Nuclear deal with Iran will only further destabilize region
U.S. allies in the gulf region are right to be concerned about an empowered and unfettered Iran after the nuclear deal. Additionally, there are concerns that the growing U.S.-Iranian rapproachment will further destabilize the Middle East.
In a bid to prop up its valued allies in Syria, Iran has dispatched 6,000 to 8,000 Hezbollah fighters to fend off the Sunni militants seeking to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime. The war has taken its toll on Hezbollah, as body bags draped in the group's yellow flags continue to stream back from the front. An estimated 1,000 Hezbollahis have fallen since the group first began fighting there in 2013.
The Iran deal may soon give Hezbollah an exit strategy. Tehran is set to receive upwards of $100-$150 billion in cash (frozen funds plus funds released from escrow accounts holding oil proceeds that were only to be spent on approved foreign goods). Even more is coming to Iran in the form of increased oil, petrochemical, auto and gold revenues. The Assad regime could become a major beneficiary. This means that the regime could soon have more cash to pay its fighters and to buy more weapons to target the Sunni rebels waging war against it.
In that event, Hezbollah's services may no longer be in demand and the group could redeploy its troops fighting in Syria. How long that takes depends on how quickly Iranian cash and weapons help the Assad regime consolidate. But once its fighters are safely home, Hezbollah will soon benefit from the same Iranian sanctions relief windfall. As Iran's most important non-state proxy, Hezbollah stands to gain considerably -- from advanced weaponry to cash and training.
But even without a withdrawal from Syria, Hezbollah's battle-hardened fighters may not be content with quiet on their southern front. The group's rhetoric certainly has not mellowed; Hezbollah has been bruising for a fight with Israel since the guns fell silent from the last encounter in 2006. More importantly, Hezbollah views the nuclear deal (like the rest of the region) as a sign that its patron Iran is a burgeoning regional power, and that the military advantage is shifting away from Israel in the Middle East. It may not take long before the first provocation on the border.
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The inevitable increase in Iranian conventional resources and capabilities that follows the JCPOA can damage American interests in three ways. First, if Iran devotes even some of its gains from the agreements to its regional allies and hegemonic goals, it could create a major crisis in the region that would require massive American intervention to avoid the danger of having one country dominate the oil wealth of the entire Gulf. Some countries would be endangered directly by subversion or conflict; others, increasingly surrounded by Iranian clients and allies, would feel the need to align their foreign policy and their oil production and pricing strategies with Iran. The United States could be faced with a triumphalist Iranian regime that would be able to manipulate world oil prices and supplies. It would be extremely difficult for future presidents to create effective coalitions to limit or balance Iran under these circumstances.
Second, fear of Iran can drive American allies and other actors in the region to actions that destabilize the region or run counter to American interests. Concerns about potential proliferation among other regional countries who want to balance the Iranian nuclear program are one example of the potential ‘blowback’ from the JCPOA. But there are others. Saudi Arabia and other oil producing Gulf states could for example ‘circle the wagons’ among Sunni states, tightening their links with military and intelligence services in countries like Egypt and Pakistan in ways that undercut important American goals. Many Gulf countries will see the expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear capacity and growth in the quality and quantity of its arsenal of delivery systems as an important deterrent and counter to Iran. This could only intensify the arms race in South Asia and increase the chances of conflict between India and Pakistan. It will also likely lead to more resources and power going to figures in the military and nuclear establishment who share radical ideologies uncomfortably close to those of Al Qaeda and other dangerous groups. Bringing Pakistan more fully into Middle East politics would be a natural and obvious move for oil rich Sunni states alarmed by a rising Iran.
More broadly, fear of a rising Iran increases the incentives for rich individuals and states to deepen their links with fanatical organizations and fighters. Fanatical anti‐ Shi’a fighters may, from an American standpoint, be terrorists who are as antiwestern as they are anti‐Iran. If Iran’s regional power is seen as rising, however, many in the Sunni world will be tempted to support these organizations as indispensible allies in the fight against Iran.
Finally, the perception, plausible to some however incorrect, that Iran now has tacit American support in its quest for regional hegemony will act as a powerful recruiting incentive for radical pro‐Sunni jihadi groups throughout the Sunni world. Sectarian conflicts feed on apocalyptic fears; the perception that Shi’a ‘heretics’ are threatening the Islamic heartland and holy cities in the Arabian Peninsula will make it significantly easier for radicals to recruit new fighters – and to raise the money to employ, train and arm them.
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Many of those supporting the JCPOA argue that the alternative to the agreement is an American war with Iran. Ironically, in order to balance the regional consequences of the agreement, the United States may well need to assume an increased risk of war in Syria and other frontline states.
One of the reasons that the period leading up to the JCPOA has been so volatile in the Middle East is that many regional observers have concluded that American policy in the region is based on an American acceptance of Iranian hegemony on the ground. For the conspiracy minded, and their number is legion, this goes back to the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and then to turn the country over to its Shi’a majority. From an American point of view, whatever one thought of the war itself, the establishment of majority rule represented the triumph of our beliefs in democracy; many in the Middle East viewed it as a deliberate choice by the United States to promote Iran and to check Sunni power. Suspicion intensified when the United States then, despite talk about ‘red lines’ and statements that Assad ‘must go’ remained inactive in Syria as casualties and the refugee toll mounted. Where the majority is Shi’a, many said, the United States supports majority rule. Where the majority is Sunni, the United States does nothing.
That perception has become destabilizing in a region where escalating sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’a increasingly dominates the agenda; endorsing the JCPOA without also making major changes in American regional policy would confirm that perception and further drive the region in the direction of radical polarization, religious war, and transnational conflict.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab states express wariness of a possible nuclear deal with Iran for several reasons. Most obviously, they note that Iran will be left with significant capabilities to enrich uranium—capabilities that could be mobilized to produce nuclear weapons in violation of the proposed agreement and the NPT. These states also worry that a nuclear agreement would ease the way for normalization of relations between the United States and Iran. In that event, they worry that the preference the United States has given to their interests over Iran’s since 1979 could be reversed.
Given Iran’s overall economic and strategic advantages relative to the Gulf Cooperation Council states, these countries see U.S.-Iranian rapprochement as a threat. They will press the United States to exert itself against Iran in other domains of policy, particularly counterterrorism and the Sunni-Shia contests in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. They will work with the United States and France, especially, to deploy intelligence and military capabilities to counter Iran.
Absent the linkage between nuclear and political restraint, America’s traditional allies will conclude that the U.S. has traded temporary nuclear cooperation for acquiescence to Iranian hegemony. They will increasingly look to create their own nuclear balances and, if necessary, call in other powers to sustain their integrity. Does America still hope to arrest the region’s trends toward sectarian upheaval, state collapse and the disequilibrium of power tilting toward Tehran, or do we now accept this as an irremediable aspect of the regional balance?
Some advocates have suggested that the agreement can serve as a way to dissociate America from Middle East conflicts, culminating in the military retreat from the region initiated by the current administration. As Sunni states gear up to resist a new Shiite empire, the opposite is likely to be the case. The Middle East will not stabilize itself, nor will a balance of power naturally assert itself out of Iranian-Sunni competition. (Even if that were our aim, traditional balance of power theory suggests the need to bolster the weaker side, not the rising or expanding power.) Beyond stability, it is in America’s strategic interest to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war and its catastrophic consequences. Nuclear arms must not be permitted to turn into conventional weapons. The passions of the region allied with weapons of mass destruction may impel deepening American involvement.
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Assertions to the contrary aside, the nuclear agreement will likely lead to a greater chance of conflict and war. With increased military capabilities, and a nuclear weapons option that it can exercise when necessary, Iran may become even more aggressive in the region in promoting its theocratic and national goals – undermining long term American allies in a region of vital U.S. interests. With the U.S. pull out of Afghanistan and drawdown in Iraq, Iran is the prime candidate to become the preeminent power in the Gulf and beyond. And given the lifting of the embargoes on conventional arms and ballistic missiles, Iran’s military capabilities will grow all the more, creating even greater incentive for Iran’s Arab neighbors to increase their arms. Media reports indicate that the Obama Administration has already signaled that it will increase arms transfers to the region.
And for Israel, it will not take much to be provoked. The Israelis have been quite clear about their frustrations, after having been negotiated into a corner by the P5+1 world powers that ironed out the nuclear deal. Should Israel carry out a military strike on Iran under the shadow of the deal, the country would risk becoming a world pariah.
But Israel is under no such constraints with Hezbollah. In fact, Washington openly acknowledges the possibility of a conflagration between the two, and the White House is now openly touting the fact that it wishes to help arm the Israelis to handle Iran-sponsored regional aggression of this sort.
With the perception that its deterrence is shriveling amidst the very public spat with the Obama White House, Israel will almost certainly wish to make an example of Hezbollah. A victory against the strongest Iranian proxy in the region could make the kind of unequivocal statement Israel believes it needs while it waits to see if Iran holds up its end of the nuclear deal.
However, a war with Hezbollah would not be just another war in the Middle East. It could be the war to end all wars between these two bitter foes. The Israelis are not eager to settle for a partial victory or a bloody tie, as it has in the past. To establish deterrence in the age of an empowered Iran, Israel may seek total victory.
Hezbollah, for its part, will also not stand down. Armed with 100,000 rockets, a deadly arsenal of other ordnance, and now the deep pockets of Iran, it's hard to imagine a negotiated ceasefire.
Jonathan Schanzer argues that completion of the nuclear deal could mean another war between Israel and Hezbollah as it will improve Hezbollah's strategic position and incentive to attack as well as Israel's incentive to retaliate.
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A nuclear deal with Iran may spur proxy wars in the Middle East as Sunni Muslims try to counter an increasingly wealthy and powerful Shi'ite Iran, the European Union’s counter-terrorism coordinator said on Monday.
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