Last Thursday, Al-Ahram Weekly published an article by this writer under the title “The state of the Arab world” in which I tried to analyse the present situation in the Arab world after a decade of insecurity, instability and no prospects of a peaceful solution on the horizon to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In this article, I will deal with the stability and future of the Arab system from the regional Middle Eastern angle, adopting the premise that the future of the Arab world is directly linked and impacted by the overall regional landscape.
The lofty goals of millions of Arabs, particularly the younger generations, manifested on the streets of some Arab capitals for democracy and good governance, were scuttled after 2011 by the intricate web of international and regional interference in domestic Arab affairs by the great powers, on the one hand, and by regional powers, on the other, through their proxies whether militias or indigenous political parties and forces.
To complicate matters further, the past decade has witnessed a tug of war between Iran and the US and its allies and partners in the Middle East. The battlegrounds on which this confrontation has been played out have been Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Iraq has also been a battleground for this conflict, though the present Iraqi government has successfully managed to contain it by reaching an agreement with the US to withdraw its combat forces from Iraq in the near future.
At present, the fate of the Middle East hangs by a thread, with all eyes looking to the negotiations in Vienna, at a standstill at the moment, on whether Iran will agree to end its violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iranian nuclear accord of July 2015, from which the former Trump administration withdrew the US in May 2018.
After the US withdrawal from the agreement, Iran moved ahead with its nuclear programme to the extent that experts and intelligence analysts have now shortened the “breakout time” for Iran to manufacture a nuclear weapon to a few months. Three years ago, the expectations in this regard were about 24 months.
This month, Washington hosted several crucial meetings that discussed how to deal with the Iranian nuclear programme if the diplomatic track in Vienna fails to bring Iran back into the fold. The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE have held separate talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. There was also a trilateral meeting bringing together Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah Zayed Al Nahyan, Israeli Foreign Minister and alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, and Blinken. The meeting was to commemorate the first anniversary of the signing of what are known as the “Abraham Accords” between the UAE and Israel.
But Iran and how to deal with it, barring its return to the limitations on its nuclear programme in the context of the JCPOA, held centre stage in the talks the US held separately with the Saudi and Israeli foreign ministers. The US position has been that all options are on the table if Tehran keeps obfuscating. On 27 August, when receiving Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House, Biden said that if all diplomatic options were exhausted, the US would examine “other options,” though he did not say what these might be.
In a joint press conference with the Emirati and Israeli foreign ministers last Tuesday, Blinken said that the US “will look at every option to deal with the challenge posed by Iran.”
Similarly, the discussions between Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Farhan and Blinken centred to a large extent on Iran and its nuclear programme. Al-Farhan met with reporters in Washington on 15 October and expressed Saudi concerns on the accelerating nuclear programme by the Iranians. He left no doubt that Saudi Arabia would not shy away from holding that all options are on the table if the diplomatic avenues with Iran do not bear fruit. He also called for a long-term process in which Iran would be prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon. He further pointed out that his country is calling for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
The Israeli foreign minister was more explicit. After his meeting with Blinken, he said that “there are moments when nations must use force to protect the world from evil,” adding that it was his country’s right and responsibility to do just that after Iran – as he put it – “has publicly stated it wants to wipe us out. We have no intention of letting that happen.”
Earlier this month, Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, hosted his Israeli counterpart Eyal Hulata in the framework of the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group. The White House readout of the meeting characterised the discussions as “constructive” and “open.” A senior administration official told reporters afterwards that the Biden administration was committed to talks with Iran to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. But if diplomacy fails, the US “will be prepared to take measures that are necessary.”
There are different Israeli interpretations of what this could mean in practical or operational terms. Some believe that Washington is speaking of a military option, while others think that it could mean a harsher set of sanctions on Iran. One senior Israeli intelligence official said that at present there was no joint operational contingency plan against Iran should efforts to return to the nuclear agreement fail. He added that the US administration has no solution whatsoever to deal with such an eventuality and said that he believed its focus was on China and not Iran.
The present situation in the Middle East is frozen until the strategic dilemma of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons has been sorted out, either through diplomacy or through the use of force. To expect long-term solutions to Middle Eastern crises absent a final solution of the Iranian nuclear programme would be tantamount to daydreaming. Even the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is being held hostage to the final outcome of this international and regional confrontation.
I believe the Biden administration would like diplomacy to deliver in Vienna and an agreement be reached to return the US to the JCPOA concomitant with Iran rolling back its violations of the agreement. However, if this optimistic scenario does not materialise, the question will be whether the US would be willing to resort to the military option against Iran. And if not, would Israel be prepared to go ahead and attack Iranian military installations on its own if there was undeniable proof that Iran was on the threshold of manufacturing a nuclear weapon?
No one in the Middle East wants to wake up one morning and find that Iran has become the North Korea of the region. Until the question of the Iranian nuclear programme is solved one way or another, it is questionable whether other Middle Eastern crises can be settled anytime soon.
It is also very interesting to discover, but not surprising, that the US, Russian and Israeli governments are discussing holding a meeting of their respective national security advisers to discuss the situations in Iran and Syria. This reminds me of Britain and France reaching their entente cordiale early in the 20th century to carve up the Middle East.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly