In the early 1970s, Henry Kissinger’s theory of geopolitical balance between Beijing and Washington managed to spare the world a third world war. The veteran US diplomat was later one of the engineers of the peace accord between Egypt and Israel.
Egypt and Turkey have lately taken a path towards calm and political settlement. The hypothetical opposite scenario would be a clash between two great regional powers, which would not be limited to the two sides but rather cause a region already suffering from other fires to blow up. The question is, can the fires that Iran has started in the region all through the past decade be put out? Moreover, can Iran be integrated into the international community as a normal party, accepting the concept of regional partnership rather than regional hegemony?
The current talks in Vienna are geared towards reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (5+1), despite the associated challenges. It is likely that Iran’s push to increase uranium enrichment to 60 per cent – over twice the level agreed on in the June 2015 nuclear agreement – will have been achieved by the time a deal is reached.
Although Tehran insists it wants to return to the same terms of the agreement, Iran is also increasing the number of centrifuges. Pictures taken by the Intel Labs security research group show that Iran is expanding the construction of buildings at the Parchin military base, southeast of Tehran, with four new blast-proof structures surrounded by dust mounds.
It can be deduced that Iran is seeking to consolidate its gains during the recent talks and put the onus on Washington for withdrawing from the nuclear agreement in 2018. Washington often seeks to alleviate pressures to which it is exposed as a result of the hostile Iranian policy in the region, which means that it may make concessions in order to facilitate the deal.
At the same time US troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan. It seems that the Biden administration is seeking to rearrange its global cards: the US and Russia are consolidating their powers in the Ukraine; and the US is realigning itself with NATO. Furthermore, a new military deployment was announced in Germany, which represents the headquarters of US command in Europe, and maybe Washington has the same idea with regard to the South China Sea.
Another question this raises is whether the Middle East is any longer of interest to US foreign policy. The answer is no.
A number of European powers, such as France and Belgium, took part in the Arabian Sea Warfare Exercise with the US Naval Forces Central Command along with USS Dwight D Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, and Japan – a newcomer. These moves are indicative of shifts in the region.
On another front, Saudi-Iranian talks are taking place in Iraq, according to Western reports, attended by the directors of the intelligence services on both sides. However, indications remain ambiguous despite the frequent meetings held with Western diplomatic support. The talks may be held to provide a regional solution of crises between Riyadh and Tehran to stop the raging battles, particularly in Yemen.
While talks are being held in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, the Houthi militia is still showering Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones.
Until now, Iranian steps are seen as tactical moves with all involved parties in the context of a regional solution to the crisis. Iran wants to persuade the world it is responding to regional security arrangements, while it is still enhancing the capabilities of its regional proxies. Once the agreement is signed again, the same policy will change, unless Tehran obtains what it feels belongs to it. Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi’s criticism of the Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War was an indication that the proxies would not respond with a regional settlement led by an Arab party to solve Arab crises, but rather a modification of a settlement.
For its part Israel is engaged in battles with Iran on several fronts. In Syria, Israel is still shelling Iranian military infrastructure. In recent years the reactors that increase Iran’s capacity have been subjected to unprecedented attacks that became known as the “mysterious explosions” that Tehran attributed to Israel, the most recent of which was last week when the Natanz nuclear site was sabotaged. Israel says it will not reject a nuclear agreement with Tehran, but it will confront Iran’s nuclear quest.
In conclusion, it is too early to say the region will be stabilised in the short term. Geopolitical balance calculations notwithstanding, there are still powers tending towards military force than diplomacy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly