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World Middle East

The battle over trying to contain Iran

  • Paula
When American President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, his political base was delighted; as were the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
by PAULA SLIER | Jun 14, 2018

But for his European allies, it was the ultimate betrayal. They were left even more stupefied when he fully reinstated all previous US nuclear-related sanctions against Tehran.

European companies were caught off guard. Several major corporations had signed business deals in Iran worth billions of dollars on the basis that the nuclear agreement was accepted international policy.

But now, threatened with penalties, and the prospect of losing access to the much larger and more lucrative American market, many of these companies are looking to bail.

European leaders are desperately trying to find ways to keep the deals afloat. Their motivation is partly economic. In the past three years since the agreement was signed, EU imports from Iran increased 345%, while exports from Europe to the Islamic Republic increased 28%.

They also want to salvage a deal that they admit is far from perfect, but which they believe is the best guarantee against Iran building a nuclear bomb.

Tehran has pumped up its rhetoric, warning that time is running out, and that it will remain in the agreement only if its other signatories (Britain, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia and China) offset the economic benefits that were lost after the American withdrawal.

Last week, the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei threatened to increase uranium enrichment capacity if the agreement fell apart.

Against this backdrop, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently visited Europe. His agenda had one item on it – Iran. Netanyahu seems to have successfully persuaded, or at least cautioned, the Europeans that they need to do more to contain Iranian ambitions in the Middle East and in particular in Syria. However, his now much rehearsed warnings about the dangers of the nuclear deal fell mostly on deaf ears.

If there was any consensus from his meetings it was a “difference of opinion”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that while she supported Israel’s right to security, she disagreed that tearing up the non-proliferation deal was the best way to achieve it.

French President Emmanuel Macron insisted the agreement was “an important milestone” and British Prime Minister Theresa May told Netanyahu that it remained “the best route” to stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons”.

Of the three, May was the least resistant to Netanyahu’s message. She cannot afford to anger Trump in light of Brexit and the fact that Britain needs a trade deal with the United States. Still, she did not say anything that would suggest she was willing to follow the Americans and pull out.

The Europeans are worried that ripping up the deal will benefit the Iranian hardliners who were against it from the start. They fear that the current leadership (which is relatively moderate compared to the hardliners) will be unable to keep it viable, and the result will be a resumption of large-scale uranium enrichment.

Should this happen, Iranian threats to strike Israel could become an all too real possibility, and the Americans and Israelis are likely then to launch a pre-emptive attack against Tehran. In return, Iran would mobilise her allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, raising the stakes for a full-scale regional war.

What’s more, should Iran go full steam ahead towards building a bomb, it would plunge the Middle East into a nuclear arms race as Riyadh, Ankara, and even Cairo would then seek to develop their own arsenals.

Europe’s also worried about her own borders. An unstable Middle East triggered by the breakdown of the deal would lead to even more refugees chancing the hazardous journey to the continent, which in turn would give rise to new recruits for terrorist groups on European soil.

But, point out some observers, despite the angry noises coming from Tehran – and there are many, including the leadership saying it is “ready for all options” and that “the interests of the people of Iran must be assured” – the Iranians don’t really want to withdraw from what, for them, is a pretty good deal. As the agreement stands, and this was Netanyahu’s repeated message to the Europeans, it legitimises Tehran’s enrichment programme, lets it work on advanced centrifuges and missiles, and calls for inspections that arguably do not cover military facilities in any significant manner. At the same time, the country receives substantial sanctions relief for its struggling economy in which unemployment officially stands at about 12.5% – in reality it is much higher – and inflation runs at nearly 10%.

The Iranians are playing the Europeans. The more they threaten them, the more Europe’s leaders panic and try to sweeten Trump’s withdrawal, hence the more incentive the Iranians have to try and push the limits of what they can get away with. In the process, they drive a wedge between Europe and the United States.

It’s a very different scenario to the one Trump and Netanyahu seem to betting on. They’re hoping the leadership will buckle and agree to their terms, but there’s debate about whether a new, better agreement is even possible. The unanswered question is whether Iran’s economic woes and the re-application of sanctions will force Tehran back to the negotiating table, even whether the international community itself can come together again to sign a deal like they did three years ago.

There’s another thing Trump and Netanyahu are not clear on: how to contain Iran. Many European analysts believe that Washington has no plan for the day after, and argue that while it’s all very well to create the circumstances for a popular uprising that leads to regime change, it’s a dangerous scenario to bet on, as the Arab Spring illustrated. Regime change doesn’t always benefit the local population or its foreign sponsors.

Iran has long said it wants nuclear energy for civilian and defensive purposes only. Experts are divided over just how much the country has been complying with the non-proliferation deal until now. But one thing is clear – the agreement is not yet dead. Ultimately, though, no one is really optimistic that it can survive in the long run. If it collapses, Netanyahu will have won this battle. But if Iran makes true her threats and it leads to conflict, he will have lost the war.

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and Chief Executive of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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