The Iranian nuclear deal amplifies divisions in the Middle East

The Iranian chief negotiator of the JCPOA, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani in Vienna during one of the meetings for the Iranian nuclear deal (Bundesministerium für europäische und internationale Angelegenheiten, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 17 Numero 8
Author: Silvia Boltuc

The Iranian nuclear deal might become the watershed in the Middle Eastern dynamics, leading to regional escalations and divisions and rising the geopolitical risk level.

Two significant regional events marked the last few days: the Doha Forum in Qatar on March 26-27th, 2022 and the Negev Summit in Israel on March, 27-28th, 2022.

On the top of these crucial gatherings’ agenda was the Ukrainian Conflict, the restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and regional security issues. These three controversial topics showed the difficult balancing of colliding interests in the region, which might lead to an escalation in the Middle East.

After eleven months of talks, the European Union’s top diplomat envisions a possible agreement on the JCPOA in a few days. On the sidelines of the Doha Forum, the most significant global platform that brings together policy leaders to discuss critical challenges facing the world, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said that the 5+1 format is very close to reviving the agreement, but some issues are still pending.[1]

The United States, which has been participating indirectly in the Vienna talks after the unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, is committed to the pact. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed that Biden’s administration believes that the return to full implementation of the deal is the best way to “put Iran’s nuclear programme back in the box that it was in”.[2]

Israel’s government firmly opposed the terms of the deal, which Tel Aviv believes will not curb the Iranian threat. Blinken reassured the U.S. ally by pointing out that the United States would not allow Tehran to develop nuclear weapons.

On March 28th, 2022, the U.S. Secretary of State and the Foreign Ministers of Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE and Morocco met at Israel’s Negev Summit held in the Sde Boker Kibbutz in the southern Negev desert to address their concerns about the restoring of the JCPOA and the Ukrainian Crisis.[3]

As for the Russian decision to intervene in Ukraine, Middle East countries did not distance themselves from Moscow despite western pressures.[4] Furthermore, the talks in Vienna paused on March 11th, 2022, following Russia’s demands for written guarantees from the U.S. that the sanctions imposed on Moscow will not harm its economic, technical, and military cooperation with Iran. After the visit of Iranian and Qatari Foreign Ministers to Moscow, the Kremlin accepted guarantees which protect the Russian involvement in Iran’s nuclear power plant in Bushehr. Notably, Russia receives Iran’s excess enriched uranium stockpile. Another issue casting a shadow on the nuclear agreement about which the Israeli Prime Minister and several Gulf countries expressed profound concerns is the Iranian request to take off the Revolutionary Guards and its Quds Forces from the U.S. foreign terrorist organisations (FTO) list. IRGC entered the FTO list in 2019, and, as a consequence, the Iranian authorities added the Central Command of the U.S. Armed Forces to its list of terrorist organisations.[5]

During the Doha Forum, the difficulties in finding common ground emerged as Kamal Kharraz, a Senior Adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said designating the elite IRGC as a terrorist group was unacceptable. Nevertheless, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, said many sanctions on the IRGC will remain.

In Iran, the controversial issue started an internal debate. Although Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian confirmed that the country was holding onto the condition, he stated that the IRGC commanders did not object if the government gave up on removing the military organisation from the U.S. FTO list, praising their sacrifice. According to some sources, Abdollahian’s remarks prompted criticism from some hardliners inside the country. Chief editor of Kayhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari, appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, strongly criticised Abdollahian’s words stating that “he is not blessed with the adequate and necessary command of current affairs in his domain of responsibility” and urged IRGC commanders to correct the statement.[6]

Another essential topic addressed during these two critical events was the security issue. The Israeli gathering opening was marked by a shooting attack in northern Israel that killed two police officers and was claimed by the Islamic State group, underlining the regional instability.[7]

The attack followed Blinken’s efforts during the Doha Forum to discuss strategies to avoid escalation during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Christian Easter celebrations and the Jewish Passover holiday, as has already happened in the past. Tensions are growing as many Arab countries, particularly Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, blamed the West for double standards. Abbas, for example, criticised the West for penalising Moscow over the Ukrainian Conflict while ignoring Israel’s “crimes” against the Palestinians.

Previously, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman and Deputy Foreign Minister Saeed Khatibzadeh called on member states of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) to prevent the “Zionist regime” from infiltrating the affairs of the Muslim world. During his speech at the OIC meeting in Islamabad, Khatibzadeh said that insecurity and instability in West Asia are rooted in the Palestinian crisis and the orchestrated occupation of Palestinian lands by the “Zionist regime, which he said could be described as the world’s most complex international crisis.[8] Finally, while the European diplomat Enrique Mora was travelling to Iran and then to the United States to define the final details of the JCPOA, Houthi rebels launched missiles that hit a Saudi Aramco oil plant in Jeddah, underlying once again that the proxy war in Yemen between rebel groups supposedly backed by Iran and the Saudi-led coalition shows no sign of cooling down.[9]

Conclusion

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, along with Israel, are worried about the Iranian nuclear agreement. Lifted from sanctions, Iran will improve its economic standing and, despite the JCPOA, might develop a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, these countries perceive the IRGC as the base of Iran’s power and the instrument through which Tehran gained power in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. They fear that, free from sanctions, the IRGC might increase its influence. On the other side, the United States believes that signing the agreement will put a limit on Iran’s nuclear program. Nonetheless, Washington has admitted that it shares some concerns of Tel Aviv and that it will not allow the development, in violation of the agreement, of nuclear weapons in Tehran.

Undoubtedly, Iran has a strategic geographical position. Its location inside the Strait of Hormuz and access to the open sea, together with successful policies such as partnerships with leading regional actors, the implementation of a deepwater port (Chabahar) and the creation of several Free Economic Zones (FEZ), established the country as a crucial logistic hub. Iran is at the crossroads of major regional economic corridors (Belt and Road Initiative – BRI and International North-South Transit Corridor – INSTC), which link the most important Eurasian markets. The country has improved its army and is involved in the Afghanistan stabilisation project. Despite being under sanctions, Tehran managed to gain more power in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Gulf countries fear the Iranian nuclear threat will still exist after the revival of the JCPOA, as the confrontation with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is worsening.

Moreover, Iran has a vast unexpressed potential in the oil and gas field. After lifting sanctions, the country might enter the energy market, affecting the oil monarchies’ interests. Finally, a western recognition of Iranian regional influence would come at the expense of the Gulf states, given that they are the weakest link in the regional chain of influence, after Turkey and Israel.

In conclusion, it should be noted that, in the aftermath of the Ukrainian Crisis, the alliances between the Arab countries and the Western States showed their weakness, while Russia is still considered a leading regional actor, particularly in the OPEC + format, in the Afghan crisis and in central Asia where several Gulf countries are trying to gain more influence.[10] While Iran accuses the Gulf countries of permitting the penetration of Israel and the U.S. in the Muslim countries’ affairs, the JCPOA might strengthen cooperation between Tel Aviv, the Gulf monarchies, and the U.S.

In the near future, competition between Middle East countries for regional influence might increase sectarian instability and mark an increasing terrorist activity in the region, where several governments have already shown their weakness.[11]

Sources

[1] Carlo Martuscelli (2022) EU’s Borrell says Iran nuclear deal very close, POLITICO. Link: https://www.politico.eu/article/eus-borrell-says-iran-nuclear-deal-very-close/.

[2] Aljazeera (2022) Blinken: Nuclear deal the best way to cap Iran nuclear activity. Link: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/27/blinken-says-nuclear-deal-best-way-to-cap-iran-nuclear-activity.

[3] Lazar Berman, Aaron Boxerman (2022) Foreign ministers of Bahrain, UAE, Morocco and Egypt arrive for Negev Summit, The Times of Israel. Link: https://www.timesofisrael.com/foreign-ministers-of-bahrain-uae-morocco-and-egypt-arrive-for-negev-summit/; Alex Sinelshikouv (2022) The Russian-Ukrainian conflict and its impact on food and regional security. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/03/25/ukrine-conflict-food-crisis/.

[4] Silvia Boltuc (2022) Geopolitical scenarios of the Persian Gulf in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis. SpecialEurasia.  Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/03/21/persian-gulf-geopolitics/.

[5] Maziar Motamedi (2022) Focus on the IRGC ‘terror’ designation in Iran nuclear talks, Aljazeera. Link: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/27/irgc-terror-designation-takes-centre-stage-in-iran-nuclear-talks

[6] ASHARQ AL-AWSAT (2022) Iranian FM Faces Criticism Despite Holding onto IRGC Delisting. Link: Iranian FM Faces Criticism Despite Holding onto IRGC Delisting | Asharq Al-awsat (aawsat.com)

[7] BBC NEWS (2022) Israel: Two police killed by Israeli Arab gunmen in Hadera. Link: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-60895393

[8] IRNA (2022) Iran calls on OIC member states to prevent Zionist infiltration in Muslim World. Link: https://en.irna.ir/news/84694108/Iran-calls-on-OIC-member-states-to-prevent-Zionist-infiltration

[9] Aljazeera (2022) Saudi Aramco’s Jeddah oil depot hit by Houthi attack. Link: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/25/saudi-aramco-jeddah-storage-facility-hit-by-attack

[10] SpecialEurasia (2022) Saudi Arabia and Kyrgyzstan enhanced economic cooperation and investment opportunities. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/03/23/saudi-arabia-kyrgyzstan/

[11] SpecialEurasia (2022) Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s operations in Yemen. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/03/23/al-qaeda-arabian-peninsula-yemen/; SpecialEurasia (2022) Islamic State’s new leader and future threats in Eurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/03/17/islamic-state-terrorism-eurasia/