“Should the July 2015 Vienna Nuclear Framework Agreement falter, which commits Iran to halt its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, the Middle East could quickly move towards a general war”.
Demons and Dragons: The New Geopolitics of Terror, 2017 (London: Routledge) by William Hopkinson and Julian Lindley-French
Sparta versus Athens
Alphen, Netherlands. 11 May. In the fifth century, BC Thucydides wrote the seminal History of the Peloponnesian War which took place between 431 and 404 BC. Thucydides had served as an Athenian general in the war and sought to write an account that would survive the test of ages. His central thesis was that religious, pious Sparta attacked Athens because it, “…feared the growth in power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta”. Next week the State of Israel will turn seventy. It is arguably under as great a threat now as at the time of its founding and the war of 1948. Israel faces enemies to its north (Hezbollah and Lebanon), to its east (Syria) and to its south (Hamas in the Gaza Strip). So, did this week’s decision by President Trump to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action (JCPOA) make an all-out war between Israel and Iran more or less likely?
In signalling his intention to withdraw President Trump made it clear he regards the Accord as deeply flawed. There can be no doubt that Iran’s efforts to destabilise Iraq, Syria and Yemen, as well as its efforts to spread a form of Shia fundamentalism via proxies such as Hezbollah is a threat to the already tattered ‘peace’ of the Middle East. There is a clear inference from the White House that it believes the lifting of sanctions associated with the 2015 Accord has assisted Iran in its efforts to exert its influence right up to Israel’s borders. Wednesday night’s attack on Israeli positions on the Golan Heights by Iran’s al Quds Brigade and the Israeli counter-attack reveals that Tel Aviv and Tehran are engaged in some form of war.
JCPOA: A Limited Nuclear Accord or a Putative Peace Treaty?
To properly consider the impact of Washington’s decision it is necessary to make a distinction between the specific aims of the Accord and the wider politico-strategic ambitions ascribed to it. At one level President Trump has a point. Let me quote Thomas Hobbes (as I do regularly), “Covenants without the sword are but words and of no strength at all. The bonds of words are too weak to bridle a man’s ambitions, avarice, anger and other passions, without the fear of some coercive power”. The JCPOA lacks any real sanctions. This is partly because the so-called ‘E3’ – Britain, France and Germany - convinced themselves long ago that covenants without the sword can be strong if they have enough words. The ‘P5+1’, in addition to the United States and European Union, also included China and Russia as signatories to the Accord. These are the ‘other’ Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council with whom there is little agreement over geopolitics these days – either in the Middle East or the wider world.
The Accord itself committed Iran to effectively freeze its nuclear weapons development programme for at least thirteen years by massively cutting both its stockpiles of medium-enriched Uranium, the number of centrifuges needed for such enrichment, and to not build any new facilities where heavy water could be manufactured. In a spectacular coup de theatre last week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that Mossad had infiltrated Iran’s nuclear programme and that he had proof of Iranian cheating. And yet, part of the Accord enabled verification of compliance by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). According to the IAEA, there is no evidence of systematic Iranian cheating on the terms of the Accord. In other words, there may well be some level of Iranian cheating but little sign Tehran is actively pursuing the development of nuclear warheads at the same level as prior to the Accord and therefore little chance at present that Iran could soon match the existing 250 or so nuclear warheads that Israel holds in its arsenal at Dimona.
Let me now turn to the wider politico-strategic ambitions for the Accord. There is no question that the three non-Russian European signatories did hope back in 2015 that the Accord could ameliorate Iran’s aggressive regional behaviour and that progressive relief from economic sanctions could strengthen so-called ‘moderates’ around President Hassan Rouhani. There is little or no evidence of such hopes being realised. Tehran has increased its efforts to destabilise Syria and Yemen increased its efforts to develop medium to long-range ballistic missile systems, as well as extended its backing for sworn enemies of Israel, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Tehran has also inserted its own forces into Syria dangerously close to Israel.
Do No Harm
In our 2017 book Demons and Dragons: The New Geopolitics of Terror William Hopkinson and I warned the West to collectively apply the Hippocratic Oath to the Middle East and do no harm. We warned that the war in Syria was potentially just a curtain-raiser to a wider and even more deadly general Middle Eastern war and which had the potential to spread even further. At first glance, President Trump’s withdrawal from the Accord and his seemingly unequivocal support for Tel Aviv could make Israel more secure. However, such support has never been in doubt. In fact, the Accord has been one of the few oases of collaboration in a Middle Eastern desert of tension. And, in spite of Grand Ayatollah Khamenei’s profound reservations about the Accord President Rouhani managed to get it past the hard-liners in Iran.
The Accord had another politico-strategic purpose – to prevent the emergence of blocs. European leaders Macron, May and Merkel clearly understood that one purpose of the Accord was to prevent the Middle East further splitting into something akin to pre-World War One Europe with Israel and the US on one side (plus the tacit and not so tacit support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states) and Iran and quite possibly Russia on the other. In that sense, even by its existence, the Accord prevented the further polarisation of powers in the region and Great Powers beyond.
A Trump Doctrine?
There is a wider problem with President Trump’s decision. There is a necessary place for coercion in international relations, something to which Hobbes and Thucydides would attest. However, the conduct of international relations is rarely the business of decisive breakthroughs and grand gestures, particularly in the Middle East. Indeed, there is no place on the planet where the phrase ‘on balance’ must be applied more rigorously. And yet, President Trump does not do ‘on balance’ and if there is an emerging Trump Doctrine it seems to be one that pre-supposes that, with the exception of Israel, the whole world is trying to screw America, even long-time allies. If you want proof of that listen to yesterday’s diatribe about the new embassy in London. It may be that President Trump secures what appear to be spectacular short-term ‘triumphs’. He may indeed come back from his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un with a piece of paper saying ‘denuclearisation in our time’. And, Iran may even quietly accept, at least to a point, that the Accord must be adjusted to prevent its dire economy completely tanking if sanctions are re-imposed a fortnight from now. Then again, it might not. One thing is clear: the Accord will not survive the withdrawal of America, whatever the Europeans say.
Do no (more) harm, Mr President
US foreign and security policy is increasingly beginning to look like a reflection of President Trump’s complex mix of prejudices, self-generated beliefs and gut instincts about the rest of us. If that continues not only will a general war in the Middle East become alarmingly more likely, America will lose friends, even close ones. That would be a tragedy for America because it needs friends to ‘make America great again’. It would also be a tragedy for the rest of us who believe in the United States of America, the transatlantic relationship it leads and the chance Washington has to cast itself as the hard core of a new global West that is more idea than a place.
As the great Thucydides once wrote, “wars spring from unseen and generally insignificant causes, the first outbreak being often but an explosion of anger”. For the sake of Israel and the people of the wider Middle East do no (more) harm, Mr President! Has President Trump made war between Iran and Israel more likely? He certainly has not made it less likely.