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Western Dream of Regime Change in Iran is Over, so What’s Next?
Western Dream of Regime Change in Iran is Over, so What’s Next?
Saving the Iran Nuclear Deal, Despite Trump's Decertification
Saving the Iran Nuclear Deal, Despite Trump's Decertification

Western Dream of Regime Change in Iran is Over, so What’s Next?

Originally published in Reuters

The signing of the nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 answered a question that has bedeviled the U.S.-Iranian relationship for 36 years.

Decades after the 1979 uprising that ousted Washington’s ally, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and led to the 444-day captivity of American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the United States is no longer intent on effecting regime change and settling scores. The nuclear accord signifies a belated acceptance of, and accommodation with, the Islamic Revolution and the clerical order it spawned.

What does this mean for Iran? That a relaxed leadership can now look inward to fix the country’s ailing economy. But what if it also decides to invest further into Iran’s power projection in the region?

First the good news: The accord deserves to be embraced unabashedly as both necessary and sufficient, on moral as well as geostrategic grounds. It isn’t that one can trust either Iran or the United States to implement the deal to the letter, especially once these governments come under new management: Iran holds parliamentary elections in February 2016; the U.S. presidential elections follow in the fall, and Iran’s presidential polls a year later. Nor that Iran can be expected to temper its long-term nuclear aspirations. But any successful effort to reduce or push back the chances of war over the nuclear issue must be warmly applauded, and this particular agreement has two important additional assets: it reflects a rare — and very welcome — international consensus in bewildering times for the globe, and it constitutes a victory of diplomacy over options that are so much worse.

So hurrah! Well done!

Yet it’s fair to ask if now, thanks to this deal, we’re out of the woods. Looking at the Middle East, the answer must be an unequivocal no. This doesn’t make the nuclear deal any less necessary or praiseworthy; failure to reach one would have imperiled more than the Middle East. But it means that concerted efforts will now need to be made to fix a region that is increasingly coming undone, whose conflicts are spilling across borders, and that has generated both a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions and a transnational jihadi threat to which we have yet to find an effective response.

While the talks that led to the nuclear accord — involving the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany and the European Union — were carefully walled off to prevent the intrusion of other pressing concerns, such as the wars in Syria or, more recently, Yemen, they were not merely about the complex technical problem of how to clip Iran’s nuclear wings. For the Obama administration, blocking all possible pathways to a bomb, establishing airtight verification mechanisms, and ensuring sanctions will be snapped back into place if Iran attempts a nuclear breakout together amount to circumscribing Iran’s ascendant power in the region. If fully observed, the deal guarantees that we will be able to tackle, and attempt to settle, conflicts in the Middle East for the next 15 years at a minimum without the shadow of nuclear blackmail — at least by Iran.

This won’t suffice to reduce growing tensions. Yet how seriously should we take the threat that Iran, rather than coming around from decades of isolation, reinforces it by stepping up its entanglements in the Gulf and the Levant? In respect of the latter, Iran’s leaders may find they have little choice, but it’s not as if they have much to cheer about: Tehran’s military backing of the tottering governments of Syria and Iraq is a direct result of its failure to protect these allies from internal upheaval through the use of its soft power.

In Syria, rather than encouraging Bashar Assad to reach out to demonstrators in the uprising’s early days, Tehran supported him when he cracked down. His violent response provoked an escalation into all-out civil war, and his loss of control over most of the country. If he survives today, it is only because of the military role Iran and its ally Hezbollah have played to protect the regime’s core assets. It is difficult to see how Assad could ever rule all of Syria again, or how Iran could maintain its vital link to Lebanon and Hezbollah when the Assad regime collapses — as well it may if Tehran fails to negotiate a transition that would end Assad’s rule while preserving Iran’s own strategic interests.

In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s autocratic tendencies and sectarian-imbued repressive policies further alienated a Sunni population that, as soon as the opportunity presented itself, threw in its lot with the Islamic State (IS), despite the latter’s brutal rule. Iran could have acted to moderate Maliki’s behavior but neglected to do so, content that a friendly Shi’ite Islamist coalition ruled a neighbor that, barely a generation ago, had launched a destructive eight-year war against it. The Iraqi army’s collapse in the face of Islamic State’s advance in June 2014 created a security vacuum that Iranian military advisers have tried to fill by commanding urgently mobilized Iraqi Shiite militias. But what will the proliferation of such militias do for the unity of the Iraqi state, which Iran claims to want to preserve? The country’s breakup into warring fiefdoms is now a more likely scenario.

Only in Yemen has Iran made headway, but this was hardly the result of its own doing. The Houthis exploited Saudi political fumbling when they marched virtually unopposed into Sanaa and parts south earlier this year, aided by forces allied with the former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Iranians were quick to take credit, and also to wave the flag, presumably to poke their Saudi rival in the eye and dissuade it from escalating its support for Syrian rebels. Yet this has amounted to very little in material terms. Iran’s role in Yemen remains mostly cost-free, and the country is too far from its shores to appear to warrant a major investment of resources. Nor would it be difficult for Iran to turn its back if/when the costs become too great, as they may now that a Saudi-led coalition has started to reverse the Houthis’ gains.

In other words, Iran cannot be said to have significantly expanded its influence in the region, but rather to have been forced to provide military protection to pivotal allies it risked losing. If this has caused panic in Riyadh, it’s mainly because of the Arab world’s state of disarray. The regional order that emerged out of the competition between Arab nationalist forces and conservative regimes in the 1950s and 1960s has rapidly come apart. The Arab Spring popular protests opened the door to Islamist groups, who are stepping into the political vacuum left by an exhausted state system, but Saudi Arabia, which is their ideological progenitor, has not been able to benefit. Instead, it is itself threatened by these groups, which consider the Saudi royal family illegitimate rulers of Islam’s holiest sites.

Saudi leaders have much to answer for. For decades they have actively worked to allow an extreme, intolerant strain of Islam to come to the fore in the Muslim world by spending billions on the construction of mosques, the distribution of literature, and the promotion of clerics prepared to do their bidding. The chickens are now coming home to roost: the new generation of jihadis has embraced the Saudi leadership’s religious ideology but — seeing its profligacy and corruption — rejects its right to govern. To ward off the danger, the late King Abdullah targeted the Muslim Brotherhood, a mainstream rival to the Saudi royal family, including by helping foment the group’s downfall in Egypt. His successor, King Salman, perhaps recognizing that the real threat derives less from the Muslim Brotherhood than from the radicalization its suppression entails, has tried a different tack, mobilizing the Sunni Muslim world against the perception of Iranian aggression. Support of the Saudi-led air assault on Yemen has been significant throughout the Sunni Muslim world, despite the immense suffering the often indiscriminate bombardments have caused, because the target is a (nominally) Shiite group that has declared affinity with Iran and Hizbollah–regardless of the absence of any significant Iranian involvement.

The contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia is destabilizing the entire region, with global consequences, and neither seems to have a workable strategy to exit the conflicts in which they are embroiled. At the heart of their competition lies Syria, a majority-Sunni country ruled by a minority regime allied with Iran. Riyadh has long wanted it to return to the “Arab fold”; the 2011 revolt offered an excellent opportunity, even though the protesters were fired by their opposition to autocracy (including, in theory, the Saudi variety) more than to rule by a particular sect. However, deep divisions among the rebels’ supporters (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the U.S.) helped create today’s military stalemate with its attendant humanitarian catastrophe.

If things are beginning to move again in Syria today it is in part because Turkey has decided to become more active in the north. IS has been extending its reach, and moreover has begun carrying out attacks inside Turkey. If this is a concern for Turkish leaders, even more so is their perception of an Iranian ascendancy. They have watched with alarm as the Syrian branch of the PKK, the Tehran-allied Kurdish rebel party in Turkey, has tried to ingratiate itself with the United States by joining the battle against IS in both Syria and Iraq, and showing itself an effective fighting force. President Recip Tayyep Erdoğan is in the midst of a political struggle, hoping to expand his powers following elections in November; playing the nationalist (anti-PKK) card may win him the votes he needs for his AK party to form a government without coalition partners.

King Salman’s strategic shift of focus was pleasing to Erdoğan, who promptly visited Riyadh, finding that he and the king could see eye to eye on most issues, with the exception of Egypt, which they agreed to put aside. Iran’s return to regional status, therefore, faces a tentative, uneasy “Sunni” alliance between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, with the U.S. trying to balance the three in pursuit of its own interests.

Many have found Washington’s Mideast policy mystifying, if not outright wrongheaded. They blame the Obama administration for abandoning its friends during the Arab Spring and then further destabilizing the region by opening the door to Iran — allowing Shiite Islamist parties to run Iraq; refusing to provide the kind of support that would have allowed Syrian rebels to topple Assad; and ratifying Iran’s regional standing via the newly signed nuclear deal — again at the expense of its Gulf allies. The Saudis may also feel that Iran is being rewarded for seeking to re-enter from its rogue orbit the constellation known as the international community without being asked to rein in its ambitions, and that as a result they are getting the short end of the stick despite being Washington’s longtime, reliable ally.

Obama does appear to have a strategy, however; it’s called “tough love,” involving qualified backing of Washington’s Gulf allies. While the administration has provided half-hearted support for the Saudi air war on Yemen, it has also delivered a warning that if Gulf states fail to take steps to put their own house in order, they are simply inviting outside parties like Iran to take advantage of their internal weakness and regional missteps. The administration’s approach is, of course, also based on the realization that the United States no longer enjoys its global reach of yesteryear, and that direct military intervention in the Middle East, of the kind that has proved counter-productive in the past, would merely put a spotlight on this discomfiting fact.

Thus we have seen only a limited U.S. military projection in the region (seeking to contain IS – but barely – through airstrikes). What we have not seen is a more proactive diplomatic initiative to reduce tensions. U.S. officials hinted until recently that a more assertive posture could have undermined the nuclear negotiations with Iran. But now that an accord is in place the administration has both the opportunity and an obligation to work with the principal parties to start to defuse the rampant conflicts plaguing the region. The fact that the United States and Iran have established a solid channel of communications and, over the past couple of years, have built a modicum of mutual trust should be of tremendous help in this respect.

Their focus, first and foremost, should be on Syria. (In Yemen, Iran remains little more than a background player, and has shown it will step back when pressed to do so, as when it agreed last June to send a ship — laden with humanitarian aid but accused of carrying weapons — to dock in neighboring Djibouti for inspection by the United Nations rather than, provocatively, in Houthi-controlled Hodeida.) The opportunity to negotiate a deal over a Syrian transition is now – before Washington and Tehran fritter away the chips of their fragile rapprochement in mutual recriminations, as implementation of the nuclear deal hits a bump or goes off-track. Whether Iranian leaders will agree to a change in Syria that would still protect their country’s core interests (as per ideas outlined by the International Crisis Group last April) or instead decide to double down in their support for Assad’s faltering regime is a matter of conjecture. But accumulated mutual goodwill and the priceless experience of negotiating a complex treaty could and should be deployed to seek a negotiated way out.

In sum, the nuclear deal has not removed the question of the Iranian threat but reframed it. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been faced until now with what they saw as two bad futures: a nuclear-armed Iran throwing its weight around in the region or a non-nuclear Iran friendly with the United States doing so. With the signing of the Vienna agreement, a decision has been made for them. We are far from seeing the emergence of a new U.S.-Iran alliance, but the taboo has been broken and the first critical hurdle overcome. So now is the moment for diplomacy, not escalation. If there is anything significant Obama could add to his legacy during his final year in office, it would be to take the lead in guiding his partners in the region toward a less confrontational posture.

Demonstrators gather outside the White House in to protest against Donald Trump's plan to decertify the Iran Deal, in Washington, D.C. on 12 October 2017. AFP/Patrick Irelan

Saving the Iran Nuclear Deal, Despite Trump's Decertification

President Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal is a blow to this multi-national accord, but need not be fatal. The U.S. Congress, Iran and the European co-signatories can still do much to save one of the great diplomatic achievements of the past decade.

U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s 13 October decision not to certify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JC POA) based on his assessment that the agreement's costs outweigh its benefits will not, in and of itself, abrogate the deal. But it seriously, unnecessarily and recklessly undermines it. At best, it injects a level of uncertainty and unpredictability in a region that already has a surfeit of both. At worst, it is the opening salvo in a potential tit-for-tat that ultimately could unravel the deal, resuscitate the spectre of military confrontation and significantly compromise any prospect of a diplomatic settlement of the far more acute and perilous North Korean nuclear crisis.

The accord’s fate now primarily rests on the actions of others: Iran, which could wisely display patience and avoid provocative counter-measures; Europe, which is beholden to the deal and would need to stand up to U.S. pressure; and the U.S. Congress, which ought to avoid the trap laid out in plain sight by the president and refuse to restore sanctions on Iran in violation of the deal or unilaterally alter the terms of the multilateral accord in the illusory hope that they can compel Tehran to renegotiate it.

That Iran has been in compliance with its JCPOA obligations is beyond dispute. This repeatedly has been verified by the impartial UN nuclear agency entrusted with monitoring Iran's actions with the most rigorous inspection regime ever negotiated; by all the JCPOA’s signatories; indeed, by the U.S. itself. Unable to argue non-compliance when its own state department and defence and intelligence community have found otherwise, the president has opted for another path made possible by congressional legislation: refusing to certify the JCPOA on the grounds that the sanctions suspension is not proportionate to Iran's nuclear steps. For the White House, this has all the makings of a win-win-win scenario: it signals opposition to the deal while removing the burden of periodically certifying it; creates doubt as to its survival without taking immediate responsibility for torpedoing it; and shifts that burden to Congress, which has until 14 December to decide whether to restore, through an expedited process by a simple majority, the sanctions waived under the JCPOA.

Such dramatic Congressional action seems unlikely. The administration and key lawmakers are disinclined to take this step, which would be tantamount to a unilateral U.S. exit from the deal – and thus a recipe for U.S. isolation and condemnation by its allies. Instead, their preference has gravitated toward a more subtle but potentially equally destructive route: to codify a threat to automatically snap back sanctions Congress previously suspended if, among other things, Iran no longer abides by restraints on its nuclear program after they elapse. In other words, legislation that would reimpose sanctions even if Iran continues to scrupulously abide by the deal. Needless to say, such a unilateral alteration of the JCPOA would constitute a violation of the accord.

Worse, President Trump warned that he would walk away from the deal if Congress were not to pass such legislation, or if other JCPOA signatories did not agree to "fix" the deal's alleged flaws (notably that some of its provisions expire within 10, 15, 20, or 25 years, that Iran can conduct limited research and development, that the International Atomic Energy Agency does not have unhindered access to Iran’s military facilities, and that Iran furthers its missile program). In other words, Trump's message to U.S. partners is: violate the deal with me, or I'll violate it alone.

The idea of a renegotiation is a chimera, and dangerous to boot. Iran's leaders have made it plain they will not renegotiate a just-concluded deal under pressure from a co-signatory that is threatening to walk away and whose compliance with the agreement's provisions they already doubt. Besides, any renegotiation inevitably would include reciprocal demands from Tehran that, at this point, it seems utterly implausible the U.S. would entertain.

The White House might have other ideas in mind. It may be aiming not so much to achieve an unrealistic renegotiation, but rather either to ensure Iran complies with the agreement’s nuclear provisions without enjoying its economic benefits, or to push Iran to exit the deal. Whatever the case, the administration’s logic is both flawed and pernicious: it simultaneously claims that preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is their most important priority; acknowledges that Iran is complying with a deal that achieves precisely that goal; and announces steps that potentially jeopardise it.

Risks go beyond the JCPOA’s survival. As Iran's anger at U.S. actions and doubts regarding its intentions grow, and as growing uncertainty over possible U.S. sanctions risk scaring away potential foreign investors, it might eschew a direct response on the nuclear front. But its restraint could be tested on non-nuclear matters: some of its senior military officials already have threatened to directly or indirectly target U.S forces and assets in the Middle East in retaliation for sanctions aimed at Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the White House has announced would be a primary target of its policy.

With tensions rising and no high-level political channel between Tehran and Washington, an incident at sea, escalation by proxy in Yemen or a clash between the two sides or their respective allies in the race for territory once occupied by ISIS rapidly could take a turn for the worse. More generally, in such circumstances, Tehran is likely to double down on policies it views as intrinsic to its national security: its ballistic missile program and alliance with non-state actors and proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. The result would be that, by destabilising the JCPOA, the Trump administration could provoke precisely the outcome it purportedly seeks to avoid.

All of which explains why the deal’s survival now rests in other hands. First, Iran: its leaders have indicated that as long as other members of the P5+1 (and in particular its European members) remain committed to the accord, they will uphold it. The wiser course is indeed to adhere strictly to the deal, avoiding even technical infringements, refraining from responding to U.S. legislation inconsistent with the deal with reciprocal laws of their own, and eschewing provocative actions that not only would threaten regional security but ­– by prompting more sanctions by the U.S. Congress – plausibly spell the JCPOA’s death knell. Better yet, Iran's leaders should recognise that the deal will remain vulnerable as long as tensions between the U.S. and its allies on the one hand, and Iran on the other, remain high. Improving ties with neighbours and taking genuine steps to de-escalate regional conflicts would go a long way toward bolstering the nuclear deal.

As senior Iranian officials put it to Crisis Group, Tehran's ultimate decision regarding the JCPOA will be guided both by political interests, such as the desire to maintain robust relations with Europe and drive a wedge between it and the U.S., and commercial considerations, which include the benefits they expected to flow from the deal. How likely it is that Europe will stand up to U.S. pressure is uncertain. Washington banks on the fact that, notwithstanding European vows to respect the deal, the imposition of U.S. secondary sanctions would place its businesses before the not-so-difficult choice of either scaling back their (relatively modest) Iranian trade and investment or risk jeopardising access to the far larger and more lucrative U.S. market.

Which brings us to the posture of other P5+1 members in general, and Europe in particular. So far, they essentially have spoken in one voice, including up until the eve of Trump's decision, asserting that they will stick to the JCPOA notwithstanding Washington's views. Some of the deal’s critics have seized on French President Emmanuel Macron’s stated willingness to supplement the agreement by addressing ballistic missiles and extending the duration of some constraints on Iran's nuclear program as a sign that Paris is open to a renegotiation. That is a mistaken and self-serving interpretation. Macron, like leaders of all other P5+1 states, repeatedly emphasised the primary importance of preserving the JCPOA. True, France and others wish to address other aspects of Iran's approach and see pressure and diplomacy as twin tools to that end. But they do not propose to do so – congressional arms twisting and presidential blackmail notwithstanding – by holding the nuclear deal hostage or threatening to violate it in the event such a supplemental agreement cannot be reached.

Now that President Trump has announced his decision, European governments should reiterate their position and communicate publicly and to the U.S. that they will neither renegotiate the deal nor comply with unwarranted unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran and will continue to abide by their own JCPOA obligations. The EU could go the extra step and revive its “Blocking Regulations”, prohibiting compliance with U.S. extraterritorial sanctions, thereby making clear that they will not give effect to U.S. judgments and administrative determinations pursuant to such sanctions and that companies will be reimbursed for damages incurred for alleged sanctions violations.

Given the extent of trade growth between the EU and Iran since the deal came into effect – a 94 per cent increase in the first half of 2017 as compared to the same period in 2016, along with several major investment contracts – Europe's role in protecting the deal will be pivotal. For some European banks and companies, the choice between a $19 trillion U.S. market and a $400 billion Iranian one will be a no-brainer, but others arguably may be more willing to take the risk of dealing with Tehran if they feel shielded by their governments. In that spirit, the EU could signal its intent to facilitate financial transactions with Iran by expediting the process of turning Iran into one of the European Investment Bank's partners to support private sector and infrastructure development in the country. Overall, Europe's goal should be to send a political signal to both Tehran and European companies, providing both with reassurance and cover.

Finally, and crucially, the U.S. Congress. The rashest of actions for now also appears the least likely: entirely snapping back the suspended nuclear sanctions. But as seen, there is danger in the so-called “third way”: congressional action that does not immediately re-impose all sanctions but penalises Iran and threatens to restore some in response either to Iranian actions not covered by the JCPOA or its refusal to modify the accord. Non-certification by Trump creates no obligation on the Congress other than to consider whether to re-impose sanctions. In the absence of an Iranian breach of the nuclear deal, U.S. legislators could simply, and prudently, decide to do nothing, making plain that the administration already possesses all the tools required to sanction Iranian ballistic missile activity, support for militant groups or human rights violations. Alternatively, if they feel the political need, they could pass legislation that clearly connects the prospect of sanctions re-imposition to Iranian violations of the nuclear deal that the JCPOA adjudication mechanism fails to remedy.

What they should not do is become unwitting accomplices in the White House's all-too transparent effort to undo by stealth a deal that is working, and whose collapse would provoke a wholly unnecessary and dangerous set of crises not limited to the Middle East.