Whither the Middle East after the Iran nuclear deal
Hisham Melhem Al Arabia Sunday, 24 January 2016
Those of us wordsmiths writing, thinking , wondering and obsessing about things Middle Eastern have a new phrase to ponder; ‘Implementation day’. On January 16, 2016 you could hear many people saying: rejoice, the day we have been waiting for is upon us, while others denounced it as a day that shall live in infamy. After the International Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA certified that Iran had delivered on its initial commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States and the P5+1 and the IAEA announced that the implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran has begun on January 16, 2016.
In return for Iran’s dismantlement of more than two-third of the centrifuges it once used to enrich uranium, shipping 98 percent of its low-enriched uranium stockpile to Russia and rendering its heavy water reactor at Arak obsolete after removing its reactor and pouring concrete into it, ‘implementation day’ also triggered the suspension of a complex web of nuclear related sanctions the U.S. the European Union and the United Nations have imposed on Iran in recent years. The nuclear accord will allow Iran, inter alia, to retrieve at least $60 billion of its frozen assets and to return to the international oil market as a major producer. The nuclear deal is not open ended and does not eliminate Iran’s ability in the future to become a nuclear power, but if it is fully implemented it will severely restrict Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear device in the next 10 to 15 years.
The nuclear deal does not signal the emergence of Iran as the undisputed regional hegemon, for Iran lacks the economic and military requisites for such status. However, it signals the recognition of the United States and the other major powers of Iran’s rising importance as a state and a regional power with clout and interests that cannot be ignored or easily intimidated. What began as secret negotiations between the United States and Iran then developed into open and multilateral negotiations, remained restricted to the nuclear domain. And while American and Iranian officials did informally discuss other issues on the sidelines of the official talks, the U.S. and its allies, in a major concession to Iran did not seek to link the nuclear talks to Iran’s blatant interventions in the internal affairs of its neighbors, or for that matter, Iran’s blatant violations of the fundamental rights of its own citizens. For all of President Obama’s claims about supporting the struggles of the peoples of the Middle East for dignity, and political empowerment, his administration repeatedly failed Arabs and Iranians when they demanded these rights.
The day after
The nuclear deal may have been a victory for those Iranian ‘bridge-builders’, as analyst Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace calls them, ‘people like President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif that want to build bridges with the West, with the United States,’ at the expense of ‘the saboteurs within the Revolutionary Guards,’ who don’t have much popular support, but yield much ‘coercive power’, but it remains a limited victory and not a panacea. The saboteurs and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made it clear by actions and words that the day after ‘implementation day’ of the nuclear deal does not signal a new beginning with the United States.
Even if Iran uses a tiny portion of its released frozen assets after ‘implementation day,’ it will be enough to sustain the financial burdens of the operations of the Quds force and Hezbollah in Syria
Missile tests were conducted in violation of U.N. resolutions, and American sailors who accidentally entered Iranian waters were publicly humiliated before they were freed. Recently, the Guardian Council, supposedly the body of the stern custodians of the purity of the revolution which is tasked with vetting candidates for next month's parliamentary elections decimated the hopes of the ‘bridge builders’ by disqualifying thousands of reformers. Finally, as if to extinguish any hope of a détente with the U.S. Ayatollah Khamenei warned Iranian President Rouhani to guard against American ‘deceptions’. To be sure, Iran has a large modern, war weary and mostly youthful constituency for re-integrating Iran in a globalized world, and ushering in a new beginning with the United States; but this constituency of peace is not about to forcefully challenge the hardliners and the ‘saboteurs’ who crushed the ideals of Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009.
Most states in the Middle East opposed Iran’s nuclear program, most vociferously Israel, the only country in the region with advanced nuclear weapons and delivery systems. A nuclear Iran would enhance its deterrence against Israel, while maintaining a significantly armed Hezbollah close to Israel’s borders. But for most of Iran’s Arab neighbors, the immediate threat is not a potential nuclear arsenal that could be used against them, but Iran’s considerable mastery of the art of conducting proxy wars to spread its regional clout, and its growing ability to influence and exploits the marginalized Shiite communities in Arab societies in its struggles with Arab governments. It goes without saying that those Arab governments that continue to alienate their Shiite populations end up pushing them deeper into Iran’s orbit.
The day after the ‘implementation day’, is essentially the beginning of President Obama’s last year in office, which is likely to be the year of living more dangerously than in previous years for the whole region. The nuclear deal with Iran, will renew the pre-existing real and imagined fears among America’s allies that the Obama administration has begun the long process of normalizing relations with an ascendant Iran, at a time when the U.S. is doing enough to keep the faltering Iraqi state from collapsing, and enough to ‘manage’ but not stop the wars in Syria, and Libya while kicking the hot cans down the road to the next president. Those Cassandras forecasting gloom and doom in 2016 and beyond can only point out to the collapsing prices of oil to buttress their dark prophesies of the great unwinding of the region.
Iraq, the times of the scavengers
The crashing oil prices, the mounting cost of the war against the Islamic State (ISIS), continued conflict with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over oil revenues, and widespread corruption will combine to create an economic perfect storm in Iraq this year, even though the country is producing more than 4 million barrels of oil a day. Politically and militarily the picture is grimmer. Turkey has informed the United States that it will not withdraw its military forces from Northern Iraq, a deployment ostensibly to fight ISIS is in fact designed to check potential greater Iranian encroachment into the Mosul region an area that was for centuries part of the Ottoman Empire. Northern Iraq is being treated by the claimants of the Ottoman and Persian Empires as a buffer zone under the nominal suzerainty of a weak authority in Baghdad.
Both Turkey and the KRG see Baghdad drifting further and further into Iran’s universe. Turkish, Kurdish and Gulf Arab officials believe that those who control whatever leavers of power left in Iraqi hands are the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), or al-Hashd al-Sha’abi, the Shiite paramilitary formations established in June 2014 to fight ISIS following its occupation of Mosul. While these units are nominally an integral part of the Iraqi security forces (ISF) joint command in Baghdad, they are answerable to Iraqi groups beholden to Iran, and ultimately controlled by the Quds Force, a branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a division tasked with external military and clandestine operations, and led by the ubiquitous General Qasem Soleimani.
The assessment of American diplomats and senior military officers in Baghdad and Erbil, regarding Iran’s grip on Iraq, is not that far from the assessment of the weary neighbors, according to recent visitors to Iraq. That gloomy American assessment of Iraq’s future from the heart of Baghdad is not reflected in the more upbeat and deceptive assessments one hears from officials in Washington in charge of what goes for U.S. policy in Iraq.
Ramadi as a metaphor for Iraq
For all the talk about liberating Mosul from ISIS following the military campaign to oust ISIS from Ramadi, no serious analyst of Iraq expects that battle any time soon, and probably not this year, which means that Obama will leave Washington while Iraq’s second largest city which fell into the pretend Caliph al-Baghdadi’s hand on his watch, will remain in that twilight zone they call the Islamic Caliphate, with the Kurdish North under the control of the KRG, and Western Iraq under the beleaguered Sunni tribes, and a ‘central’ government with a weak writ over the Shiite lands stretching from Baghdad to Basra in the south. Long after Obama departs the White House and forgets his eloquent speeches about Iraq and the rest of the Middle East the scavengers of ISIS and the PMUs will continue to feed on Iraq’s carcass.
U.S. officials concede now that the battle for Ramadi was from planning to execution a wholly American controlled and directed operation. The battle’s outcome, which led to the ultimate destruction of the city, highlights America’s dilemma in trying to get regular Iraqi army ground units that include Sunni Arabs to fight and coordinate effectively with U.S. advisors and air power against ISIS controlled cities without relying heavily on the PMUs. In fact there were credible press reports that elements of the PMUs, the same elements that slaughtered Sunni civilians after routing ISIS fighters from cities like Tikrit, were involved in the fierce fighting at Ramadi. The liberated Ramadi is uninhabitable; it is estimated that rebuilding the city will cost $10 billion. To paraphrase that infamous quote from the Vietnam War; it became necessary to destroy Ramadi in order to save it.
Syria, the perfect storm is upon us
The methodical killing of the Syrian state and society mostly at the hands of the Assad regime, before it was joined by ISIS and other radical Islamists, could not have been done so thoroughly and systematically without Iran’s active and direct involvement along with its sectarian Shiite proxies, particularly the Lebanese Hezbollah and other lesser known Shiite militias and non-Arab Shiite ‘volunteers’. With each phase of what American officials call the Syrian Peace Process, Iran and its proxies have deepened their grip on Syria. Long before Russia’s recent military intervention, it was Iran and its Shiite Lebanese Janissaries that saved the Assad regime from imminent collapse.
Even if Iran uses a tiny portion of its released frozen assets after ‘implementation day’ it will be enough to sustain the financial burdens of the operations of the Quds force and Hezbollah in Syria. Russia’s military intervention has so far widened the Syrian war, and made its resolution the more difficult, but Iran was and is the outside force with the most at stake in Syria, and the ultimate arbiter when it comes to the future of the Syrian despot Assad. Short of a fundamental shift in Iran’s policy towards Syria, and to a lesser extent that of Russia (such as dumping Assad and accepting a transition towards a more inclusive form of governance acceptable to most opposition groups outside ISIS and al-Nusra Front) the war will continue, no matter what happens at the peace fora at comfortable European hotels. And short of an equally fundamental shift in the policy of the United States towards ISIS (such as adopting a unified strategy to defeat the Caliphate in both Syria and Iraq, through the deployment of more U.S. special forces and limited ground units working with allied special forces moving up the Euphrates valley to retake Raqqa in Syria, as a prelude to routing ISIS from Mosul) ISIS will remain capable of bleeding Syria beyond the Obama years.
While the physical destruction visited on Syrian cities and infrastructures is immense – a testimony to the efficient brutality of the Syrian regime and its allies, including Russia- the pulverization of Syrian society, the murder of Syria’s best and brightest, the transformation of more than 4 million Syrians into refugees and double that number into internal exile is the real calamity that befell Syria in the last five years. Bridges, roads and schools can be rebuilt, but is it possible to rebuild the social and cultural bonds among Syria’s once rich and largely welcoming mosaic of religious and ethnic communities? Can the beasts of sectarianism and demonization be tamed any time soon, especially in the absence of a potential clear victor that will not exact retribution from the vanquished?
With Iran in a better position to support its Syrian satrapy centered on Damascus and the coastal region, the Syria we have known for most of the last century will continue to disintegrate into warring regions and factions. The perfect storm is upon us in Syria. Unless ISIS is defeated, and unless Iran’s ability to wreak havoc in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon is checked, the unraveling of the Levant and Mesopotamia will continue, but its reverberations will not be limited to a broken Middle East, and in the era of globalized sacred terror no one can be immune.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya.