An out for Iran

Ahmed Mustafa, Monday 13 Feb 2023

Despite rising tensions, internal troubles and a drone attack on one of its military facilities, there is still a window for a deal with Iran — or at least many in the Gulf hope so.

Director General of the IAEA  Rafael Grossi
Director General of the IAEA Rafael Grossi


Hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Paris this week, French President Emmanuel Macron raised the bar of his rhetoric against Iran. According to the Israeli media, he “reportedly blasted Tehran for its ‘headlong rush’ into its controversial nuclear research programme that is widely seen as being aimed at developing nuclear weapons”.

Macron’s tough position on Iran pleased his Israeli guest, who went on to describe his meeting with Macron as positive. Netanyahu stressed the “very big rapprochement”, focusing on “the way we see the Iranian threat”.

The Israeli premier stressed that European and Israeli positions on Iran were “gradually converging. The conversation was very good. We talked about concrete things. He [Macron] expressed willingness to consider the imposition of sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” Netanyahu told the media following the meeting in Paris, referring to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). But the EU’s high Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell told reporters last month that the EU could only label the IRGC a terrorist organisation after a European Union court defined it as such.

Some media commentators saw a paradigm shift in the European stance on Iran, concluding that efforts to revive a nuclear deal between Iran and the West are at an end. The deal was signed in 2015, but in 2018 former US president Donald Trump withdrew from it. Since the Biden administration came to power in 2021, negotiations to rejoin the deal as the best means to stop Tehran developing a nuclear bomb have been ongoing.

Those negotiations stalled after the war in Ukraine last year, and Iran’s apparent support for Russia in the conflict. The impasse in talks deepened as Iran witnessed widespread demonstrations and protests following the death of a young woman who took off her hijab. Later, a new far-right Israeli government came to power, again led by Netanyahu, who is known to be the world’s most vocal critic of the Iranian regime.

Yet neither the Americans nor the Europeans have officially admitted that the revival of a nuclear deal is off the table. This rising tension is almost considered a bargaining tactic, though the West is waiting to see how internal popular turmoil in Iran impacts its position. Israel seems to be taking every chance it gets to end efforts to revive the nuclear deal.

Last month, a drone attack targeted a military site in Isfahan, central Iran. Iran accused Israel of launching the attack. Though no concrete evidence regarding who carried out the attack, many reports suggested different parties. Some have even claimed Kyiev played a part in the attack, in retaliation against Iran supplying drones to the Russian military operation in Ukraine.

But in an interview with CNN after the attack, Netanyahu admitted Israel had been “taking action against certain weapons developments” in Iran but neither confirmed nor denied it had attacked the site in Isfahan. He added, “I never talk about specific operations… and every time some explosion takes place in the Middle East, Israel is blamed or given responsibility: sometimes we are, sometimes we’re not.”

It is not the first time attacks believed to be by Israel have targeted Iran. Some of these attacks were followed by strikes against ships in the Gulf or Indian Ocean. Though Iran denied involvement, it was believed to be behind them since some of those vessels were Israeli.

The latest attack raised the spectre of America changing its position on Iran, especially as the attack happened in the middle of a flurry of visits by American senior figures to Tel Aviv. Some media outlets in the region started to portray the development as an “Israeli and American agreement to launch a war on Iran”. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, as Gulf capitals are actually wary of the escalation.

Following the attack on Isfahan, the United Arab Emirates’ Presidential Diplomatic Adviser Anwar Gargash took to Twitter to describe the blast as something that “is not in the interest of the region or its future”. He wrote, “there is no alternative to dialogue and a political solution to avoid escalation.” Some might argue that the Gulf countries’ position on Iran is not the same, and Saudi Arabia might be for war on Iran.

But Saudi political commentator Abdul- Aziz Alkhames told Al-Ahram Weekly that this is not true. “I don’t see escalation to a war on Iran. On the contrary, I think there is still a chance for revival of the nuclear deal with the West. It is a known Iranian tactic: they keep blackmailing the world and at the eleventh hour they compromise and go for a deal,” he said. Yet, Alkhames suggests the Israelis are keen to normalise relations with Riyadh and would use shared opposition to Tehran to that end. “Netanyahu tries to placate Saudi Arabia by talking tough on Iran. He plays on the Saudis’ well-known resentment of Iranian aggressive meddling in the region’s affairs.”

In a very volatile situation like the one the region is going through now, nothing can be ruled out. But the bottom line is that the Gulf Arab countries are not keen on a war on Iran – not because they approve of Iranian policies, but because they anticipate the unsettling consequences of a military conflict.

Some analysts do not agree that the US is fully supporting Israeli escalation. Andrew Hammond of Oxford University told Al-Ahram Weekly he doesn’t think “the US authorised a war on Iran”, though he accepts that they “were certainly in the loop about the drone attack”, especially since the “Israelis did it when CIA Chief Burns, then Secretary of State Blinken was visiting”.  But Hammond is not ruling out “further escalation next year” though it might have dangerous potential.

“It’s the Israelis’ window for action because 2024 will be a year of presidential campaigning in the US, so better to stoke things up to war level with Iran now. Secondly, it’s a new [Israeli] government in power that wants to make its mark.”

The feeling in the Gulf is that “skirmishes” might continue, but the prospect of a full-blown war on Iran is not expected. It is almost a situation of “wait and see”, even if the Israelis continue a push for war.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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