True to his campaign promises, US President Donald Trump announced 8 May the withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA).
The deal was signed in July 2015 between the P5+1 Group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) and Iran. The signing of the agreement was the culmination of 13 years of quiet and patient diplomacy.
The Obama administration played a decisive role in reaching this landmark agreement that saved the Middle East from a nuclear arms race and prevented a wider military confrontation between Iran and Israel.
Prior to the signing of the agreement in Vienna, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, had done his best to dissuade the Obama administration from proceeding. In his annual appearances before the UN General Assembly he repeatedly, albeit unconvincingly, had warned the world that the deal with Iran would not achieve the P5+1’s goals, and that Iran would still, sooner or later, strive to acquire nuclear capabilities.
His strategy was to drag the United States into a military confrontation against Iran to the advantage of Israel. He kept warning of possible Israeli strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, even without consulting with Washington.
His intelligence chiefs were at odds with him. Their professional assessments of Iranian nuclear intentions and capacities ran counter to his.
From January 2017 onwards, the Israeli prime minister found in the new American president an indispensable ally in laying the groundwork for a possible military reckoning with the Iranians.
And the American president proved to be a very good listener. He went as far as quoting the Israeli prime minister in his remarks from the Diplomatic Room in the White House on 8 May to the effect that Tehran has not lived up to its commitments in the JCPOA and has pursued a secret nuclear programme.
And this despite the fact that there has been an international consensus that Iran has not violated the agreement. But still the American president decided to serve Israeli interests.
The proof that the US president was eyeing Iran from day one in office came in May 2017 when he addressed the first American-Islamic-Arab Summit in Riyadh and singled out Iran and what he called “Islamic terrorism” as the common enemy of America, the Muslim world and Arab countries.
The host country and Israel were elated. They have found, at last, an American president willing to support them without conditions in their fight and confrontation with Iran.
His remarks on 8 May could be interpreted that his administration is not against regime change in Tehran, at least in principle.
In fact, and putting aside the criticism that Trump raised concerning the technical aspects of the Iranian nuclear deal, the withdrawal of Washington from the accord with Iran has to do with larger strategic considerations than its so-called “shortcomings”.
It provides the political cover for Israel and Saudi Arabia, covertly allied and united, to confront Iran in the Middle East and the Gulf, and as far south as Yemen.
Judging by the overall tone of Trump’s remarks earlier this month, it seems that the strategic objective of the American withdrawal from the deal has more to do with America-Israeli cooperation in reshaping the balance of power in the Middle East rather than with the nuclear capabilities of Iran at present or in the future.
In this context, 24 hours after Trump’s remarks at the White House, the Israeli prime minister travelled to Moscow on Wednesday, 9 May, to confer with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The visit aimed at talking Moscow out of providing Syria with S-300 surface-to-air missiles and, in the meantime, asking the Russians to try to convince the Iranians to scale back their military presence in Syria.
This presence has been perceived by Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Amman as part of a more sinister Iranian plan to exercise regional hegemony through what these powers have called the “Shia Arc” extending from Iran to the Mediterranean.
The Israeli prime minister succeeded in postponing the delivery of the surface-to-air missiles to the Syrians; however, it remains to be seen whether the Russians would be willing to discuss with the Iranian and Syrian governments the scaling back of their forces in Syria.
It is doubtful that Damascus and Tehran would accede to such a demand, in case Moscow would broach it, absent a final political solution to the Syrian crisis in the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015.
The Middle East is at a crossroads today driven by two opposing forces and alliances.
The American-Israel-Saudi line-up against Iran, and a regional and a wider international consensus that the best way to restore peace and security in the Middle East is to engage Iran in a dialogue with the purpose of reaching common ground on three interrelated questions; namely, a non-nuclear Iran, less Iranian interference in regional affairs, and the pursuit of political solutions to the armed conflicts and crises that have destabilised the Middle East and the Gulf in the last seven years.
Luckily, and despite the American withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear accord and the re-imposition of American sanctions against Iran that had been waived upon the signing of the nuclear agreement in 2015, the JCPOA still stands.
Iran, on the one hand, and the remaining signatories, that include four permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, have committed to work together to save the nuclear deal.
They have made clear that it remains the best possible plan, and that negotiating a new one, as President Trump suggested in his remarks 8 May, is not feasible nor practical.
As far as Egypt is concerned, its national interests oblige it to position itself, squarely, in the second camp, come rain or high waters.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: The unravelling