Thursday 20 September 2018

Trump leaves Middle East giants Iran and Israel on the brink of a deadly duel

Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Reuters
Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Reuters

Comment: Mary Fitzgerald

If a week is a long time in politics, then it is doubly so in a world where the president of the United States is Donald Trump.

The latest globally destabilising lurch by his administration came this past Tuesday when he said that Washington would begin reinstating sanctions on Iran, thus unravelling an historic agreement crafted by the US and other powers in 2015 aimed at persuading Tehran to curb its nuclear programme.

Announcing the move, Trump said he had made the decision to undermine what he called "a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made" and followed up the next day with one of his by now trademark threats claiming Iran would now either negotiate or "something will happen".

Trump had warned several times that he would reimpose sanctions. In a recent interview with German magazine 'Der Spiegel', French President Emmanuel Macron cautioned that Trump should bear in mind the potential repercussions of such a move

Trump, he said, would be "opening a Pandora's box, which is tantamount to war. I don't think Donald Trump wants war."

Within hours of Trump's announcement tensions had ratcheted between Iran and Israel, with Israel putting its forces on high alert.

They later blamed Tehran for apparent missile attacks on Israeli forces in the Golan Heights. On Thursday, Israeli jets heavily targeted Iranian military facilities inside Syria where Iranian forces have been key to propping up Assad.

The episode threatens to transform one of Syria's myriad proxy wars - this one between Israel and Iran - into a much bigger conflagration.

The prospect of open war between them is just part of the fallout from Trump's decision to revive sanctions on Tehran.

Iranian officials have warned they may restart the country's controversial nuclear programme if new US sanctions are imposed.

"We have put a number of options for ourselves, and those options are ready including options that would involve resuming at a much greater speed our nuclear activities," Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CBS's 'Face the Nation' last weekend.

It feels like a long way from July 2015 when - after more than a decade of painstaking diplomacy - the nuclear deal was finalised by the US, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and Iran.

Under the agreement, Barack Obama's administration offered to suspend sanctions on companies and countries that did business with Iran in exchange for Tehran suspending its nuclear weapons programme.

Iran complied, abandoning its highly enriched uranium and accommodated an extensive inspection programme.

Western firms rushed to do business in Iran as the country fell from the grip of US sanctions, its economy opening up and buoyed by a growing middle class and a young, educated population.

European airlines opened up routes, hotel groups and oil companies inked deals. With its oil sector given such a boost, Iran's economy gained momentum.

There was a sense among Iranians their country was coming in from the cold internationally and that in turn encouraged an opening up within their own society.

Those who dived into the business opportunities Iran may now face huge losses.

European officials are scrambling to see how the nuclear deal can be preserved at best or such losses minimised at worst.

The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany are due to meet with Iranian officials early next week to determine what can be salvaged without Washington's co-operation.

France, in particular, was keen to insist the deal "is not dead" as its foreign minister put it. But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who played a leading role in drafting the 2015 agreement, told Macron that Europe only had a "limited opportunity" to ensure the pact's survival.

Key is how to make sure Tehran can retain enough economic benefits from the deal still to offset any advantages in pursuing a nuclear weapons programme.

Iran says it had drawn up a plan to overcome the effects of Washington withdrawing, with budgets being reconfigured accordingly.

Apart from internal Iranian dynamics, the impact of Trump's decision when it comes to the regional dimension - which has already shown itself in the Israel/Iran flare-up this week - is deeply worrying.

In Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump has an ally just as belligerent and prone to inflammatory rhetoric as he is.

"Israel has several times sought US help, or at least US support and back-up in striking Iran's nuclear programme. Under the Obama Administration, the answer was: No," wrote retired US Army General Wesley Clark this week.

"Under President Trump, and with the emerging condominium of interests between the Saudis and the Israelis, the possibility of war between Israel and Iran is rising."

Irish Independent

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