On the geopolitics of the nuclear deal with Iran

Trump's decision must be seen in its broader context

President Trump did what was expected of him regarding the nuclear deal with Iran. His allies in Europe have not followed along what seems, on the face of it, an ill-thought decision. While the USA President’s rhetoric and demeanour are a departure from his predecessor’s, his policy on Iran and the Middle East does not really upset expectations. To appreciate Trump’s stance on Iran nuclear outlook, we need to account for the geopolitical dynamics in the broader region surrounding Iran, in particular as concerns the shifting positions on Syria.

What follows is an overview of the forces at play.

Iran’s form of control

At first, Iran’s brand of expansionism has to be disambiguated from other variants of either Islamism or imperialism. The country’s theocratic regime may be Islamist, but it differs considerably from other types of religious fundamentalism in the region. Iran’s is a form of bottom-up revolution of the ultra-conservative forces in society, who overthrew the old regime of secular feudalism. Whereas in countries such as Saudi Arabia—Iran’s main antagonist for hegemony in the region—the class of feudal lords, kings and princes, remains in tact. As such, Iran’s main challenge to the Muslim world is the replication of its model of theocratic rule against the domestic old order and local elites.

Such an incident would completely refashion the Middle East, changing the balance of power in the region and, indeed, the whole world. The USA would stand to lose trusted allies such as Saudi Arabia and other Arab states of the Persian Gulf, while the same can be said for Egypt and other parts of North Africa. Iran’s potential as a cultural-political leader would pose an even greater threat to Israel, the USA’s most trusted ally. America’s capacity to exercise control would be greatly diminished, delivering a major blow to its foreign policy ambitions.

Conditions force countries into suboptimal action

This is a zero sum game. The growing influence of Iran comes directly against that of the American’s and their closest allies, and vice versa. To this end, it is prima facie baffling that since the turn of the century, the USA and its allies spent a great deal of resources in disempowering Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which could contain Iran. In hindsight, that was a risky endeavour without clear long term strategy in place.

It would, however, be erroneous to attribute such a state of affairs to the lack of calculated action or mere idiocy. Instead, we have to appreciate the historical context that forced the West’s hand.

The world was already moving from the unipolar system of the 1990s to the multipolar one we have today. The USA was the undisputed superpower, but—as every strategist should know—power in world affairs is not always measured in absolute terms as it is a function of time and space: what can be done with scarce resources in a given set of conditions.

The gradual recovery of Russia, the rise of China, the rebalancing of power in the Middle East following the end of the Cold War, all put pressure on the USA’s role as the world’s hegemon. Preserving that status would mean fighting against the tides of time, which is, in many ways, what America has been doing over the past decades.

Furthermore, in the early 2000s, asymmetric warfare was not fully understood. The conventional thinking of invading, occupying, and destabilising countries in the hope of eliminating such threats has been proven wanting. The UN and international law were disregarded in a short-sighted spirit of exceptionalism, thus setting a precedent for others to exploit with impunity.

Circumstances demand a response. Unlike the false belief that a superpower functions on the margin of optimality with careful longer term planning, all international actors have to operate in a timely fashion on the basis of incomplete information and under imperfect, even undesirable, conditions.

The West’s involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and more recently Libya and Syria, are prime examples of this fact. The USA has been dragged into wars of attrition that have, in my opinion, accelerated the decline of American hegemony over the world.

Syria and the Iran deal

With regard to Syria, America has largely failed to formulate a coherent response to the domestic crisis. It initially wanted to support the opposition to the Syrian government, only to realise that it was offering a unique opportunity to Russia to enter the scene and gain the upper hand. Russia now has guaranteed military presence in the region and has positioned itself as a main diplomatic actor in the matter.

The US has tried to strengthen the Kurds in an attempt to maintain a nucleus, potentially a new nation state, that would be aligned with American interests, only to face the military resolve of Erdoğan’s Turkey. While Turkey is a NATO ally, there is little doubt that no one can control Erdoğan. Turkey does what is best for its own interests and thus maintains a multifaceted foreign policy that, in this case, includes good relations with Russia.

Combined with the relative powerlessness of Iraq and the inability of Saudi Arabia to exercise control over Syria and Muslim populations in the area, Iran too has been benefiting from the power vacuum left behind. Iran’s theocracy stands to benefit from secular regimes such as Bashar al-Assad’s over the medium term, because they deny Saudi Arabia a vector for cultural expansionism.

The nuclear deal with Iran is a monumental achievement of several years of diplomacy. Yet, in the narrow sense, it has eased pressures on Iran, thus empowering it to pursue its agenda in Syria and beyond.

Against this backdrop, the USA and Israel are realising that the region is escaping their control and that their best chance is to go on the offensive. This is a risky move that can either lead to even greater losses or yield diplomatic gains over the medium term. The losses are easy to fathom: a consolidation of what appears to be the new status quo. The possible gains would be to contain Iranian influence, elevate their role in the talks over Syria with the ambition to force Assad out of power and, perhaps, be better positioned to influence Turkish policy.

To this end, President Trump’s stance on the nuclear deal with Iran has to be considered a gambit. Its ramifications shall be evaluated in time, though it is clear that no course of action would be clearly superior to others in the limited sense of what is good for American imperialism.

What matters is that the circumstances are demanding action and, given US ambitions, this would either be a policy of appeasement and retreat or the reinvigorated offensive that President Trump has in the works.

What should Europe do

The EU was catalytic to the design and implementation of the Iran deal. It remains in Europe’s best interest to engage with Iran in peaceful terms. The nuclear deal is working, while we want to maintain a high degree of mutual understanding with them for a number of closely related reasons:

  • to have a reliable partner—rather than a sworn enemy—in the negotiations over the future of Syria;
  • to prevent the further deterioration of the broader area of the Middle East, which could, inter alia, offer an opportunity to China to enter the scene;
  • to ensure that we do not favour Russian energy exporters by eliminating their Iranian competition;
  • to further consolidate Europe’s outlook as a credible actor that favours diplomacy over everything else.

The USA is an empire in decline. Meanwhile, the EU is already in the process of developing its own military capacities, courtesy of the Permanent Structured Cooperation. Over the medium to long term, the EU will be in a position to stand on its own in terms of security, but also as regards the ‘hard power’ underpinnings that are required of world diplomacy.

Being in a multipolar system means having to formulate a differentiated, multi-faceted foreign policy without dogmas and obsessions. The EU can ill afford to be the USA’s assignee and unquestioning deputy. Clinging on to such a policy would constitute a monumental failure to appreciate the dynamics in the world order as these are made manifest in the wider geopolitics of the nuclear deal with Iran.