Failure to revive the JCPOA could trigger turmoil in the Middle East where warring nations and suspicious neighbours are always breathing down each other’s neck.
Recent European-led efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have left some observers more optimistic about the accord’s potential restoration.
Nonetheless, there remains good reason to see Goldman Sachs’ analysts as realistic in their August 16 assessment that a deal is still “unlikely in the short term”.
The probability of the negotiations falling apart raises important questions about how the Middle East’s security architecture could evolve.
From the standpoint of preventing nuclear proliferation in the volatile region, failure to reconstitute the JCPOA would spell danger.
The deal agreed to by the Islamic Republic and six global powers seven years ago laid out the terms for freezing Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for economic relief for Iran, which has suffered under financial and trade sanctions for years.
The JCPOA seemed to be working after the landmark deal was signed in July 2015 as it capped Iran’s nuclear activities. But Tehran’s “strategic patience” ran out one year after the US unilaterally withdrew from the deal in May 2018.
Irrespective of the JCPOA’s fate, there are other sources of instability in the Middle East that no serious analyst believes will go away in the short- to medium-term.
Hostility between Israel and Iran is one of them.
Whether or not the accord is restored, Israel can be counted on to continue its sabotage operations against Iran and military operations against Tehran-backed regional actors, while the Islamic Republic is expected to carry on with its foreign policy agendas seen by Tel Aviv as extremely threatening.
“The fundamental reality of Iran-Israel tension will not change, whether the JCPOA is renewed or not. It did not change after 2015, when the first JCPOA was agreed to, and there is no reason to think it will now,” says Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, in an interview with TRT World.
“If the deal is revived, Iran-Israel tension will still be very high. Israel will claim that the deal emboldens Iran, and that efforts to contain must therefore intensify.”
However, if efforts to restore the JCPOA prove futile, hostilities between Iran and Israel risk moving in an increasingly dangerous direction.
“In the absence of the JCPOA, I expect growing tensions between Iran and Israel, especially in terms of Israel’s enhanced covert activities against Iran’s nuclear facilities and increased confrontation between Iran and Israel throughout the region,” Hamidreza Azizi, a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, tells TRT World.
“Without a deal, Iran is just more likely going to go down the path of enrichment and getting closer to a bomb, which means it will make it eventually more pressing for Israel to take action above the threshold of war,” explains Krieg.
“At the moment, we have this below threshold situation where both sides continue in the shadows. All this can do is ever prolong the process of Iran reaching this threshold and developing a nuclear device, but it is not something that will ever really stop Iran from getting there.”
What about GCC actors?
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) joined Israel in welcoming the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA in 2018 and subsequently lobbied the White House to subject Tehran to “maximum pressure”.
Yet, these two Gulf Arab states are unlikely to act in lockstep with Israel vis-à-vis Iran in a post-JCPOA period.
In contrast to Israel, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been cautiously making diplomatic overtures to Tehran while signalling their desires for removing some tension between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members and Iran.
The leadership in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have essentially come to terms with the extent to which their countries are exposed to grave economic and security threats posed by an angry Iran.
Realising that Washington’s “maximum pressure” on Tehran could spiral beyond the control of any one actor, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pragmatically taken steps to try to keep GCC members out of harm’s way if such a catastrophic scenario would unfold.
Such efforts to cool tensions between these Gulf Arab states and Tehran might soon result in diplomatic relations being restored to what they were prior to the GCC-Iran crisis of January 2016.
From Iran’s perspective, such rapprochements would be extremely beneficial to its interests irrespective of the outcome of the nuclear talks.
“The Iranian government in general, particularly the Raisi administration, has been insisting that the diplomatic engagement with regional countries is a separate path from the JCPOA,” says Azizi.
“Regardless of the fate of the JCPOA, Iran is eager to go ahead with its outreach to the neighbours within the framework of the so-called ‘Neighbours First’ policy.”
But the picture gets complicated due to a host of factors, including the Abraham Accords and Washington’s desire to see stronger Arab-Israeli coordination against Iran if the JCPOA negotiations collapse.
This brings us to questions surrounding Israel’s role in the Gulf security architecture and implications for Tehran.
If some GCC states and Tel Aviv continue strengthening military cooperation and intelligence sharing, Iran will find itself in a weaker position. Under such circumstances, Iranian retaliation can be expected.
“With the unveiling of the drone-carrying ships, Iran has given a nod to combined operations in order to deal with new threats [stemming from the Israeli entry into the Gulf],” Javad Heiran-Nia, the director of the Persian Gulf Studies Group at the Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies in Iran, tells TRT World.
“Iran has even announced that if Israel threatens Iran through Arab countries, it will target that Arab country as well. On the other hand, Israel has emphasised pre-emptive attacks on Iran, which will create a dangerous situation.
As we know, on this basis, even potential threats are a licence for Israel to attack the internal positions of Iran or its allies in the region. In this case, Iran’s regional proxies will be more active in the region,” adds Heiran-Nia.
Creating new economic interdependence
As Azizi argues, the only way for Tehran to achieve a lasting rapprochement with Riyadh and an expansion of normalised relations with Abu Dhabi is through an “element of economic interdependence” between these countries.
If the JCPOA is restored with sanctions on Iran being lifted, this is possible.
Yet, if sanctions remain in place, that would be the “greatest barrier in the way of any kind of economic cooperation between not only Iran and its neighbours but also Iran and most of the countries in the world,” according to Azizi.
Ultimately, if Iran remains heavily sanctioned with the JCPOA finding its way to the graveyard, the country will intensify its “maximum resistance” to Washington’s “maximum pressure”.
To grow a stronger “resistance economy”, Tehran will work to develop its economic relations with alternative powers - chiefly China, Russia, India, Central Asian countries, and GCC members.
The extent to which the Iranians could succeed on this front is the basis of much debate.
In any event, the Middle East will be subjected to greater instability if diplomats in the P5+1 and Iran fail to find a middle ground that can restore the nuclear deal.
Such consequences would likely plague the region for decades.
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