The Trump policy toward the Middle East is coming into focus, albeit slowly. Unlike the previous administration, Trump’s aim is to roll-back Iranian regional advancements while assuring his local allies that Tehran is strictly and assiduously adhering to the nuclear deal (the JCPOA). This is a far cry from the Trump position just nine months ago. It was during the election campaign that Trump said that he would tear up the JCPOA, defeat ISIS, but would definitely not get involved in the protracted civil war in Syria. So much for campaign promises.
Trump has since realized that defeating ISIS, without a long-term presence on the ground (the Obama approach) would create a vacuum. In all likelihood, such a vacuum would be filled by Iran, Assad, and other Shiite proxy militias. In such a scenario the Sunni question would remain unanswered, and the prospect of another rising of an ISIS-like extreme Sunni militia would become almost inevitable. As far as the nuclear deal is concerned, a potential US-Iran military engagement in Syria or Iraq could easily render the JCPOA null and void. This would ratchet up an already tense situation, turning it into something exponentially far more dangerous. In other words, there are serious negative consequences to both regional disengagement (the Obama approach) and the engagement of the new Trump administration.
The EU views Trump’s Iran policy through the prism of its meek Obama counterpart. Engagement by the Europeans means extended talk and lucrative commercial activity. Brussels anticipates that, by advancing the Iranian economy, the moderate forces within Iran will continue to make political headway. The EU believes that economics alone could ultimately change the nature of the regime’s regional behavior. The EU is setting itself up to play good cop, to the Trump administration’s bad cop. Such a combined US-EU strategy (either done separately or with coordination)) is ultimately contradictory because it views Iranian behavior in the Middle East outside of its strategic context. Most importantly, any policy toward Iran and the Syrian civil war is destined to fail (either through stalemate or escalation) without a vital third component — Russian support for a Geneva 2012 political endgame in Syria.
The Russians are in the Middle East to create a kind of managed instability. The Syrian civil war has caused millions of refugees to flee toward Europe. This has created a negative political reality for the future of long-established European elites in both NATO and the EU. This, of course, is to the Kremlin’s liking. Like Iran, Moscow views its current strategic predicament as untenable. NATO expansion is to the Russians as regional encirclement is to Tehran. Both countries have experienced invasion from powerful western neighbors, and they both require an alternative regional security architecture to their present situation. The difference is that where Russia can be solidly pragmatic, Iran is a revolutionary regime with two faces — the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, with the current Supreme Leader (hardline) and the more moderate voice of the people (the office of the president).
The EU foreign policy establishment (formally called the European External Action Service) recently sent its top Middle East official to Washington in order to gather a sense of Trump administration policy toward the region. He suggested that a potential key to the future of the region would be a blueprint for a regional security architecture including Iran. He gave no hint as to what this hypothetical structure might look like (see my own 14-point regional Zone of Peace, “Germany, Israel and World Peace”, Times of Israel, May 26, 2017). But the official, Mr. Nick Westcott, strongly suggested that it is an essential concept in the creation of a stable regional order. I agree. But what will the structure look like? How will it be enforced? And how do we get there?
First and foremost, an equitable regional security structure cannot be a simple appendage to an already existing out-of-region, unipolar-hegemonic design. In the end, outside forces must leave the Middle East. In other words, I envision such a structure as a world project designed within a multi-polar global framework that insures the viability of all states within the region. This world project will be a partnership of China, Russia, India, and the US as its main guarantors. Later, an alternative European security structure — integrating many nations within an all-European air component — could also become a guarantor through French and UK permanent membership on the UN Security Council.
Secondly, the European security situation as it is now structured, is indeed globally destabilizing and therefore makes any Middle East blueprint untenable. The future of Europe and the Middle East are linked a very dramatic way. The prospect of hegemony in Europe (NATO expansion) or the reinstitution of a Russian sphere of influence (the absence of NATO without a serious Russian adjustment eastward) will mean the continence of US-Russia instability in both Europe and the Middle East.
Thirdly, the JCPOA is not a document meant as a permanent inhibitor of nuclear non-proliferation within the region. Both Pakistan and Israel have nuclear arsenals. These arsenals were both conceived as defensive deterrents from objective negative strategic conventional alignments. However they have created a regional momentum toward nuclear proliferation. The upgrading of the global status of India — as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and guarantor of a new Middle East security structure — could become an important first step to alter the India-Pakistan standoff. Of course, this must be accomplished in conjunction with a firm global commitment to address the demilitarization of an independent Kashmir state along with the reconfiguration of the China-India-Pakistan conventional military border alignments (including India’s role in Afghanistan). Altogether, this might convince Pakistan of the seriousness of India’s and China’s commitments to peace. Under such circumstances, Pakistan might realize the vital security benefit of its participation within a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone.
Finally, Israel’s membership in a new security architecture will require the elimination of its nuclear arsenal. However, the world continues to insist that Israel returns to a nine-mile-wide armistice line at the very center of its Jewish population. The so-called two-state solution, heralded for over a generation as the only answer, can never happen within the context of such a conventional inferiority without redress to a nuclear component. Therefore a new Israeli-Palestinian peace paradigm would be the necessary adjunct to a permanent regional alternative security structure in a non-nuclear Middle East.
The world is at an ecological, economic and geopolitical crossroads. This is hardly the time for historically old thinking. I congratulate the EU for exploring the concept of a new regional architecture for the Middle East. But in order to make this project real, it will require a whole new way of thinking about international relations. Multilateral Western hegemony, spheres of interest, reality theory, and simple “good cop/bad cop” projections are definitely not the answers to our present instability.
For the Middle East to change, world politics and international relations need a dramatic change. A Russia-US partnership within a global multi-polar configuration and the dramatic reduction of troop levels in both Germany and all of eastern Europe (to the Urals) could be the initial answer. Without an alternative to the current NATO-Russia division of Europe, the Middle East will continue to be used as a zone of competition for the superpowers. We have only our human civilization to lose (sic). We must choose peacefully, morally and wisely. We have free will, and we simply cannot afford another world war in this age of weapons of mass destruction. G-d is watching.