Gathering storm over Trump’s nuclear deal walkout

Iran could raise the stakes in its proxy war in Yemen against arch-rival Saudi Arabia that could imperil US interests in the region.
Sunday 13/05/2018
US President Donald Trump displays a presidential memorandum after announcing his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, on May 8. (Reuters)
Bringing back sanctions. US President Donald Trump displays a presidential memorandum after announcing his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, on May 8. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Donald Trump’s decision to take the United States out of the breakthrough 2015 agreement under which Iran curtailed its alleged quest to develop nuclear weapons has, at a stroke, hurtled the crisis-torn Middle East to the brink of regional catastrophe.

The key element in this lurch towards a possible inferno will be clashes between Iran and Israel, a dogged opponent of an agreement it claims leaves Tehran clear to develop nuclear weapons.

Although even the Americans concede that Tehran has observed the conditions of the 2015 agreement to the letter, Trump vowed to intensify sanctions against Iran, driven in large part by Tehran’s development of long-range ballistic missiles, even though these were not addressed in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The involvement of Iran’s proxies in regional wars was an additional concern for Washington.

As the crisis swelled, intelligence services of the main protagonists have deepened the sense of dread pervading the region.

The move by Trump, who branded the agreement “horrible,” was followed by a heavy May 10 exchange between Israel and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in which there were dozens of Iranian casualties in day-long clashes seen by many as a harbinger of more to come.

There were intensified ballistic attacks on Riyadh, capital of US ally Saudi Arabia, by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen’s 3-year-old war.

Lebanon, too, was under threat after parliamentary elections on May 6 resulted in Hezbollah and its allies winning more than half of the 128 seats, effectively putting it in control of the sectarian-plagued state and consolidating Iran’s political presence in the Levant.

Hezbollah, which dominates Lebanon militarily, and Israel have been steadily gearing up a new war since their 2006 conflict ended with the movement fighting Israel’s vaunted defence forces to a standstill, something no other Arab force has done since the Jewish state was founded in 1948.

Jerusalem has repeatedly threatened to crush Hezbollah in an all-out, no-holds-barred blitzkrieg on the principle that the Lebanese state is indistinguishable from the Iran-backed movement.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a hard-line right-winger in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition cabinet, warned on May 7: “Hezbollah equals Lebanon…

“The State of Israel will not differentiate between the sovereign state of Lebanon and Hezbollah and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory.”

In recent weeks, Israel has repeatedly launched air and missile strikes against Iranian positions in the Golan Heights in southern Syria. It claims the IRGC and its Shia allies fighting in Syria are seeking to establish a new military front there against the Jewish state. The Iranians are likely to hold on to their presence in Syria, making it the site of more flashpoints.

The region is dangerously unstable and Trump’s extraordinary move, defying the United States’ long-time European allies who favour maintaining the 2015 deal, leaves the Middle East open to serious conflict.

For the moment, though, it is not clear how Tehran will respond to Trump beyond standing firm on the nuclear deal, secured by the United States and five major powers — Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

All of them fervently support the 2015 agreement, which they say will push Tehran away from its objective of developing nuclear warheads and the ballistic missiles to carry them. All have pledged to abide by the agreement despite Trump’s fiery opposition. This suggests that relations between Washington and the European capitals will deteriorate.

The United States’ economic pressure on Iran could hit the Tehran regime particularly hard as its currency is in free fall and the effects on ordinary Iranians may be extreme — possibly enough to bring about regime change. Indeed, that may be the key objective in Trump’s strategy. It is what the two leading anti-Iranian hawks in his administration — national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — have long sought to achieve.

When the nuclear agreement was signed on July 14, 2015, it was hailed as a historic breakthrough in the struggle between Iran and the West and was the signature achievement of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Iran agreed to scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for a partial lifting of US-led international sanctions that were crippling its economy. Trump, however, insisted the deal did little to prevent Iran’s ambitions of acquiring nuclear capability.

Trump announced his decision to abandon the 2015 agreement on May 8 after Netanyahu’s bombshell claim a week earlier that thousands of Iranian files purportedly seized inside Iran proved that Tehran had deceived the world over its nuclear development.

Netanyahu has relentlessly opposed the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The huge archive of 10,000 pages of stolen papers smuggled out of Iran by Israeli intelligence was mostly related to a covert bomb-making project that was halted in 2003.

It is not clear what credence Trump gave Netanyahu’s claim that Tehran used the nuclear deal to buy time to work secretly on its nuclear programme, just as North Korea had done in a 1994 agreement with the United States.

However, what Netanyahu revealed suggested that Iran was far closer to a deliverable nuclear weapon than was widely believed before the JCPOA was signed and that gave weight to Trump’s decision.

An Israeli intelligence officer in a briefing on the documents said 99% of the data they contained on Tehran’s secret nuclear arms programme was new to Israel.

Iran’s reform-seeking president, Hassan Rohani, warned the United States on May 6 that it would suffer “historic regret” for quitting the 2015 accord and issued a veiled threat that Tehran could resume its mothballed nuclear energy programme Trump’s move could isolate the United States, along with Israel, diplomatically, increasing expectations of a significant military conflict in the Middle East. The blowback will deepen world opinion against the United States or Trump’s unpredictable administration, especially in Europe, while burnishing Russia’s credibility as a strategic partner.

Palestinian anger is mounting after Israeli forces fired on protesters in Gaza, killing more than three dozen and wounding hundreds more in recent weeks. If that spreads to the West Bank, Israel faces a possible new Palestinian uprising.

The scheduled May 14 move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — another highly provocative step by Trump — could easily ignite wider violence in the tensions stoked by Trump’s action on the nuclear deal.

Iran’s hardliners could also foment anti-American violence in Iraq, which is to have parliamentary elections on May 12 and seems doomed to become an Iran-ruled province through a powerful Tehran-backed Shia militia bloc that has become a significant political force.

Iran could raise the stakes in its proxy war in Yemen against arch-rival Saudi Arabia and imperil US interests in the region.

The New York Times reported on May 3 that the United States, which has sought to distance itself from the brutal civil war in Yemen where its ally, Saudi Arabia, is battling Houthi Shia rebels aided by Tehran, quietly deployed special forces on the Saudi border in late 2017.

Their mission: to locate and destroy ballistic missiles used to pummel Riyadh and other Saudi targets with the aid of the IRGC, Iran’s most effective military force and an old enemy of US forces.

A direct clash on that front could escalate sharply.