The eight year appeasement of Iran by the Obama-led Democratic Party has meant the expansion of Tehran’s power across the Arab world. From the Iran-Iraq border to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, Shiite affiliated terrorist groups and militias have been organized to oppose Sunni Arabs. Across three failed states and a shaky Lebanon, wars rage for dominance in the Middle East.
On Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, over 100,000 missiles are pointed at the Jewish state and under the control of a non-state actor (Hezbollah) linked directly to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Now Iran and Russia have tilted the civil war in Syria toward what’s left of the Assad regime. Iran’s aim is to achieve a second front against Israel on the Golan Heights, while pressuring a Western-leaning Jordan from military positions further eastward. But what is Russia’s aim? Is it the same as the hegemonic designs of Iranian regional power, or is it something far different?
The Trump administration wants to improve relations with Moscow. But at what price? The Kremlin under Vladimir Putin has completely changed its orientation since 2014, when a pro-EU coup in the Ukraine toppled a government far more favorable to Russia. Moscow fears the encroachment of NATO up to its very borders, and it assesses any neighboring state that chooses such an independent pathway — i.e. tilting westward toward the Western alliance — to be an unbearable risk. Moscow’s Eastern European red-line is against the mere perception of the expansion of the NATO Alliance into its near-abroad. The events in both the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine attest to the Kremlin’s determination.
The new Republican administration in Washington sees all forms of radical Islamic jihad to be antithetical to US national interests. Unlike Russia, President Trump views Islamic Iran through the same lens. Israel, Turkey and America’s traditional Arab state allies — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf monarchies — fear Iran’s potential for regional hegemony. But President Putin of Russia has linked with Iran in the Middle East as a form of leverage against his greatest fear, the expansion of NATO. Hence, for there to be any meeting of minds between the US and Russia with regard to Iran’s current position in the Middle East, there must be a corresponding understanding as to the future of Russia’s near-abroad.
To defuse the Russian-Iranian axis will not be easy. First, Russia wants to remain in Syria as a lever against an American alternative leadership which perceives the Kremlin as an aggressor government hell-bent on reestablishing its dominant position within Eastern Europe. In fact, this perception holds sway as the majority opinion in both Congress and even within Trump’s own political party and cabinet. Second, even though NATO has been an historic US-led organization, it must take the opinion of all its member states into serious account. Any potential deal that does not roll back both Russia’s perception of NATO and also NATO’s member-state perception of Russia’s intentions will simply not work. A power vacuum in Eastern Europe caused German expansion in the lead-up to WWII. A future 21st century power vacuum across Europe will once again destabilize the continent.
Finally, there are similar perception problems with regard to Iran’s involvement in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iran has felt totally isolated since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The Iranians lost a million people in that war. Simply put, no one came to their aid, and the Iranians felt as if the entire Sunni world had a US blessing for Iraq’s naked aggression. Iran also feels surrounded by nuclear power states — Russia, Pakistan and Israel. Iran, like other states in modern history, feels the existential necessity to expand its strategic depth and nuclear capacity. This same angst was true for Russia in the aftermath of WWII. It was true for Israel after being threatened by nuclear attack from the Soviet Union during the 1956 Suez campaign. It is true for many countries suffering from a lack of strategic depth (again Israel as prime example). And it was especially true of Pakistan’s conventional and nuclear limitations with India before it attained a large nuclear deterrent.
Any potential “Grand Bargain” between Trump and Putin must be perceived as strategically fair and balanced by all parties involved. This does not just include the US and Russia. All the countries on the Russian periphery and beyond must feel protected from Russia; simultaneously, Russia must feel protected from NATO. This might just be an impossible task given the current European geopolitical architecture, i.e. NATO itself.
The same is true in the Middle East. Without a vast change in the present nuclear paradigm, Iran will be highly motivated and probably capable of constructing a series of nuclear weapons within the next decade or two. However, even if the JCPOA (Iran’s nuclear deal) does hold, its historic isolation will continue to be Iran’s existential perception. The fact that a hostile foreign navy (US Fifth Fleet) sits on its very doorstep and it is surrounded by nuclear power states, as well as its anti-Israeli ideology, forces it toward regional expansion.
In Europe, for diplomacy to work, deep cuts in conventional offensive arms capabilities must stretch across the entire continent. This will mean a US-Russian trade off between American troops and arms on the continent and Russian European forces withdrawn to Central Asia and the Urals. In other words, a very loose military relationship between Washington and all the countries of Europe (including Russia). From Paris to Moscow, ground capacity must be limited. Meanwhile air and sea force projection should become integrated into an all-European defense initiative. Only in this way can everyone within Europe feel protected, and potential aggressors ultimately deterred. In other words, a Zone of Peace for Europe established, but such a zone that is defensive in orientation and not completely demilitarized.
In the Middle East, nuclear proliferation must be avoided as the region’s number one priority. However, the current conventional arms situation is also untenable and worsening by the month. Both Russia and the US must be coordinated in their end-game diplomacy to ensure that the region’s imbalances — both conventional and nuclear — will be resolved. In other words, for progress to be achieved in the Middle East, Russian and American coordination — including on what comes after the JCPOA, the future of Syria and Iraq, the dismantling of all non-state actors, and the eventual withdrawal of all foreign troops from the region — must be thorough and balanced.
From my point of view, the current situation in Europe is unsustainable. NATO expansion eastward has been perceived by Russia as a hostile act. But without NATO’s security umbrella, who would have protected central and eastern Europe from a security vacuum leading to either Russian or German expansion? Russia and the US are now careening toward a confrontation. The trigger will be the inability of the American establishment (the Congress and the “deep state”) to understand the very obsolescence of the NATO Alliance. However if Donald J. Trump attempts to negotiate a friendly (yet weak) deal with the Kremlin, he will alienate all his other NATO allies and risk a deep European vacuum. Such a “sweetheart deal” by Trump with Putin would also risk political support from his own Republican Party. In such partisan political times in the US, this would be very risky indeed.
On the other hand, Russia will never alter its leverage in Syria, and by proxy with Iran, unless it can achieve a huge NATO pullback from Eastern Europe. Are these the last days of the NATO Alliance? Time will tell. But without a deep US-Russian commitment to alter the current unworkable international order, there remains the possible outcome of war. This has been especially true since the start of the Ukraine crisis in 2014. Only a new security paradigm for Europe, and linked to the Middle East through negotiation, could sever the budding Russian-Iranian alliance in the Levant. This would entail interlocking Zones of Peace in Europe and the Middle East.
I have written extensively about a Middle East Zone of Peace in this blog over the last three-and-a-half years. These two projects can and must be achieved in order to avoid multi-regional chaos. In this sense, the whole world needs to be linked under a global peace paradigm that is both realistic and necessary. The advancement of true world peace must become the essential mission to avoid a potential nuclear geopolitical crisis. The end of NATO and the beginning of a new peace paradigm for Europe and the Middle East have now become global necessities.