Still on the cards
A US attack on Iran is far from impossible, warns Yassamine Mather
Just when you thought nothing much was happening in the Middle East, the region is bracing itself for more upheavals. By all accounts, Donald Trump will announce later this week that he is “decertifying” the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015 between Iran’s Islamic Republic and the world’s major nuclear powers (plus Germany), the P5+1. Currently Trump’s only supporter for this reversal of US policy is the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who has campaigned relentlessly against any deal with Tehran.
There is a group photograph of Trump with military personnel, taken in early September 2017, and apparently during the photo shoot he told reporters that we are now witnessing ‘the calm before the storm’. The comment has been interpreted as an indication of possible military action against North Korea, or Iran - or both. However, as we know, with Trump this could just be showmanship, leading to no concrete foreign policy initiative.
Of course, the US president cannot claim that Iran is violating the nuclear deal - International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors would no doubt contradict him. So what he has been saying recently is that the ‘spirit’ of the agreement has been violated and that its continuation is therefore not in America’s interests. The decertification process is not actually part of the international nuclear deal either - it is a process involving the US government, president and Congress. And if Congress sees Trump’s move as a green light to impose new sanctions and goes along with him, there is little doubt that the deal will eventually collapse.
In the last couple of weeks Germany, France and even the United Kingdom have openly called on him to avoid decertification. On October 11 Theresa May urged the US to “recertify the nuclear deal with Iran because it is vitally important for regional security”. The same day foreign secretary Boris Johnson called the deal “an historic achievement”. And if Trump goes ahead with this plan he will do so against the near consensus opinion expressed by his own political and military advisors. However, as we know, the US president is unpredictable and the world is bracing itself for escalation of the conflict between Iran and the United States.
Of course in theory Iran and the European Union (including the UK) can continue working within the framework of the deal until such a time as new sanctions approved by Congress impose severe penalties on companies and financial institutions dealing with Iran. The question is, how many such institutions would take the risk and for how long?
Inside Iran it appears that hard-liners have convinced president Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, that under such circumstances Tehran should walk out of the deal, even if the US does not take concrete military action against the Islamic Republic. One thing is certain: even the threat of decertification has already jeopardised the long-term future of the deal.
Surprisingly we have not heard much from the Israeli prime minister on the subject. According to Anshel Pfeffer, writing in Ha’aretz,
There are three possible reasons for this. First, Netanyahu knows that whatever Trump touches usually turns to manure. He hates the Iran deal, but doesn’t want to be burned if it goes up in flames. Second, Israel’s more immediate concern right now is Iran’s entrenchment across the border in Syria. For once, the nuclear issue can’t take precedence. Third, just like his own security chiefs, who are not exactly enamoured with the deal, Netanyahu begrudgingly realises that a decade’s respite from the Iranian bomb is not such a bad deal after all.1
More worryingly, Netanyahu has been relatively passive on the current talks held between Fatah and Hamas. After a couple of weeks of speculation the two sides finally met on October 10 in Cairo, under the auspices of Hamas’ s new best friend, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian coup leader and current president. Khalil al-Haya, a leading member of the Hamas delegation, told reporters that the discussions will concentrate on “forming a national unity government with the participation of all Palestinian political parties and preparing for legislative, presidential and national council elections”.
Of course, this is not the first time the two main Palestinian organisations have launched such an attempt and, going by previous experience, it may not be the last. Unity discussions fell through in 2006-07 and in 2014. This time both sides are more desperate for a deal, but this is not necessarily a reason to believe they will reach agreement. Hamas is facing major economic difficulties in Gaza - its government cannot even pay for emergency electricity for hospitals. There is mass unemployment and appalling conditions in overcrowded areas. In addition the Hamas leadership’s support for opponents of the Assad regime in Syria means that relations with Iran are not at their best, despite talks held in the summer aiming to improve them. All this has resulted in reduced financial aid to Gaza.
Hamas’s new best friend is its former enemy, al-Sisi, and he has been encouraging, sponsoring and now hosting the rapprochement with Fatah. Of course, Sisi has other ambitions: he sees the talks as the first step towards an Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace’ and appears to be under the illusion that history will remember him as the hero of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, as opposed to the leader of an unpopular military coup.
Of course, Fatah also needs a deal - the Oslo accords are now dead and buried, while talks with the Zionist state are going nowhere. On top of this, the corruption and incompetence associated with Fatah’s leaders has made them rather unpopular.
Netanyahu’s official response to the talks was not unexpected: “Any future Palestinian government must disband the terror organisation’s arms, sever all ties with Iran and recognise the state of Israel.”
The US holds a similar position and, although some Middle East commentators believe the imposition of these conditions makes a deal unlikely, the truth is that, for all its shortcomings, if elections were held today in the West Bank, Hamas would win comfortably. So the main stumbling block will be the guarantees demanded by Abbas and other Fatah leaders that they will continue to play a role in a future coalition government, even if Fatah is defeated in the polls.
Egypt and Sunni Arab countries are working with Hamas to find an acceptable formulation regarding the state of Israel. On the question of arms, again a compromise can be found if Hamas’s current weapons (which do not amount to much) are amalgamated with those of the Palestinian Authority and come under some form of control/scrutiny. Severing relations with Iran might not be necessary, now that current relations have cooled, following Hamas’s support for anti-Assad forces in Syria.
Iran’s relations with Hamas and Hezbollah are often mentioned as a source of ‘instability’ in the region. Apparently this is what Trump means by Iran breaching the ‘spirit’ of the deal. I have been a life-long critic of Hezbollah and I have no illusions about its ‘social’ activities in south Lebanon. I blame it for its part in Irangate and, as I keep reminding everyone, after the 1967 war with Egypt Israel hunted down secular Palestinian Liberation Organisation factions, but in Gaza it dropped Egypt’s harsh restrictions against Islamist activists. In fact, Israel for many years tolerated and at times encouraged such activists as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the PLO and its dominant faction, Fatah, and this inevitably strengthened the position of Hamas.
However, we have to remember that, as far as Iran’s Islamic republic is concerned, sending arms to both Hamas and Hezbollah was a form of insurance. Iranian nationalists who keep telling us that ‘Iran should stop arming these terrorists’ forget that, had it not been for fear of retaliation by Hezbollah, Israel would have bombed Iran’s nuclear installations a long time ago. Such a bombing would have had disastrous consequences not just for Iran, but for the entire region.
So here we are again. Hamas’s best friends are Sisi and the emir of Qatar, but Netanyahu remains obsessed about its relationship with Iran - all sides seem to be under the impression that peace in the Middle East could be achieved if only Iran is isolated. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, Tehran is outside the US direct sphere of influence. However, its integration within the world economic order means that at the end of the day the country’s rulers have limited choices - leaving aside their tired old rhetoric on foreign policy issues. Irangate, the support for the US in the wars that overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, the nuclear deal - all show Iran’s acceptance of, and indeed compliance with, US hegemony. In other words, the problems of the Middle East are far more complicated than what western propagandists would have you believe.