Iran in the country. Such discussions were triggered by the chemical attack near Damascus and earlier remarks by Mr Trump about withdrawing from Syria. The deliberations that followed convinced the US president of baseline requirements to deal with Iran in Syria, short of a long-term occupation of the country.

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The debate about Iran will likely continue to be shaped by the deal or its absence for some time. But it is possible that fresh thinking about Iran’s role in the region, especially given the heightened fears of the threats emanating from Iran and its proxies, might very well prompt a new approach to address these threats. The likely scenario is that Iran will face more coordinated pressure over the coming years, in a way that was not possible under a foreign policy shaped by the nuclear deal as a strategy to curb Iran’s ambitions.

Some of the misconceptions that were shaped by the former administration or circumstances in the past might similarly lose steam in the coming years. One major misconception is that Iran has leverage over the US, which was true when tens of thousands of American soldiers were present in Iraq. At the time, Iran had leverage because it had sought to undermine the US through a proxy war in Iraq.

Today, the reverse is true. The US has huge leverage over Iran, something the Israelis seem to understand more than American observers who are still shaped by the circumstances a decade ago. Unlike a decade ago, for instance, Iran would be dealt a heavy blow if an escalation against the US or Israel threatened its ally in Damascus. In Syria, Iran is in a similar situation as the US was in Iraq before the withdrawal in 2011. Today, the US could threaten vital Iranian interests through attacking the regime and other allies.

In other words, the stakes are higher for Iran today than ever before. Israelis understand that. On Monday, an Israeli cabinet minister said that Israel could “eliminate” Mr Al Assad if he allows Iranian forces to attack Israel from Syria. The official was reiterating similar remarks made by several Israeli officials last month, threatening to topple the regime in Damascus if Iran acted against Israel.

By contrast, the view that it was Iran that had leverage over American soldiers in eastern Syria persists. But that is simply a relic of the past, when American officials feared retaliation by Iran against the heavy presence in Iraq.

The view was right then but it is now largely outdated. Today, that view does not account for the realities of both Iraq and Syria, where Iran benefits from American disassociation to build its influence and increase its grip over the two countries and its proxies operating there. The former administration’s desire for a deal gave Iran additional leverage, which often involved a conscious decision to give Iran a free pass in countries like Syria.

Finally, the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq also comes in this context. The US is shifting from a focus on the militant group to considering a post-ISIS strategy for the region.

Taken together, and no matter what comes next, one benefit from the withdrawal from the nuclear deal will no doubt be to trigger new discussions about how to counter Iran’s expanding influence in the region. If they happen, these discussions will have to account for the new realities in Iran and the Middle East rather than revolve around an old reality that no longer exists.

Hassan Hassan is co-author of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Washington DC

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