Catch Me If You Can: The Never-ending Turmoil in the Middle East and the Possible Collapse of the Iranian nuclear Deal
The outcome of the Iranian nuclear negotiations is a watershed moment for the future of the Middle East. Its complexity extends to both scientific and political issues which could transform the region for the years to come. The negotiations are restarting in order to reach the deadline of June 30th for the Iranian nuclear negotiations. On April 2nd, 2015, the P5 + 1 concluded a framework for an agreement that could significantly limit Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon. This agreement comes in exchange for lifting harsh economic sanctions imposed on Iran in 2010. Iran has been developing its ability to build nuclear weapons for over two decades, and many attempts to limit the nuclear program over the years have failed. In the face of evidence indicating that Iran was advancing in its nuclear capabilities, the UN approved economic sanctions against Iran in 2010, which the United States and Europe also adopted. These, along with the falling price of oil, have crippled Iran’s economy. The sanctions restricted Iran’s oil and gas exports, technology imports, and cut off the country from SWIFT. President Rohani campaigned on a platform of getting Iran back in the world economy. After a year of planning, negotiations with Iran are now back on track, marking the highest level of cooperation since 1979.
Under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran agreed to a number of measures to reduce and limit its current nuclear capabilities, as well as to international inspections by the IAEA. These restrictions will ensure a breakout time of at least one year. In exchange, Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments. If at any time Iran fails to fulfill its commitments, these sanctions will snap back into place.
Going forward, there is much at stake if an agreement is not reached as a result of the current negotiations. To put this in context, there are several key considerations. First, Iran is already on the path to producing a nuclear weapon. The choices to deter this path are to negotiate an arms reduction treaty, continue economic sanctions, or take military action. Second, the lifting of economic sanctions is expected to restart Iran’s crippled economy, and improve its resources and influence in the region and around the world. Third, the negotiations have many critics. One of them is Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has denounced the deal as a “bad deal” and argued that Iran’s nuclear program should be fully dismantled. In March he delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress where he claimed that the Iran deal “would all but guarantee that Iran gets [nuclear] weapons, lots of them.” Finally, hard liners in Iran have also criticized the deal and its prospects. The Ayatollah himself has stated that Iran will become a nuclear power and that relief of economic sanctions must take place immediately upon the signing of the agreement. All of these considerations are crucial to understanding the impact on future of the Middle East and the world if an agreement is not reached.
The success of this deal hinges on Iran’s behavior in both the region and in terms of its undertakings under the proposed agreement. If Iran acts against the spirit of such agreement in any way, it could have catastrophic consequences. In order to ascertain what events would unfold as a result of the deal falling through, there are many steps and alliances that must be considered. First is predicting exactly how the deal would come to collapse. The most likely scenario here is that an agreement would be reached by June 30th, but via either the inspection of the IAEA or other intelligence means, it is discovered that Iran is continuing to develop its nuclear program. This is the most plausible way for the deal to fall through for a variety of reasons. First, Iran has a history of breaching its commitments under international law. Iran has refused to cooperate with the IAEA no less than five times since 2002, according to the Arms Control Association. The sanctions imposed in 2010 and before against Iran have been direct responses to non-compliance with standards set by the IAEA inspectors or development in research and development, such as on December 3, 2006, when Resolution 1737 was adopted unanimously by the P5+1, imposing sanctions against Iran after they failed to suspend uranium enrichment. Given Iran’s poor track record of working with IAEA inspections, it is entirely plausible that the deal may fall through when it comes time to comply with the standards set by the agreement. Another element of the temptation to cheat comes in the form of Pakistan. With a proven thirst for nuclear capabilities, the only thing standing in the way of advancing the Iranian nuclear program is access to resources. In the past, Pakistan has cooperated with Iran in transferring nuclear development and research. Although the US has pressured Pakistan to not release details of its nuclear advances and tried to contain proliferation, Pakistan has not always been willing to play ball with the US, often using its leverage to its own advantage. This possible nuclear partnership between Iran and Pakistan is another consideration in deciding the fate of the deal.
Another scenario in which the deal would not go through involves the Ayatollah. As Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah has final say on all policy decisions, and it will be up to him to approve any nuclear deal. The Ayatollah has remained skeptical of reaching a deal, according to a New York Times article published on April 9th. The Ayatollah remains adamant that sanctions be lifted as soon as possible, but also emphasizes the fact that Iran will become a nuclear power. He also says that a stipulation of the agreement must prohibit inspectors from accessing Iran’s military sites. A rigid overseer, the Ayatollah may be the downfall of the nuclear agreement if he refuses to compromise on some aspects of the deal.
A final, and most important scenario in which the deal collapses, is as a result of Iran’s actions in the region, and in other aspects of US-Iranian relations. Currently, there are a number of factors which could potentially escalate into conflict with the US which are significant enough to outweigh diplomatic negotiations. One of these issues is American journalist Jason Rezaian. Rezaian is a reporter for the Washington Post who is jailed in Iran under charges of spying. An article by US News outlined Obama’s plea to keep working towards his release. If Iran continues to resist Rezaian’s release, it could result in heightened tensions between the US and Iran, affecting nuclear negotiations. A second source of pressure on the relationship comes from the Strait of Hormuz, where last week Iran seized at gunpoint a Maersk cargo ship in international waters. The US navy was immediately deployed to monitor the situation, and there is fear that any accidental escalation could result in the collapse of the multilateral talks. Finally, the US will continue to observe Iran’s hand in several countries, including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. If Iran continues to destabilize the situation in any of these conflicts, such as coming out in full support of the Houthis, or threatening the sovereignty of the Iraqi government, it could result in the breakdown of negotiations and expansion of regional tensions.
For the purposes of this essay, let’s assume that the nuclear deal collapses due to the first scenario, in which Iran fails to comply with the agreement after a deal is reached by June 30th. This essay will outline and explain one of the main scenarios that could unfold following the collapse of the nuclear deal. The scenario is as follows:
1. Some members of the P5+1 will attempt to put sanctions back on Iran, but China and Russia will resist. As a result, Iran’s economy will begin to heal.
2. The US will re-strengthen its relationships with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States.
3. Iran will continue developing its nuclear program, decreasing breakout time.
4. Israel, threatened by Iran’s nuclear program, will take military action against Iran’s nuclear sites. As a result, China and Russia will come to the aid of Iran in the wake of Israel’s attacks. In Israel, Iran would encourage Hezbollah to uprise against the Israeli government in retaliation for bombings targeting their nuclear plants.
5. Saudi Arabia will pursue its own nuclear program.
6. In Yemen, Iran would come out in full support of the Houthis in order to establish a stronghold in the region.
7. In Iraq, Iran and the US will cease any sort of reliance or cooperation they had developed in fighting ISIL, Iran will push its own agenda and influence in Iraq.
8. The Syrian Civil War would suffer from Iran’s blatant opposition to the US position on all fronts.
Although the sanctions currently imposed on Iran by the UN, Europe, and the US are set to be re-instated if Iran violates the nuclear agreement, both Russia and China have been showing signs of resistance to continuing the restrictions, whether or not the deal is reached. One of the conditions of the JCPOA is that “Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments.” Thus, if Iran does not comply with the details of the agreement, the sanctions against it are set to snap back into place. Two of Iran’s major trading powers, Russia and China, have shown resistance to economically penalizing Iran. China stands to gain from the relief of sanctions placed on Iran. According to an article in The Diplomat, Iran hopes to double its oil exports in the first two months after sanctions are lifted. Iran has a long past of exporting oil to China, having been the third-largest exporter before the sanctions took place in 2012. Currently, talks between Iranian oil officials and two Chinese state-owned oil companies are in process, with China National Petroleum Company and Sinopec promising $2 billion respectively to develop oil fields in Iran. China has a clear dependence on Iranian oil. This is clear is in their eagerness to being reimporting after a preliminary deal between the P5+1 and Iran was reached in 2013, with China’s oil imports from Iran increasing 48 percent from the same time the previous year. Given the significance of Iran’s oil exports to China, it is more than plausible to imagine that if the talks went South, China would not recommit to sanctions against Iran. In addition to China’s open support, Iran would also receive backing from Russia, a major investor in Iranian oil and a country which would gain from using the Iranian sanctions as a bargaining chip in its ongoing struggle against Western sanctions as a result of their actions in Ukraine. Russia and the US are experiencing a sort of second Cold War in the sense that influence in the Middle East is a battleground and of paramount importance for Russia and the US. Russia does not want the US to have so much influence in the region. Supporting Iran and breaking the snap-back clause of the agreement would ensure that Russia gain a foothold in the region, undercutting the US’ attempts to establish an alliance with a critical power in the Middle East. In essence, by entering these negotiations, the Iranians have ensured some form of economic support from either all or some of the P5+1, pending the result.
Another result of the Iranian nuclear negotiations failing to produce an agreement is the re-strengthening of the alliances between the US and Israel and Saudi Arabia. From the point of view of Israel and Saudi Arabia, the nuclear deal means two things: Iran’s economic standing will improve, and it will have the capability to get a nuclear weapon. Deeply threatened by these prospects, the relationship of these two countries with the US has become strained, with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to Congress recently about the threats of a nuclear Iran and going so far as to spy on the nuclear negotiations. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal.” This statement speaks to the degree to which the negotiations are breaching the special US-Israeli relationship. Reactions in Saudi Arabia have been similar, with Saudi Arabia stepping up in the region as a leader of the coalition against the Houthis in Yemen and continuing airstrikes. Saudi Arabia feels more confident than ever in taking an independent security role in the Middle East as it prepares to posture itself against the threat of a nuclear Iran and feels betrayed by the US. Saudi Arabia is placing more emphasis on security and intelligence than it has in a long time, recently changing the rules of succession to reflect these priorities. King Salman of Saudi Arabia redrew the countries’ line of succession on April 29th, appointing his nephew, a man with considerable counterterrorism experience, to be the next crown prince, and his son, the current defense minister, to serve as the next King. Riad Kahwaji, head of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said “this change positions [Saudi Arabia] toward leaders who feel that they are facing serious threats from Iran as well as from issues like terrorism. They feel they have no choice but to be more assertive with their foreign policy.” With the Iranian nuclear deal collapsing, the US would be able to shift its priorities to realign more closely with those of Israel and Saudi Arabia, thus alleviating some of the concerns shared by these two adversarial, albeit bizarrely affiliated countries. The US would move in to protect their allies in the region from any possibility of a nuclear fallout between them and Iran.
The current positions of Israel and Saudi Arabia reflect shared concerns about the future of Iran’s nuclear program whether or not the deal comes through. However, there is a lot more to be lost if the nuclear deal does not come to pass. Failure to reach an agreement could lead to a nuclear arms race in the region. Other regional countries would seek to counterbalance Iran’s nuclear power. While one scenario has Iran self-limiting its nuclear capabilities if the deal doesn’t work because it is aware of the repercussions of furthering nuclear development, under another scenario Iran would continue its path towards building weapons. This is entirely plausible given Iran’s 20-year history of trying to develop its nuclear capabilities. And although Iran might be well aware of the extreme consequences it would face with the continuation of the program, it would also be aware of the support from Russia and China, assuming they do not reinstate their sanctions. In this scenario, both countries are free to, and would in fact benefit from supporting Iran in its nuclear endeavors. This move would certainly be somewhat self-destructive, but the covert continuation of nuclear development under the agreement in the first place was essentially tantamount to the same disregard for consequences. Essentially, Iran set down the path for nuclear capabilities the moment it breached the agreement, so the continuation of the development would be an entirely logical next step for Iran in post-nuclear deal collapse.
The ramifications of Iran continuing to develop its nuclear program would be significant. This would pose an enormous threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the gulf countries. Iran would not only become a nuclear power, but also have the economic and rhetorical support of Russia and China. Such a threat would almost certainly result in Israel and Saudi Arabia bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. This would come with the support of the US, aware of the great threat posed by Iran. A nuclear Iran would be a worst-case scenario for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US. Israeli bombings would prompt an immediate, severe response from Iran, who would begin a counter-campaign, triggering Hezbollah’s involvement. An organized counter attack from Hezbollah, with the support of Russia and China, would be catastrophic, resulting in untold casualties and violence in the region. Saudi Arabia would also contribute to any campaign against Iran, given its recent positioning as a more independent security leader in the Middle East. With Saudi Arabia would also come the support of the Gulf States. This would force the hand of the US to get involved as it is committed to protecting both Israel, given its special relationship, and the Gulf States, given their influence and resources. With the US coming in on the side of Israel and the Gulf States and Russia and China coming in on the side of Iran, the conflict could escalate to dangerous proportions, becoming a proxy war for the three great powers, who currently maintain a delicate relationship with different values, political systems, interests, traditions, interpretation of international law, degrees of development and demographics. Currently, at best the US’s relationship with China and Russia is tainted by mutual mistrust. At worst, their exchanges are inequitable, with one party is always trying to get the most with the least. Either way, if the Iran nuclear deal were to fall through, with military action taken by Israel and the Gulf States against Iran’s nuclear sites, things would almost certainly come to blows between Russia, China, the US, and Europe.
In addition to things getting militant between Iran and Israel/the Gulf States, there would be other consequences of the deal failing to work. Namely, this could result in Saudi Arabia developing its own nuclear program. Saudi Arabia’s insecurity with Iran’s nuclear program is clear, with King Salman’s recent reshuffle of the line of succession. Were Iran to continue developing nuclear capabilities, it is more than conceivable that Saudi Arabia would seek out its own uranium enrichment abilities. The Saudi Ambassador to the UK recently said “We are not going to sit idly by and receive a threat there and not think seriously how we can best defend our country and our region.” Saudi Arabia certainly has the means to develop nuclear potential, having backed and partially funded Pakistan’s nuclear program in 1998. This possible arms race in the Middle East is to be avoided at all costs, but is certainly a possible reality if the Iranian nuclear deal does not work out.
The nuclear deal is not the only arena in which the US and Iran are linked. In fact, the fate of this deal is tied to many other areas of US-Iranian confrontation, including Yemen. Currently, the US is resisting involvement in Yemen, while it continues to support the Gulf States’ air campaign. However, its position is clear: the US aims to rid Yemen of the Houthis, and reestablish the president, currently seeking refuge in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Hadi. Yemen is strategically important for the US, which had a large intelligence presence in Yemen before the conflict escalated. Iran also has a stake in the conflict in Yemen. However, their interests in the region are currently veiled, with reports estimating that their current involvement, in support of the Houthis, is through backchannels, as opposed to overt support. The fate of the nuclear deal could change all of this. Were the US and Iran to sever any semblance of diplomatic ties currently in place because of the nuclear talks, there would be no incentive for Iran to hide its motivations in Yemen. In fact, Iran would stand to gain from openly endorsing the Houthis. Yemen, currently in conflict, and anyone’s game, can be seen as Iran’s for the taking. If Iran pledges their support for the Houthis, getting involved militarily, they may establish a stronghold in the country. With the collapse of the nuclear deal, Iran will fully endorse the Houthis, hoping to spread their regional influence and power into Yemen. Whether or not their attempts to claim Yemen as their own realm of influence will be successful remain to be seen, but one thing is certain: Iran will have no reservations about asserting itself militarily, resulting in some sever consequences for Yemen and the military efforts of the Gulf States to eradicate the Houthis.
A second, most critical regional ongoing conflict which would be affected by the Iranian nuclear deal collapsing would be the involvement of the US and Iran in the ongoing fight against ISIL in Iraq. Currently, Iran and the US are unofficially collaborating in their operations, with the New York Times saying that the US is increasingly relying on the Iranian offensive in Iraq to hold the line against ISIL and train Iraq’s severely underperforming troops. Vali R. Nasr, a former special adviser of Obama, told the New York Times that “The only way in which the Obama administration can credibly stick with its strategy is by implicitly assuming that the Iranians will carry most of the weight and win the battles on the ground. You can’t have your cake and eat it too — the U.S. strategy in Iraq has been successful so far largely because of Iran.” However, given this tacit reliance, the US stands to lose quite a bit of influence in Iraq if Iran fails to comply with the nuclear deal. Although Iran and the US will both continue their fight against ISIL in Iraq, the troops will almost certainly cease any cooperation, resulting in a three part conflict instead of a coordinated strategy to eliminate ISIL. Iraq would continue to assert its dominance in Iraq and pursue its own agenda. This assertion of leadership in Iraq would be manifested by increased support of the Iraqi government and military involvement with their troops. If Iran were to gain greater influence with the Iraqi government and use its leveraging power to push its own agenda for the Shi’a’s, it would perpetuate extreme instability in Iraq, enflaming the wrath of the Kurds and ISIL, both of whom would be greatly opposed to Iran gaining increased influence in the country. Iraq is increasingly a place of uncertainty regarding the repercussions of the nuclear talks failing to produce a result, but it is clear that whatever the outcome, there would be a split between the US and Iran in their fight against ISIL.
A final situation to consider is the impact of a failed nuclear deal in Syria. Iran is a major supporter of the Assad regime, and has a large amount of bargaining power with the country’s political leadership. Many world leaders have recently been linking the conflict in Syria with the nuclear talks in Iran, insinuating that a favorable outcome between the US and Iran could lead to a new path towards peace in Syria. The EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, suggested last week that a nuclear agreement could play “a major but positive role in Syria.” Conversely, however, were the deal to fail, Iran’s influence in Syria could prove to be a catastrophe for efforts to quell the civil war. If the US and Iran have no diplomatic relations, there would be no coordination or incentive on the part of Iran to stop supporting Syria’s regime or initiate compromise or cooperation. The fate of the talks are they key to much more than simply limiting Iran’s nuclear capability, as evidenced by the possible consequences in Syria if Iran has no reason to be tactful with the US’s geopolitical goals.
Assessing the situations in which the US and Iran are engaged outside of the nuclear talks, such as Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, as well as considering the immediate areas of impact, such as Israel and the Gulf States’ military reactions, it becomes clear that more hangs in the balance with this deal than perhaps many realize. While what is outlined here is the 2–3 year outlook on the region if the talks do not produce an agreement, there is much more to be analyzed considering the long-term future of the region and US relations with Iran if this deal does not produce limitations for Iran’s nuclear programs. This is a significant diplomatic priority, with extraordinarily high stakes at play. Countries are competing for influence in the region like never before. If the deal falls through, we can expect to see a nuclear arms race, escalated conflict in Syria and Yemen, the spread of Iranian influence in Iraq, and possible military involvement of Russia and China to protect Iran from Israel. Of course, there is always the possibility that the status quo will remain, with sanctions snapped back into place, enforced by all members of the P5+1. In this scenario, things would continue the way they currently are between Iran and the US. There would be no inspections by the IAEA. Iran would be to continue uranium enrichment, research, and development. In this scenario, economic sanctions would continue to take their toll, and middle class anger would grow as the widening gap between the masses and the elite becomes more and more apparent. Recent events in Iran, such as the fatal crash of two nouveau-riche youths in a Porsche, have revealed an elite class who has benefitted from Iran’s oil exports, have stirred dissent within Iran’s middle classes. In this scenario, the main consequences of the failed negotiations would be domestic for Iran, and outwardly, the status quo would continue. However, regardless of which scenario takes place following the collapse of the nuclear deal, we can be sure that it would perpetuate extreme instability in the region.