President Trump's nixing of nuclear deal exposes Middle East divisions

Regional countries split along Sunni-Shi'ite lines, raising the specter of a wider confrontation should Iran get the bomb.

By CHARLES BYBELEZER/THE MEDIA LINE, DIMA ABUMARIA/ THE MEDIA LINE
May 13, 2018 13:17
4 minute read.
President Trump's nixing of nuclear deal exposes Middle East divisions

US President Donald Trump announces his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, US, May 8, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)

 
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All eyes were squarely focused on Washington Tuesday night, as US President Donald Trump announced America's withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal—and the re-imposition of "the highest level" of sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

The US leader in January warned that he would pull-out from the accord unless its “disastrous flaws” were addressed. To this end, the White House had for months lobbied France, Britain and Germany to formulate a side-agreement that eliminates the JCPOA’s so-called “sunset clauses”—which remove limitations on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium in just over a decade—and curbs the Islamic Republic’s other “nefarious” activities.

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Clearly, though, European powers were either unable, or unwilling, to meet President Trump's demands—and they made their position clear, issuing near-identical condemnations of the move. Moreover, it appears that European parties will defy the White House's defiance by attempting to salvage the accord, with the French, British and German foreign ministers reportedly set to meet with Iranian representatives later this week to discuss a path forward.

By contrast, President Trump's move was widely hailed by Middle East Sunni countries, foremost Saudi Arabia which views Shi'ite Iran as a mortal threat. "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia fully supports the measures taken by POTUS with regards to the JCPOA," Saudi Ambassador to the US Khalid bin Salman wrote on Twitter.

"Iran used economic gains from the lifting of sanctions to continue its activities to destabilize the region, particularly by developing ballistic missiles and supporting terrorist groups," a Saudi Foreign Ministry statement similarly read.

"We are extremely happy with Trump's choice which will contribute to fostering world peace," Sulaiman Al-Oqaily, a Riyadh-based political analyst, told The Media Line, adding that the decision would bring stability to the region by limiting Iran's ability to foment unrest through its proxies. "The nuclear deal enabled Iran to increase its terrorism in the area," he elaborated, "and this boycott will limit, although not completely end, its ability to cause chaos."

As regards the prospects of a war breaking out, Al-Oqaily believes that this is unlikely, given that the "Iranians are exhausted economically and militarily due to their involvement in Syria and so this is not in their best interest. However, if a conflict were to happen, it would likely be between Iran and Israel, or waged through one of Tehran's underlings [such as Hezbollah]."

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Further evidencing the mood in the Arab Gulf, Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirate's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, wrote on Twitter: "Iran interpreted the JCPOA as concurrence of its regional hegemony. An aggressive Iran was emboldened as a result & its ballistic missile program became both offensive & exportable."

For its part, Egypt, the Sunni world's most populous country, stressed that Arab nations must be involved in any future efforts to amend the nuclear deal, with the Foreign Ministry emphasizing that, irrespective of President Trump's decision, the Islamic Republic must abide by its commitments under the separate nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty "in a way that will ensure that Iran remains as a country free of atomic weapons."

Somewhat surprisingly, longtime US ally Jordan took a more nuanced approach, urging President Trump to remain in the deal, with Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi having warned of “dangerous repercussions” and a possible arms race in the Middle East if the JCPOA was nixed without a contingency plan to prevent Tehran's potential nuclearization.

Moen Al-Taher, a Jordanian political analyst in Amman, contended to The Media Line that "a regional war was anyways inevitable, albeit President Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear pact will hasten this eventuality. The American-Saudi project to confront Iran aims to weaken the Ayatollahs and reverse Tehran's gains in Syria. The conflict," he continued, "will not be directly against Iran, but, rather, will target its tentacles in the region, which will be greatly reduced."

Al-Taher addressed the Kingdom's reticence to fully back Washington, saying that if a war were to break out in the area of Jordan's southern border with Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah II "would have to make very difficult decisions."

In Lebanon, the word-of-the-day was caution, especially in the wake of this week's parliamentary elections which further empowered Iranian proxy Hezbollah. Nevertheless, a spokesperson for the Shiite group told The Media Line that "the American withdrawal from the deal is a reflection of its arrogance and the fact that it does not respect international law and the will of the international community. We can never trust the United States and its allies, not now nor in the future. They have devastated what is left of their reputations."

Qasem Qaseer, a political analyst located in Beirut, reinforced to The Media Line the notion that "President Trump's decision is a strong message that he is willing to stand up to Iran or face-off against it if necessary." Nevertheless, he underlined the importance for European powers along with Russia and China to "compensate Iran, find a compromise [on the nuclear issue] and rein in Israel's military activity [targeting Iranian assets in Syria]."

In terms of a potential a conflict between Israel and Iran, Qaseer noted that while one is liable to break out locally, it would nevertheless spread rapidly throughout the region. "In this situation," he concluded, "it would be best for Lebanon to not get involved in any way."

Meanwhile, Iraqi President Fuad Masum expressed ''regrets'' over President Trump's move, seemingly confirming Iran's growing influence over Baghdad and further demonstrating the growing division between Shiite- and Sunni-dominated regional countries.

It is a split that is a millennium in the making, one that may sooner-rather-than-later come to a head; this, depending on how the major players choose to play their cards in what is increasingly looking like a post-nuclear deal world.

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