President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry attempted to compartmentalize the Iran nuclear deal from the Middle East region as a whole. The removal of sanctions directed at Iranian support for terrorism was not a part of the nuclear deal. Neither were strict regulations related to bank money laundering in conjunction with Iran’s support for Hezbollah, Hamas and other such organizations. In the final analysis, compartmentalization was indeed a two-way street. The sanctions of the nuclear deal were separate from the sanctions involving Iranian attempts at regional hegemony.
Hence, these regional sanctions and regulations remain in place. At the same time, the financial rewards that Iran expected to receive from the nuclear deal have not lived up to the Islamic Republic’s expectations. All along, many critics of the deal (myself included) suggested that to separate Iranian regional behavior from an attempt to restrict its nuclear program would eventually become a self-defeating proposition.
Iran must have thought that all sanctions and regulations would be lifted once Obama and Kerry signed on to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But that was not to be the case. Banks and corporations around the world have showed reluctance to have financial dealings with Iran. At least not until all “behavior-related barriers” to trade have been lifted. But Iran’s behavior has only worsened since the signing of the JCPOA. Iran views a Sunni victory in Syria as a direct existential assault on Iran itself. In the Iranian view, an Arab Sunni state in Syria could mean the end of Iran’s air-bridge access to Damascus and southern Lebanon. Furthermore, such a Sunni Arab state in Syria would be feared in Tehran as a potential destabilizing entity with respect to the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq.
Without an alternative vision for the region as a whole, and without an eventual absence of US presence in the Persian Gulf, Iran’s commitment to Assad will remain rock solid. In order to end the Syrian civil war, Iran will still probably have to be pressured; simultaneously, Iran must also be offered a reasonable exit-ramp with regard to a sustainable and permanent balance of power in the Middle East. But such a vision is not achievable without a huge change in superpower geopolitical coordination.
However, along the new NATO-Russian division of Europe, a second Cold War has begun. William “Bill” Perry, a former US Secretary of Defense (under President Clinton, 1994-1997) has recently described the current European situation as being more dangerous than during the height of the old Cold War. Secretary Perry believes (as I do) that the expansion of NATO eastward was done without rhyme or reason. In the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union, instead of integrating Russia into a coherent European security architecture, the opposite tack was taken. Russia was isolated –albeit with a mere fig-leaf of NATO-Russian cooperation — and essentially humiliated.
But the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has been extremely successful as a geopolitical tactician. He has also utilized a lexicon of nuclear bravado in accompaniment with these tactical achievements. In response to a potential expansion of NATO in Georgia (on Russia’s southern periphery), Putin invaded two provinces in the north of that country (2008). In response to an illegal US-EU coup in the Ukraine, Putin used unorthodox methods to occupy and then annex the Crimea. He used a similar methodology in the eastern regions of the Ukraine. However instead of annexation, the Russian president chose to freeze the east Ukrainian conflict in an attempt to sow divisions within the NATO Alliance.
Next, Putin used Obama’s hesitancy to become involved in the Syrian civil war (because of US compartmentalization of the Iranian nuclear negotiations) for Russian forces to enter into the war on the side of the Syrian government. This action tilted the war in favor of Iran and other Assad loyalists. The action also drove a wedge between the US and its allies within the Middle East — Israel included. But can Russia be truly serious with regard to an eventual Iranian-Assad triumph over all of Syria’s rebels? Such an action, even if achievable, would severely alienate Turkey, Israel, Egypt and all the Sunni oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf.
So where exactly does Russia want to go with all its tactical successes? Like Iran, Russia is isolated and its economy has been hurt by low oil prices and sanctions. Also, saber-rattling and nuclear bravado are extremely risky propositions. And Russia’s support for Iran is also not without its risks. Tehran threatens to pull out of the JCPOA if all sanctions aren’t completely lifted. But such an action would set the nuclear clock ticking from a decade to a matter of mere weeks. This could place Russia and the US on a collision course.
But a continued policy of mutual aggressiveness by NATO and Russia within Europe is an equal recipe for danger and war. While in both Russia and Iran, sanctions leading to economic failure could cause political regression and backlash. And time is not on the side of either country, especially when it comes to economic performance. Both sanctioned countries have more extreme nationalist elements, urging even more conflictual policy actions.
Israel, Turkey and the Sunni Arab states have their myriad contradictions as well. Without a regional approach to a permanent structural balance, the budding rapprochement between Israel, Egypt and Turkey seems doomed toward a fragile superficiality. The same is true with regard to each country’s relations to Russia and the crucial effect Moscow has on Syrian affairs. Unless the tactical swings in recent Israeli, Egyptian and Turkish foreign policy add up to some kind of regional strategic vision, they will probably mount to nothing more than a kind of “sound and fury”, signifying very little.
Israel wants to deflect US, EU or UN parameters for a Palestinian state with the 1967 frontiers as permanent borders. Direct negotiations without preconditions is the priority that the Netanyahu government hopes to achieve. But can an Egyptian initiative deliver? Were Bibi’s Ethiopian trip or Israeli drones over the Sinai enough leverage to pressure Cairo to force Abbas to negotiate without preconditions? Already the Palestinian president has asked his Egyptian counterpart for the essential definition as to the exact nature of an Egyptian-sponsored peace conference. The Palestinians define “peace” in terms of the 1949 armistice lines. Where do the Saudis come down on such a definition? Or the Turks? Or the Jordanians? And what possible Israeli initiative could persuade them to adopt Jerusalem’s terms for negotiations with the Palestinians?
Meanwhile, when will the Turks and Egyptians finally come to terms with the events in Cairo of 2013? And how will the recent Turkish-Israeli rapprochement and its involvement with Hamas in Gaza affect the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood? Could there be an eventual Hamas moderation toward Israel under a Turkish leadership role? And could such a development lead to Palestinian elections and direct negotiations with Israel? The answer to all these contradictory questions remains an emphatic NO! That is — not without an extraordinary Grand Bargain for the region. A Grand Bargain would involve a permanent balance of power and the removal of all the region’s weapons of mass destruction.
However, such a scheme is impossible without a Russian-Turkish understanding on the future of NATO. There are currently NATO nuclear weapons on Turkish soil. But for there to be a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, these weapons would need to be removed. Within NATO, these tactical nuclear weapons are needed by the Turks to deter Russia. But for there to be an historic Grand Bargain in the Middle East, Turkey would have to become a member of any prospective nuclear-weapons-free zone. Without Turkish involvement — as a conventional bulwark against Iranian regional hegemonic designs — neither Israel nor the Sunni Arab states would ever agree to such a concept. What would be the point? A country with Turkey’s military size must be strictly integrated into the rules of some type of permanent Middle East structure. Also for a nuclear-weapons-free zone to eventually be successful, Russia would have to be induced to alter (in total) its current strategic relationship with Iran and Assad in Syria.
But what would be the Russian incentive? For there to be a Grand Bargain in the Middle East, there must be one in Europe as well. All the countries of NATO (excluding Turkey, which will become a part of a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone) would need to embrace the concept of a unified European military (from the Urals to the Atlantic). It is only with such a European unification that Turkey, as a member of the Middle East zone, would feel protected from its powerful Russian neighbor to the north. The same fear holds true for Poland, the Baltic states and others in eastern and central Europe.
Also within such a unified European command structure, Russia itself would be able to envision a Europe without an Atlantic or Teutonic power on its doorstep. Yet Russia could still have its own forces situated east of the Urals to protect itself from any invasion originating from the east. Finally, through military unification, the rest of Europe could escape the instability, expansionism and war that has permanently scarred Christian and Western civilization.
Time is running out! The multiple contradictions of both Europe and the Middle East have now led the world to a second Cold War. This second war is even more dangerous than the first. In Europe, Russia cannot be backed into a corner without hair-trigger ramifications. But such ramifications divide the NATO Alliance west against east. Multiple European political parties advocate a populist and xenophobic ethic that further divides the continent. Meanwhile, sanctions against Russia only worsen its sense of isolation.
In Syria, the nexus of death, war and refugees once again threatens to spill northward. Sunni extremism and terrorism have run rampant in France and Belgium and need to be rolled back. ISIS and al-Nusra must be defeated, but not at the expense of Israel and the Sunni Arab states under siege from Iran and Hezbollah. Syrian casualties now number a half-million and counting. The entire region has become a proxy zone for a regional and superpower confrontation. Israel, Egypt and Turkey seek a vision forward in order to counter Iran, but not to emasculate it. However, as the contradictions mount, the antagonism emanating from Tehran continues unabated.
The future direction of the Middle East remains shrouded in paranoia, conventional thinking and tactical maneuver. The nuclear clock now reads ten minutes to midnight. But at any moment, Iran’s ultra-conservative Supreme Leader might just alter the minute hand forward. It seems that Ali Khamenei also doesn’t understand Obama’s neat compartmentalization concept.
President Obama’s legacy (as he conceives it) is the JCPOA. But world politics and its myriad contradictions are much greater than he ever imagined. His strategy of separating the Iranian nuclear file from the regime’s conventional behavior was doomed from the beginning. Iran’s role within the region has never been taken seriously by Obama, because of the large US naval presence within the Persian Gulf. But for the actual nations of the region, the JCPOA does not suffice as a deterrent for Iranian expansion. Neither does a large US naval presence. What good are all those American ships if Iran is allowed to expand from Baghdad to Beirut?
Finally, the JCPOA is meant only to account for a mere decade before Iran will be allowed to legally enrich a limitless supply of nuclear fuel. This makes it a very flimsy document; especially when Obama promised his Israeli and Sunni Arab allies recourse from conventional Iranian aggression. But how can such recourse take place without endangering the very essence of the nuclear pact itself? Perhaps the greatest contradiction of the JCPOA will be its inability to sustain itself over time. It could be scuttled at any moment, and held ransom to Iranian blackmail. Washington and Moscow need to take notice. As the contradictions mount, time is running out!