The exact nature of what these events lead to is shrouded in uncertainty. Trump though has unambiguously exacerbated the crises by pushing a region, thus far teetering on the edge, off the cliff.
By Anchal Vohra
In an escalation between Israel and Palestine, 50 Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli forces along the security fence in Gaza. The Palestinians were on a six-week protest, dubbed the ‘Great March of Return,’ alluding to their demand that they must obtain the right to return to the land Israelis built a state in 1948 and subsequently occupied. The bloodiest day since 2014, 14 May coincided with the opening ceremony of the US embassy in disputed Jerusalem, east of which is claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of their future state. Home to the holy sites of the three monotheistic religions, Jerusalem is a tinderbox where passions alight at the simplest of provocations, and that Palestinians would emerge in thousands and question the US’ decision, was no surprise.
Undeterred by the violent turn of events, Trump congratulated Israel and said, “It (the relocation of the embassy) was a long time coming.” In return, Netanyahu applauded Trump and exclaimed, “Trump, by recognising history, you have made history.”
Days before this ‘historical’ event and its bloody ramifications, America’s commander-in-chief had reversed history by pulling out of the Joint comprehensive plan of action or the JCPOA, popularly known as the nuclear deal with Iran. Europeans disagreed and rushed to damage control.
Trump’s actions over the last week have deepened the rift between the US and the EU and while latter’s support for Iran and Palestine is working as the saving grace in a volatile scenario, West Asia is left levitating in the unknown. The American President seems determined on undoing Obama without clarifying his overall strategy to resolve the longest conflict in the region’s modern history. So far, his actions are inclined towards appeasing the vote base of the evangelicals back home, albeit still quite undecipherable, there is a hint of Trump’s thinking in his recent manoeuvres. He is possibly trying to coerce the Palestinians to accept a rather pro-Israeli resolution, which neither includes the right to return for the millions of Palestinians expelled from their land nor does it offer East Jerusalem as their capital. Reports of a tacit understanding between Saudi Arabia and Israel indicate that the Sunni power may back such an agreement.
But why did Trump pullout of a working deal? Why would he relocate the American embassy pending final peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine? Consider the following argument.
Why pullout of a working deal?
Germany, France and Britain lined up for meetings with Trump in a bid to convince him to stick to a deal they saw to be delivering. Iran was abiding by it and waiting for the promised economic advantages. Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and UK’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, all read out the importance of the deal which essentially lifts nuclear related sanctions on Iran in exchange for allowing international inspections of Iran’s nuclear programme and hopefully ending its ability to produce nuclear weapons.
President Obama’s administration worked painstakingly over 20 months to achieve the understanding. He reckoned the world to be a safer place with the deal, than without it. At the time of the deal, he faced massive criticism from foreign policy traditionalists who saw it as a balancing act by the US in West Asia, not favouring Iran, but giving it space to grow and bringing a semblance of equilibrium between the power exerted by Sunni Saudis and Shia Iran in the Islamic world. It was a subtle yet a major shift in America’s West Asia policy. The objections to the N-Deal though, weren’t limited to the hawks and were also expressed by experts. They saw it as a much watered-down agreement than first envisaged. In the give and take during the negotiations, the US climbed down and let Iran have its nuclear reactors and even enrich nuclear fuel under strict limitations but these limitations would expire at a certain point in future. These clauses fueled suspicion that Iran may never truly give up its ambition of having nukes and merely delay the plan. The supporters of the deal argued against such thinking and emphasised that the leeway was intended for civilian use of nuclear energy.
Trump ignored the supporters who vouched for Iran’s behaviour and said the deal was working. He chose to believe a coterie of foreign policy traditionalists who would stick to tested allies like the Saudis and assuage their concerns over Iran’s rise and with those who saw the deal as insufficiently guaranteeing the demise of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Iran’s success in the region — in Lebanon, Iraq and especially Syria — added to the fears of the critics and handed the push to announce the decision Trump made while campaigning for Presidency.
The President himself confirmed this analysis a few days after pulling out of the deal when he tweeted:
Remember how badly Iran was behaving with the Iran Deal in place. They were trying to take over the Middle East by whatever means necessary. Now, that will not happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 13, 2018
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seconded Trump. In a tweet, he said: “On Sunday shows I discussed withdrawal from JCPOA: To suggest that’s driving Iranian conduct in Yemen, the rise of Hezbollah — those took place during JCPOA.. they felt like they could act with impunity. While this agreement was in place Iran continued its march across Middle East.”
Trump did not walk out of the deal because Iran violated it or lied, a case Netanyahu tried to build against the Persian nation, but because it spread its wings and expanded in the neighbourhood.
In Lebanon, Iran’s most effective proxy, the Hizbollah, is the strongest entity. It is the most lethal fighting force in Syria backing Bashar al-Assad and training Shia militias of Iraq. In the recently contested elections in Lebanon, the Hizbollah sought political legitimacy. Even though individually it didn’t perform drastically better than before, it struck clever alliances and along with its allies, won more than half of the parliamentary seats. Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of the armed and political outfit, claimed the electoral success to be a sign of support for Hizbollah’s raison d’etre: resistance to Israel.
In Syria, Iran and Hizbollah have made massive inroads during the seven years of war. Groups backed by the Saudis and other American allies fell, as Iran’s men rose to prominence. The man controlling the largest part of Syria — Bashar al-Assad — owes Iran hugely. In early 2000s, Assad wanted to make peace with Israel — return of the occupied Golan Heights territory, in exchange for Syria diluting ties with Iran. The war changed the dynamic and forced Assad to fall back in the Iranian arms.
In Iraq, an anti-Iran Shia cleric called Muqtada al-Sadr is emerging as the kingmaker of the future government. The alliance supported by him has scored better than America backed incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Iran funded leader of Badr brigade Hadi al-Ameri. Sadr has been welcomed by Sunni monarchies in the Gulf and talks about a nationalist, non-sectarian Iraq. His rise is perhaps a more soothing development for America and the Saudis but his beginnings still cast a doubt. The kingmaker has been a maverick. Sadr formed Mahdi Army in 2003 which went on a rampage, killing American forces and also Sunni jihadis. For a few years, Sadr left for Iran on a self-imposed exile and arguably returned a changed man. He asked the Mahdi army to give up its weapons and rebranded it as ‘Peace Brigades.’ He is likely to have a bigger say in Iraqi affairs but is still challenged by Iran’s proxies like Ameri who will keep Iran firmly in the game on the ground in the country.
In short, over the last decade or so of wars in West Asia, Iran has enlarged its footprint and formed an arc of influence stretching from Tehran through Iraq and Syria, all the way to Lebanon. The entire belt is flooded with Iran’s foot soldiers and images of Ayatollah Khomenie and Khamenie.
Before the Syrian war, Iran’s regional fighting force of the Hizbollah was daring Israel on the Lebanon-Israel border. Now, it has deputed some and can easily send more Shia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and even Afghanistan to Golan Heights in Syria, a large part of which is occupied by Israel.
This worries Israel for they fear a stronger enemy, and the Saudis, because instead of theirs, Iranian proxies are on a winning spree.
Obama administration may have lived with an ascendant Iran but Trump sees it differently. Trump’s Iran mistrust also stems from the expectations of the staunchly pro-Israeli American tycoon Sheldon Adelson, who flushed Trump’s campaign with cash and now expects Trump to deliver on promises.
Pulling-out of the deal will weaken Iran, already struggling with a feeble economy, and indirectly empower Israel. That was the calculus. Iran would be tolerated to go on unhindered only until ISIS’s defeat. Soon after, the plug was pulled to teach Iran a lesson — it can’t improve its economy if it harbours regional ambitions.
What will or can Iran do?
The US and allies have taken an offensive approach to contain Iran’s strategic depth and the resistance it leads against Israel. Pushed into a corner, what are Iran’s options?
It can lash back and go nuclear. Within Iran, the hardliners have always maintained that they reserve the right to go nuclear for civilian purposes and have also often used this as a veiled message to procure nuclear weapons for domestic appeal and international posturing. While their rhetoric continued, the moderates in Iran hoped to be strengthened by the deal and by the economic benefits it was eventually expected to bestow. The unfolding of Trump’s policy has emboldened the hardliners. They are now screaming their displeasure at the top of their voices and threatening, unless Europe mitigates the impact of American withdrawal, Iran will follow the dreaded path. The fear that they actually might, has enhanced. If they do, Saudis may too and the world faces an unparalleled crisis. Will they? It is still too early to conclusively say because of the presence of reasonable voices in Iran which suggest waiting for Trump’s exit and dealing with the next American President.
How does Iran plan on fighting for Palestine? Even with JCPOA at play, Iran has offered support to all kinds of anti-Israel factions. Over the last months, Iran has tried to bring together quarreling Palestinian groups to generate a mood on the ground in Palestine for another intifada. Trump’s embassy stunt and the killings which followed in Gaza, may provide the necessary fuel for such an uprising. But unity among varying Palestinian stakeholders isn’t anywhere on the horizon, the momentum may simply vanish.
The last option for Iran is to embroil Israel into a war or get embroiled in one initiated by Israel. Fire exchange between Israel and Iran’s friends has already intensified in Syria. Hizbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah has even responded with a war cry. On the day Tel Aviv shot down 58 Palestinians, Nasrallah gave a speech and threatened of a retaliation inside Israel. He said that through an international body Israel has been informed, the heart of Israel will be targeted if it doesn’t follow Hizbollah’s redline in Syria. He did not elaborate what the red-line is. Will the Hizbollah carry out the threat? Determined and war-hardened, it does have internal political considerations. Hizbollah can’t go to war with Israel unless Lebanon is attacked.
The confrontation between Israel and the forces of the resistance are expected to worsen on the Syrian front, and that is eventually bound to make its way to Lebanon. If and when that happens, the Hizbollah can build national consensus favouring war. It is likely that skirmishes on the Syrian front will get out of hand and culminate into a war but whatever vitriol, Hizbollah has borne a huge cost for intervening in Syria and is war weary, it desires to rest its fighters before it jumps into another conflict.
Iran is still weighing available recourses but as it does so, it will continue to nurture its militias and solidify its base in the region. Iran knows US backed Israel is militarily superior but Tehran is also mindful of its strengths on the battlefields in Syria and Lebanon. It too can inflict great damage on Israel.
The exact nature of what these events lead to is shrouded in uncertainty. Trump though has unambiguously exacerbated the crises by pushing a region, thus far teetering on the edge, off the cliff. West Asia has bolted into the next phase of chaos. Not yet war, preparation for it is the current mood. The refusal of Europe to accept Trump’s Iran and Palestine policy may hold it off for a bit but controlling the fragile reality on the multiple war fronts in the region is beyond the scope of the EU.