Iran’s nuclear program and Hezbollah’s meddling concerns the Gulf - analysis

Three articles from UAE-based publications expressed concerns over the Iran nuclear program, the Karish energy dispute and Syria.

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reviews Iran's new nuclear achievements during Iran's National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran, Iran April 10, 2021. (photo credit: IRANIAN PRESIDENCY OFFICE/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reviews Iran's new nuclear achievements during Iran's National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran, Iran April 10, 2021.
(photo credit: IRANIAN PRESIDENCY OFFICE/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Several articles that appeared in media based in the UAE may reflect growing concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program and Iranian proxies meddling in areas such as the Eastern Mediterranean.

Two articles published as commentary at Al-Ain media highlight the nuclear program and the Karish energy field dispute, while a third highlights Iran’s possible gains in Syria if Russia draws down forces.

The articles come at a time of increased tensions between Israel and Iran in the region and after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett traveled to the Emirates last Thursday.

“It is necessary to stand firmly in the face of Iran’s non-peaceful nuclear activities,” said the first article, titled “Iran’s nuclear bomb, just around the corner.”

The article details how the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors recently slammed Iran’s nuclear program. It notes the threat of Iranian enrichment of uranium, adding that none of these activities have a credible civil justification in the Islamic Republic.

The article also warns about a rush to an Iranian deal that could benefit Iran’s evasive tactics, rather than give the international community what is best for the world.

“Political analysts pay tribute to the repeated positions of the Arab Gulf states, which call for the need to limit Iran’s nuclear and ballistic capabilities, and to ban the terrorist activities of the so-called ‘Revolutionary Guard’ outside Iran, while emphasizing work on the common interest of the peoples of the region in a secure and sustainable living [situation],” the article said.

 Rocket fired by Iran-backed groups towards base hosting US forces in northeastern Syria, January 5, 2022 (credit: Courtesy/Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve) Rocket fired by Iran-backed groups towards base hosting US forces in northeastern Syria, January 5, 2022 (credit: Courtesy/Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve)

“In the face of the danger of the spread of nuclear weapons in our region, we pose a fateful question to the Iranian leadership, which for more than a century has held its people hostage to sanctions and embargoes due to escalatory nuclear policies,” it said.

The question seems to be whether Iran will pursue wise policies, rather than its current course.

“We affirm here the correctness of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the rest of the Arab Gulf states with regard to the Iranian nuclear threat – not only to the Gulf states, but to the countries of the region and the world as a whole,” the article said. “Everyone must stop Iran by all means from destabilizing the region, which is not free from the conflicts.”

Will Lebanon and Israel deal?

ANOTHER ARTICLE looked at the possibility for a deal between Israel and Lebanon regarding maritime boundaries. Hezbollah has threatened to prevent Israel from exploring for gas or oil in areas that Beirut disputes with Jerusalem, the article said.

One area in the news recently is the Karish offshore energy field.

“Perhaps what makes the situation more dangerous is the fact that the Karish field case has jumped to the fore with the intensification of the intelligence war between Iran and Israel,” the article said.

The article links Hezbollah rhetoric to recent growing tensions between Tehran and Jerusalem. These include Bennett’s claim that Israel is confronting Iran more in the region and Iran’s concerns that members of the IRGC have allegedly been assassinated.

“In the face of these potential risks of sparking a confrontation between Israel and Lebanon, there is a keenness on the Lebanese and Israeli sides to give an opportunity to the American and international efforts in order to succeed in the American mediation to demarcate the maritime borders between the two countries,” the article said.

“By striking a deal, the two sides avoided a potential confrontation… Perhaps such a deal brings strategic benefits to Lebanon, which is living in the worst conditions, not in terms of bringing it huge financial resources that might save it from its worsening crises, but rather avoiding for it a confrontation” whose “exorbitant and destructive costs... it is unable to bear,” it said.

Indeed, a deal could open the door for exploration off the coast of Lebanon for energy sources.

MEANWHILE, “No one could have guessed that Iran would gain the most from the Ukraine crisis, which is forcing Russians to retreat from Syria today,” Abdulrahman al-Rashed wrote at Asharq al-Awsat.

The article, which was republished in Al-Arabiya in the Gulf, argued that Russia’s role in Syria was welcomed in the region to some extent. This is because it mollified “regional powers worried about the spread of Iranian militias in Syria.”

Now, some reports have said Russia may be forced to shift forces to fight in Ukraine, leaving areas in Syria open to more Iranian influence. Iran already has influence in Syria near Albukamal and up the valley to Deir Ezzor, as well as at T-4 base and in Damascus and the Golan Heights. Russian forces are in Latakia and some other places.

“Today, this theoretical foreign balance in Syria is about to be tipped in favor of Tehran,” Rashed wrote. “In the last few weeks, reports said Russian forces were leaving Syria bound for their homeland, or maybe Ukraine, where Russia is waging its very own war. Further Russian retreats will likely follow, paving the way for Iran to wield complete influence over Syria.”

“Today, this theoretical foreign balance in Syria is about to be tipped in favor of Tehran.”

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

“I find it very unlikely that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps will leave Syria once the fighting stops completely, he wrote. “However, the withdrawal of Russia coupled with the continued military presence of Iran could rekindle the flames of conflict inside and around Syria, as the objectives of Iran’s presence in Damascus go far beyond protecting the Syrian regime.”

Rashed is concerned that Iran’s role in Syria will increase its role in Iraq. He cites that extremists have used the valley from Deir Ezzor down the Euphrates to Al-Qaim to invade Iraq after 2003 and that Iran uses this corridor now.

“Iran is advancing in slow but steady steps, from Basrah to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, to control Iraq and its decisions,” Rashed wrote. “From Syria, the IRGC also controls neighboring Lebanon, which it has turned into a center of operations for its regional activities in Yemen and Palestine. With the Russians gone, Iran faces little resistance now, only having to fend off Israel, which may consider Iran’s presence in Syria a strategic threat to its security but is not willing to be dragged into a war there.”

With the US maintaining only a small presence in eastern Syria and with Turkey weighing its choices, Iran and its militias – including “Iraqi and Afghan groups, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and Syrian pro-Iran militias – are left alone to expand their presence and influence,” he wrote.

TAKEN TOGETHER, the three articles point to potential concern in the Gulf regarding Iran’s activities and the role of its proxies. With one article singling out Hezbollah’s threats, a second one expressing concern about the nuclear program and a third republished in the Gulf expressing concern about Iran’s role in Syria, the theme is clear: Iran is on the cusp of a new destabilization campaign.

Bennett has had tough words for Iran in recent days. He also met with UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed on Thursday in a previously unannounced visit to Abu Dhabi. This came after the IAEA announcement.

Then came allegations in Syria regarding an airstrike on Damascus International Airport. This all paints a picture of a region on edge regarding Iran’s threats.