In the last few months, the U.S.¬–Iran confrontation has been rapidly and steadily plunging the Middle East into the atmosphere of an impending armed conflict. The main stumbling block for Tehran and Washington is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the two states differed in their assessment of its terms. Iran believes that by becoming a party to the JCPOA it has already made significant concessions by voluntarily curtailing its sovereign right to develop a nuclear sector. Under the provisions of the nuclear deal, Iran undertook both to limit the pace of producing enriched uranium and plutonium and to grant IAEA officers broad access to its nuclear facilities. On the whole, Iran perceived these steps as a concession in the name of peace and the country’s economic prosperity. Donald Trump, on the contrary, views the Iran deal as a giant misstep by the Obama Administration. In his opinion, his predecessor both missed the opportunity to curb Iran’s policies in the region and helped lift sanctions from a state that the United States has recognized as the principal global sponsor of terrorism. Consequently, after many promises, the United States withdrew unilaterally from the JCPOA in 2018 and then resumed the regime of harsh sanctions against Iran. From the point of view of the Trump administration, the JCPOA cannot be confined to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear area only. On the contrary, the deal should extend to all of Iran’s activities that are directed against the interests of Washington or its allies. Additionally, Donald Trump also stated that the very restrictions imposed on Iran’s nuclear programs were highly unreliable and allowed Iran to secretly build up its nuclear potential. Consequently, from the point of view of the current U.S. leadership, the JCPOA should be revised and re-negotiated to be concluded on terms that would be more advantageous for Washington. Naturally, this cannot possibly sit well with Tehran, which already believes itself to be the affected party.
What Does Iran Want?
Iran was quite satisfied with the JCPOA. Naturally, it had to make concessions to the West and restrict its nuclear program, but in exchange, the harsh sanctions were lifted from Iran, which gave it new opportunities for trade and investment. However, the change of power in the US laid bare a new obstacle in the way of Iran’s politics: a new president in the United States means a new political course for the country. Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 elections put an end to the United States’ participation in the JCPOA and forced Iran to think about whether it is economically expedient to participate further in the nuclear deal. It both jeopardized the JCPOA and struck a major blow to the reputation of President Hassan Rouhani in particular, and of the supporters of Iran’s moderate politics in general. The current situation means that Iran agreed to make concessions to the West and never received what it had been promised. Despite its flexibility and tractability, Iran is again under harsh sanctions. And most of the country’s main trading partners comply with them. Thus, one of Iran’s most significant demands for the new deal should be to revise the mechanism for withdrawing from the deal in order to make this step as difficult as possible. One of the main reasons why Iran refuses to enter into talks with the United States is that Tehran does not believe Washington is prepared to follow through on the commitments it undertakes. Listing the reasons why Tehran does not accept Washington’s invitation to launch talks on a new JCPOA, Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei, among other things, said, “In the final stage, after receiving all the immediate advantages, the U.S. breaches their own promises: they forget their strongly verbalized promises. This is the U.S.’s method of negotiating. Now should we negotiate with such a sham of a government? Why should we negotiate? The JCPOA was a clear example. Even though I was very strict about it – yet, the red lines were not respected. Still, the other party acted in such a manner. So, it is impossible to negotiate with this government.” It is clear that this time, mere promises on the part of the United States will be insufficient to conclude an agreement, even if these promises take the form of the provisions of a new treaty. As far as Iran sees it, the United States can promise much, but without definite guarantees, there is virtually nothing that keeps it from breaking its word just as easily and dismantling the agreement. Thus, the new agreement should stipulate guarantees against the easy unilateral withdrawal by any of the parties from the treaty. Naturally, it is difficult to envision a mechanism that would completely rule out the possibility of breaching the commitments while at the same time not infringing upon state sovereignty, but the system of withdrawing from the treaty can be made significantly harder. In particular, the withdrawal should not depend solely on the executive branch.
It appears that this goal may be achieved by “tying” the treaty to the national body of laws in each state that is a party to the deal. For as long as the JCPOA is enshrined solely in a resolution of the UN Security Council, its provisions, despite their binding nature, still remain within the limits of international law. Experience shows that, if this is the case, it is very easy for a President of the United States to declare that his country shall unilaterally cease to comply with its commitments under the treaty, as there are no impediments to this at the national level. However, any international treaty can be incorporated into the national legislation, thereby making the application of domestic procedures of amending legislation a mandatory condition for amending the treaty. Thus, the new deal can include a provision that the treaty comes into force only after it has been ratified by each party. In this case, each state that is party to the treaty will be bound by its domestic system of amending legislation, and such a system usually involves complicated parliamentary procedures. Such a system would create a counter-balance for the executive represented by the president, as it would restrict the executive powers to withdraw from the nuclear deal. This may inspire confidence in Tehran that changes in power in the United States will not radically affect Washington’s membership in the new deal. Consequently, Iran can be certain that this time, its concession will not be in vain.
What Does the United States Want?
The Trump administration represented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a list of demands for Tehran which, once fulfilled, should lead to the sanctions being lifted. The list included 12 items (a 13th was added later on) calling upon Iran to withdraw its troops from Iraq and Syria; cease supporting such organizations as HAMAS and Hezbollah, etc.; grant the IAEA unqualified access to all its military facilities to conduct inspections; abolish its ballistic missile program, etc. Naturally, it is quite difficult to picture Iran complying with even a half of these demands, as it will seriously hurt the Middle East strategy the country has been building for the last 40 years. Thus, if the chance to find a compromise does appear, then the most serious concerns of the Trump administration regarding Iran’s politics should be addressed, otherwise, no deal can be concluded. Clearly, the greatest threat coming from Iran is the prospect of it developing nuclear weapons. When it comes to the nuclear deterrence with regard to Iran, two factors are important for the United States: the possibility of verifying compliance on the part of Iran with its obligations and the term of the JCPOA’s validity. At the same time, the demands of the United States concerning the provisions of the new treaty largely depend on the true intentions of the Trump administration. In that regard, at least two scenarios are possible.
The First Scenario
Donald Trump wanted to conclude a more advantageous deal on his terms, but since Iran proved to be intractable, he wants to reinstall at least those restrictions that had been agreed upon under the JCPOA in order to avoid having to solve the problem by force. In this case, Trump will have to both convince Iran to enter into talks again and draft a new deal in such a way as to “save face” in front of his voters and the global community in general. First, he needs to show that his entire “maximum pressure” campaign was not fruitless and did indeed prompt Iran to enter into talks with Washington. Second, Trump cannot just bring back the original JCPOA. A major part of Trump’s presidential campaign hinged on harsh criticism of the “nuclear deal,” which he called “terrible.” However, if Trump is willing to bring back the main JCPOA restrictions in order to conclude a new treaty, that would not be a political fiasco for his administration. It would suffice to make certain cosmetic changes that would be presented as significant concessions on the part of Iran and a victory of the “maximum pressure” strategy. In this case, the criticism of the JCPOA that underlay Trump’s electoral campaign should be used as a starting point. First, it is a fixed-time deal. Second, from the point of view of the U.S. administration, it allows Iran to secretly enrich uranium and further improve its nuclear program. In both areas, superficial restrictions may be introduced that are presented as radically new rules of the game for Iran. For instance, the IAEA can be granted some additional rights to inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities. Naturally, we are not talking unqualified access to all military facilities, since Tehran finds this utterly unacceptable. It is, however, possible to reduce the time of advance notification that IAEA officers must give Tehran of an upcoming inspection at a particular facility. Introducing a new term of validity for the treaty would appear to be more complicated since Iran would never agree to the restrictions being indefinite. One option could be to extend the treaty by stipulating a period of gradual easing off of the IAEA’s monitoring of the nuclear program.
The Second Scenario
The Trump administration continues to assert the effectiveness of the “maximum pressure” strategy and still hopes to force Tehran to engage in talks on Washington’s terms. If the Trump administration continues to believe the “maximum pressure” strategy is a success, concluding a treaty will hinge on Iran making significant concessions. The question is what “red lines” Washington will draw for itself and what it is willing to offer Iran in exchange for the concessions required. If the United States continues to stick to its 13 demands, offering nothing but the lifting of the sanctions in exchange, the prospects of a new treaty are doomed, and it is highly probable that, sooner or later, Iran will start to work diligently on the development of its nuclear program. In this case, the only solution to the problem is the use of military force against Tehran. Trump’s readiness to start a new war in the Middle East is doubtful, especially since abstaining from needless conflicts is a key element of the politics of the current U.S. president. Consequently, the only way out of the current predicament is to look for a compromise that Iran could agree to and that could help Trump minimize the damage to his reputation as a competent president.
It is quite clear that the JCPOA if taken as an instrument of a comprehensive settlement of all threats coming from Iran, is far from perfect. It does not set any restrictions on Tehran’s military activities in the Middle East, it is a fixed-time deal, and it cannot prohibit Iran from extending financial and military aid to its regional allies. Nevertheless, the JCPOA did guarantee the main thing – that Tehran could not obtain nuclear weapons, the prospect of which far outweighs all other threats emanating from the country. Thus far, there is no alternative to this agreement, and no replacement appears to be in the offing. Despite the harsh economic sanctions and the real threat of an open military conflict with the United States, Tehran is firmly holding its ground and does not intend to engage in talks on Washington’s terms. At the same time, Iran continues to hide aces up its sleeves in the event that further negotiations take place as the country gradually resumes its military nuclear program. Sooner or later, the emerging situation will force the Trump Administration to make the difficult choice between the JCPOA and a new war in the Middle East. It is hard to say which is the preferred option for Washington, but it still seems that a bad peace is better than a good war.
From our partner RIAC
The 32nd Arab League meeting will have a far-reaching impact
The Arab League is an alliance of states that currently has 22 member states in Northern Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula, which belongs geographically to Asia. All member countries together cover an area of 13.15 million km² (8.7% of the world’s inhabitable area). Significant parts are desert regions such as the Sahara and the Rub al-Khali sand desert. With about 456.52 million inhabitants, the area is home to about 5.8 percent of the world’s population.
On October 7, 1944, a “Protocol of Alexandria” was signed as a loose union. After elaborating on the ideas, the Arab League was founded the following year on 11 May 1945. The first member states were the kingdoms of Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, as well as Lebanon, Syria, and the then Emirate of Transjordan.
The history of the Arab League since then has been marked by numerous political and military conflicts in the region. In the immediate post-war period, the growing Jewish population in Palestine played a major role. This led to the division of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state in 1949. With the withdrawal of the British Allies, there was also a lack of an overarching protective power and serious and recurrent conflicts with Israel arose.
The recent 32nd Arab League Meeting held in the magnificent city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has drawn to a successful close, leaving a profound impact on regional politics. High-ranking officials and diplomats from Arab nations gathered to discuss pressing issues and forge a path toward greater cooperation and unity. The meeting, which took place against a backdrop of evolving geopolitical dynamics, produced key decisions that are poised to shape the future of the Arab world.
Hosted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a staunch advocate of Arab solidarity and stability, the summit aimed to bolster inter-Arab relations and address the region’s most pressing challenges. Under the gracious patronage of His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, leaders and representatives from across the Arab League engaged in constructive dialogue, fostering an atmosphere of camaraderie and shared vision.
One of the major highlights of the meeting was the unanimous agreement on establishing a joint counterterrorism center. This significant step underscores the Arab League’s commitment to combating terrorism and maintaining regional security. The center will serve as a platform for intelligence sharing, coordinated efforts, and capacity building among member states, further enhancing the collective response to the ever-present threat of extremism.
In addition to counterterrorism initiatives, the Arab League delegates focused on revitalizing the Arab Peace Initiative, which has been instrumental in pursuing a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The participants expressed their unwavering support for the rights of the Palestinian people and called for renewed international efforts to resume meaningful negotiations. The Arab League’s stance sends a clear message that a comprehensive and equitable solution is imperative for sustainable peace in the region.
Moreover, discussions during the summit centered on the ongoing crises in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Arab League members pledged increased support and cooperation in finding political solutions and bringing stability to these war-torn nations. The delegates affirmed their commitment to the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference, emphasizing the need for inclusive dialogue to end conflicts and restore peace.
The political impact of the Arab League Meeting cannot be understated. It signifies a renewed commitment to Arab unity and cooperation amid a rapidly changing regional landscape. The decisions made in Jeddah hold the potential to shape the political dynamics of the Arab world, ensuring stability, security, and prosperity for its nations and peoples.
The meeting also provided an opportunity for member states to strengthen bilateral relations and engage in fruitful discussions on areas of mutual interest. In the spirit of constructive diplomacy, numerous side meetings and cultural exchanges took place, fostering greater understanding and cooperation among Arab nations.
As the Arab League Meeting drew to a close, the host nation, Saudi Arabia, expressed gratitude to all participating countries for their valuable contributions and emphasized its commitment to further collaboration in the future. The outcomes of the meeting will be diligently pursued and implemented, underlining the shared determination of Arab nations to overcome challenges and seize opportunities for progress.
This time the participation of Syria was a milestone, it happened after 12 years of absence. Another important aspect was the attendance of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. These two important aspects will have far-reaching impacts on regional politics and global peace, stability, and security.
Regional Connectivity in the Gulf Cooperation Council
The Gulf Cooperation Council consists of a region of some of the most formidable economies in the world that enjoy vast oil and gas reserves which have brought them immense wealth. The GCC have combined oil reserves of about 497 billion barrels which is 34% of the world’s supply, according to King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center. However, these countries also share similar problems, which have become increasingly apparent with the fluctuation and gradual decline in global oil prices as well as the impacts of climate change. Since gulf countries share similar economic issues, it means that they should take collaborative efforts to curb these problems as well. Enhancing regional connectivity is one way to achieve this. It will help improve the economies of all GCC member states in the future and allow them to connect with larger markets.
Over the years, several steps have been taken by gulf countries to improve regional connectivity. For instance, since 1980s, there have been plans and several attempts to create a common GCC currency termed as Khaleeji or Dinar. The currency is expected to be valued at around 1 USD = 1.984 KHJ. Although since then, Oman and the UAE have withdrawn from the plans until further notice, this idea still enjoys popularity and GCC governments are still considering it. The region already meets many of the necessary criteria for a common currency as all seven of the countries have very similar economies, values, cultures, and histories. A common currency would bolster trade flows between the countries by removing border barriers, which will result in cheaper goods and services, particularly of healthcare, tourism, and education, and economic well-being of all the countries involved as a result of increased regional connectivity. A common gulf currency would also reduce exchange-rate uncertainties. Tourists and citizens would not need to constantly exchange currencies when visiting different countries in the region. A common currency will also reduce barriers for the transfer of people between gulf countries which will make it easy to exchange skilled labour, thus decreasing unemployment overall and also producing more opportunities for highly educated domestic workers being produced every year. It will also lead to greater economic integration in the GCC as regional connectivity grows stronger.
GCC countries have also begun to seriously explore strengthening transport links. After careful thought and deliberation, gulf countries have agreed to build a 2177km GCC railway in 2009 stretching from Kuwait, entering Saudi Arabia, connecting Bahrain as well as Qatar, then moving through the UAE and ending in Oman. The railway will also connect vast networks of existing and planned railway networks in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Oman, further improving regional connectivity in the gulf. The project is expected to be completed by 2025 and is expected to drastically improve trade costs, travel times, and connectivity between ports and cities. It will boost trade flows across the bloc and attract foreign direct investment. The GCC also aims to establish a common market and joint Customs union to further strengthen regional connectivity, which will result in greater economic growth and integration. The Saudis have already started expanding their already vast network of railway tracks. They have completed the al-Qurayyat station which connects Riyadh to Jordan and the rest of northern Saudi Arabia, stretching across 1215km. Moreover, the kingdom completed the Haramain speed train at Rabigh Station which connects the Holy cities of Makkah and Madinah through a 450 km track. The UAE has also expanded its existing railway infrastructure, especially with a national rail network connecting 11 cities with trains travelling 200km per hour. Moreover, the Qataris have also built an extensive railway network as part of their efforts to organize the FIFA World Cup last year which consists of 26 projects. These railway lines will be connected with the GCC railway and they will boost regional connectivity in the region, facilitating the transport of people, information, and goods.
Other measures that the GCC could take to enhance regional connectivity would be to take steps to incorporate long term strategies of each member. All GCC member states have similar long-term goals as outlined by Saudi Vision 2030, Bahrain Vision 2030, Kuwait Vision 2035, UAE Vision 2030, Qatar Vision 2030, and Oman Vision 2040. The crux of these plans is to rid GCC states of oil dependence, combat climate change, and increase tourism and entertainment for more economic diversification. Integrating these efforts will increase collaboration, which will duly increase regional connectivity, resulting in more efficient execution of these plans. Moreover, other approaches include easing or eliminating border restrictions to enable free movement between GCC states for citizens and tourists. A major factor limiting trade is border restrictions as trade is less likely to happen if there is a border in between, even if the distance is negligible. If border restrictions are eliminated, then trade will become more frequent and there will be greater regional connectivity between adjacent countries. Furthermore, tourists will also be able to easily access other GCC member states and hence spend more money, cross border competition between markets would also increase, leading to more competitive prices, and finally, it will also reduce price differentials for people who live in areas that are near borders.
For this to happen, GCC countries need to improve diplomatic relations among themselves. This is particularly true after the diplomatic tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia between 2017 and 2021 which had forced the GCC nation to seek reroute flights and vessels. Such diplomatic crises will harm prospects for regional connectivity in the GCC and therefore need to be avoided. Moreover, the GCC’s economic growth is expected only at 3.2%, which is much lower than the 7.3% figure estimated in 2022. The figure is also a decline from the 5.8% growth in 2022. Furthermore, oil prices had been declining since many years, which poses a danger to the economies of the GCC. Although a cut in output by OPEC+ member states will boost oil prices in the short-run (they already helped oil prices cross $80 per barrel), this is not sustainable for the GCC economies. Therefore, GCC countries face a range of serious challenges when it comes to regional connectivity. However, the opportunities far outweigh the challenges and the GCC enjoys potential to become an economic powerhouse in the region.
Culture wars bubble under Arab surfaces
Religious conservatives and nationalists in the Muslim world and beyond have the wind in their sails. So do Arab autocrats, even if they increasingly cloak themselves in nationalism rather than religious conservatism.
Last week’s first election round in Turkey saw conservatives and ultra-nationalists win control of parliament. At the same time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears set to win a third presidential term in this Sunday’s run-off against opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Irrespective of whether he is reelected, Mr. Erdogan’s conservative religious and nationalist coalition will enjoy a 322-seat majority in the 600-member Turkish parliament.
To even stand a chance of defeating Mr. Erdogan in the May 28 presidential run-off, Mr. Kilicdaroglu has hardened his anti-migrant and anti-Kurdish rhetoric since the May 14 first round in which he trailed the president by five percent.
Turkey is home to the world’s largest Syrian refugee community, estimated at 3.7 million, followed by Lebanon and Jordan.
As a result, Syrian refugees, like other minorities and disadvantaged groups, will be among the losers no matter who emerges as Turkey’s next president.
The Syrian plight is compounded by the welcoming of President Bashar al-Assad’s return earlier this month to the Arab fold when he attended an Arab League summit in Jeddah.
Instead of establishing criteria for handling the millions of people displaced by Mr. Al-Assad’s brutal conduct during a decade-long civil war, Arab leaders catered to the Syrian leader’s insistence that refugees return to his war-ravaged country.
The lack of criteria has opened the door to forced deportations, even if authorities in host countries deny the involuntary removal of refugees and Arab officials insist that their return must be voluntary.
Religious support for Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) fits a global mould in which conservative Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Hindus, and others find common ground in popularly supported traditional family values that constitute the norm in conservative societies.
Embrace of those values allows civilisationalist leaders such as Mr. Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the prime ministers of India and Hungary, Narendra Modi and Victor Orban, to position themselves as bulwarks against Western promotion of gender fluidity and LGBTQ rights.
Even so, Turkey is one of two Middle Eastern countries most immediately prone to a culture war given Mr. Erdogan’s use of identity politics, culture warring, and anti-migrant rhetoric in his election campaign.
If Turkey is one step removed from a full-fledged culture war, Israel, governed by the most ultra-conservative and ultra-nationalist coalition in its history, is already at war with itself.
Government policies have sparked sustained mass protests and strained relations with the United States and significant segments of the Jewish Diaspora. They have also escalated tensions with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip.
At the other end of the Muslim world, reformers in Indonesia are concerned that Anies Baswedan, a former Jakarta governor with close ties to religious conservatives, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Islamic militants, is one of three top candidates for the presidency in February 2024.
“These links raise concerns among Indonesia’s religious minorities, which make up 13 percent of the population, as well as many moderate Muslims,” said journalist Joseph Rahman.
To be sure, Iran is the Middle East’s true outlier. Forty-four years after the creation of an Islamic republic, culture was at the core of months of anti-government protests that sought to reduce, not increase, religion’s role in politics.
The protests were sparked by the death in custody last September of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman detained by morality police in Tehran in September for allegedly wearing her hijab “improperly.”
Interestingly, renewed popularity of religious conservatism has not sparked culture wars in the Arab Middle East like the battles fought in polarised societies such as Israel, the United States, and India or Christian faith communities like the Anglican church.
In various Arab countries, rulers pushing social and economic rather than political change subjugate religious elites potentially opposed to their liberalizing reforms. In addition, the repression of freedom of expression makes non-violent culture wars virtually impossible. So does the criminalisation of apostasy and blasphemy and, in Saudi Arabia, defining atheism calls as an act of terrorism.
Finally, Arab autocrats and authoritarians were early adapters as they waged a brutal campaign against Islamists in the wake of the 2011 popular Arab revolts in what analysts such as Shadi Hamid said amounted to a culture war.
The campaign rolled back the achievements of the revolts that toppled Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen’s leaders. A 2013 United Arab Emirates and Saudi-backed military coup overthrew Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president. In addition, wars were waged to counter Islamists and jihadists in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.
In a twist of irony, that may have been round one in a Middle Eastern culture war. If recent polling is any indication, political Islam is making a comeback alongside religious conservatism, at least in terms of public sentiment.
“In most countries surveyed, young and old citizens demonstrate a clear preference for giving religion a greater role in politics,” said Michael Robbins, director and co-principal investigator of Arab Barometer. The group regularly surveys public opinion in the Middle East.
“In 2021-2022, roughly half or more in five of ten countries surveyed agreed that religious clerics should influence decisions of government,” Mr. Robbins added.
To be sure the comeback, may remain restricted to support in anonymous polling. There is little, if any, space for political Islam to express itself in countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. In exile, Islamist’s space is narrowing. For now, that gives autocrats and authoritarians the upper hand.
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