Coming weeks will be critical for stability in the Middle East

Coming weeks will be critical for stability in the Middle East

Since the announcement late last week that John Bolton would replace Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, a torrent of reactions, news and analyses have cautioned about the beating drums of war within the White House. The appointment of Bolton, an active and vocal critic of the nuclear deal with Iran, also comes a little more than a month before the May 12 deadline for the next US sanctions waiver on Iran. The Trump administration is then expected to announce a final decision on whether or not the US will stay in the nuclear deal.
May will be decision time for the future of the nuclear deal, but there are three other potentially critical regional developments that same month: On May 6, Lebanon will hold parliamentary elections; six days later it will be Iraq’s turn; and by mid-May the US administration is expected to officially initiate its plan of moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Cutting across all these issues are Iran’s hegemonic plans in the region and various efforts to counter them.
Success in the ongoing talks between the US and the E3 (Britain, France and Germany) is the only scenario that could keep the US in the nuclear deal. These efforts emerged after Trump threatened to walk away from the agreement unless its allies agreed to address the deal’s weaknesses and discuss ways to counter various regional threats posed by Iran. Chief among the latter are Iran’s role in various regional conflicts; Iranian support for Hezbollah and Iran’s Hezbollah-cloning strategy in Syria, Iraq and Yemen; and Tehran’s ballistic missile program.
Until two weeks ago, the outcome of these talks looked promising. Reportedly, the E3 came on board to impose new sanctions on the Iranian people and entities involved in the conflict in Syria and in Iran’s ballistic missile program. Following a quarterly meeting of the joint commission overseeing the agreement between Iran and the P5+1, Brian Hook, director of policy planning at the US State Department, said “we believe we can work within the nuclear deal,” adding “we are focused on the entire picture when it comes to Iran.” 
However, on March 13, Hook’s boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a stringent opponent of the nuclear deal. The US discussions with the E3 are ongoing, but Pompeo’s appointment was widely interpreted as tilting the balance toward a US withdrawal from the deal. 

The region could be on brink of a watershed moment as US deadline on Iran nuclear deal passes, while elections take place in Lebanon and Iraq, and Washington initiates embassy move to Jerusalem. 

Dr. Manuel Almeida

Bolton’s job announcement earlier this week came to reinforce the idea that, at least from the US side, the nuclear deal is likely dead and buried. A former US ambassador to the UN and undersecretary of state for arms control and international security during the George W. Bush administration, Bolton has been a proponent of militaristic and regime-change policies throughout his government career, public appearances and writings. Three years ago, in a New York Times Op-Ed, he wrote about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons: “The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.”
The fresh willingness in Washington, D.C. and key European capitals to confront Iran over its regional policies — something the Obama administration avoided at all costs with the aim of safeguarding the nuclear deal — is a welcome and potentially critical development for regional stability. Yet a unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal will only divide Washington and its European allies, weaken a possible united front against Iranian expansionism, increase tensions in the region, and drive the focus away from the Iranian regime’s actions. A US withdrawal from the deal without enforcement of the nuclear-related sanctions will only limit the damage to a small extent.
Six days before the deadline for the next US sanctions waiver, Lebanon will hold parliamentary elections for the first time in nine years. A new electoral law on proportional representation approved last summer could contribute to a fragmentation of the vote. However, there are plausible fears that Hezbollah — one of the main backers of the electoral law — will stand to benefit. An overwhelming victory for Hezbollah will only tighten its choking grip on the country, maintained among other things by its heavily armed militia, as a springboard for Iran’s regional ambitions.
This very Hezbollah model could then gain a new lease of life in Iraq on May 12 if several of the pro-Iranian Iraqi militia leaders running for Parliament manage to get elected. This will give the wide network of militias backed by Iran a conventional vehicle, beyond the thousands of armed militiamen, to undermine the national reconciliation and development efforts of moderate Prime Minister Haider Abadi in favor of Iran’s sectarian agenda.
Finally, the first concrete steps for the planned move of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in mid-May will only contribute to sidelining the moderates and provide fuel to the radical camp backed by Iran. The likely eruption of violence could easily spread throughout Lebanon and southwestern Syria to the border with Israel, where Israeli forces on the one hand and Hezbollah and a myriad of transnational, pro-Iranian militias on the other have increasingly been threatening to clash.
The month of May could be a watershed moment for peace and stability in the Middle East, with potential repercussions for years to come. To add to the unhealthy levels of suspense, the historic meeting between Trump and the leader of North Korean, Kim Jong-un, is also planned for May. The discussions will inevitably raise parallels between North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and Iran’s nuclear proliferation plans.

•  Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida
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