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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Shifting Middle Eastern sands and the renewed sanctions on Iran

As Trump ramps up his economic offensive against Tehran, the rest of the region is in a growing state of flux

Iranians walk past a mural depicting Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on a Tehran street. EPA/Abedin Tahekenareh
Iranians walk past a mural depicting Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on a Tehran street. EPA/Abedin Tahekenareh

What does Washington expect as it reimposes extensive sanctions on Iran, and how does it predict Tehran would respond to its economic strangulation? The Trump administration will not back down from its determination to put extreme pressure on Iran’s government until it agrees to renegotiate the nuclear deal and rein in its regional expansionism by bringing back its forces behind its national borders.

The sanctions targeting the oil sector and financial and banking transactions could force Iran to yield and agree to secret negotiations, as happened during US President Donald Trump's predecessor Barack Obama’s tenure, before going public. The Trump administration is ready to negotiate, but on the basis of the clear criteria it has set out, which Tehran has so far rejected. If the Iranian regime chooses to escalate in response to the sanctions, Lebanon is the candidate arena, in which case Washington may not oppose an Israeli decision to respond to provocation there.

However, there is a possibility for “implicit” co-operation in Yemen, if Tehran decides to buy some time or benefit from the new-found US insistence on ending the war there, as declared by both Secretary of Defence James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Meanwhile, the recent visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman was not strictly part of the “deal of the century context”, as was made clear by Omani foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi. The sands are shifting in the Middle East.

Following a tour that took me from Sochi to Beirut, then Riyadh and Washington via Manama, it is possible to draw some conclusions regarding fixed and shifting positions, and ongoing conflicts.

On the issue of the putative deal of the century between Israel and the Palestinians, the reported 40 pages containing the non-negotiable elements of the framework agreements will not be revealed before elections take place in Israel. This means the unveiling won’t come until spring. Informed sources, however, say that the elements of the deal will leave both sides with gains and a better position, compared to before the deal.

The details of the deal are a secret that is hard to uncover. But in terms of the formulation, it is possible to infer that the Trump White House has presented itself to Israel as the US administration most committed to defending Israeli interests, with appointments such as National Security Adviser John Bolton and the outgoing UN envoy Nikki Haley, as part of its efforts to encourage Israel to facilitate a deal. It is also possible to infer that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is furious about the deal, is being ostracised because of the way he has handled it, and that the Trump administration will hold him responsible for thwarting any deal if he continues to take the same approach.

The Trump administration believes Palestine is not a priority issue for the Arab countries, some of which are ostensibly willing to turn a new leaf with Israel. Mr Bin Alawi stressed the time has come to put the past behind us and look to the future, with an Israeli state side by side with a Palestinian state, whose nature, however, is yet to be decided. He did not address the issue of Jerusalem, but it seems that the Trump administration wants East Jerusalem, which the Arabs want to be the capital of Palestine, to be instead a city open to everyone.

On Syria, the Russian prioritisation of this issue was clear at the Valdai Club session in Sochi. But in Washington, Riyadh and Manama, the Syrian issue was secondary. This is set to continue at this stage, perhaps until the fate of Idlib is settled, although all indications suggest this issue will be protracted and complicated.

The issue of the Iranian military presence in Syria, direct or by means of its proxies, will not be settled overnight. The Trump administration is hoping that sanctions on Iran will deny it crucial resources to sustain its expansion in Syria and to finance the likes of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

According to an official source who spoke on condition of anonymity, the US believes the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will not be able to continue financing Hezbollah and will instead “milk the Lebanese budget” through the powerful militant party. This is what happened to Iraq during the first round of sanctions with Iran, as Iraq’s budget was diverted to assist Iran.

The Trump administration will be closely watching Iranian domestic developments, not just in terms of popular reactions to the sanctions – the US expects the Iranian people to put pressure on the regime to end their adventures in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen – but also to monitor the issue of succession: who will succeed the Supreme Leader and how will the IRGC act until then?

One US source says Tehran continues to pursue the project to build military platforms in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, and that the IRGC leadership has taken “more aggressive” decisions independently of the Iranian government and Iranian public opinion. If the IRGC chooses to escalate in response to the sanctions, “there will be serious implications for Iran and Lebanon,” the source said, adding that Israel could respond violently to a provocation. “We will support [Israel] to defend itself if this happens.” According to the same source, who asked not to be named: “We are cautioning the Lebanese against the implications of an unacceptable escalation, through which Hezbollah could drag Lebanon to a devastating war.”

The Trump administration itself is amazed by the confusion and shock in the ranks of the ruling echelons in Tehran, as the Europeans seem to be going along with the US policy, contrary to the Iranian wager on dividing the West. The source says that after the new sanctions, “it will be very difficult for them to make decisions unanimously, which makes their options very limited and there will be a price for this”.

Saudi Arabia remains a fundamental component of US policy on Iran. Senior members of the Trump administration have made it clear that the relationship is strategic and ongoing. They say the time has come for a full rethink of the Yemen war, and that the challenges today require putting the Gulf house back in order, including retrieving Qatar from the Turkish embrace, as Ankara exploits the current opening to advance its agenda.

The priority now is the Yemen issue. The US Secretary of Defence was the first to announce the new US strategy in Yemen, which was backed later by the Secretary of State. Mr Mattis said the principle of making “concessions” must take priority over military settlement of the battle. He proposed a formula to end the conflict and let the diplomats “do their magic”. The formula includes securing the Saudi border through demilitarised zones in Yemeni territories adjacent to Saudi Arabia, and pushing the Houthis to engage in negotiations and maintain some kind of self-rule in their territories. Mr Mattis said the Houthis do not need Iran to achieve this, accusing Tehran of using Yemen and the Houthi rebels as "highways” for its missiles.

How can the Houthis be made to abandon Iran, or how can Iran be made to stop using Yemen and the Houthis against Saudi Arabia? The answer is not yet clear.

Sands are shifting and fatal storms loom large. But the region may survive yet, and what now appear to be cyclones may turn out to be passing winds. The season for surprises in the Middle East may only be beginning.