How to prevent regional escalation after Trump’s JCPOA decision

Europeans must act now to avert a deadly new war across the Middle East.

Last night’s Iranian missile attacks from Syria into the Israeli-controlled Golan and a fierce Israeli counter-response highlight why the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the potential full collapse of the agreement comes at such a perilous moment. Much has been made of the significant proliferation risk associated with the ending of the deal – Saudi Arabia said yesterday it will pursue nuclear weapons if Iran re-energises its own activities. But the deal’s implosion also risks feeding into a wider cycle of regional conflict, to potentially devastating effect.

As Europeans now look to measures that could ensure the JCPOA survives in some form – and, as my ECFR colleague Ellie Geranmayeh lays out, this will require a far more assertive European stand than has hitherto been the case – they need to be far more responsive to rapidly intensifying regional risks. Important actors may actually view the breakdown of the nuclear deal as a stepping stone towards wider conflict. This sentiment – and the unfolding trajectory of events – needs to be rapidly reversed before the region gets sucked into a broader inter-state confrontation.

Important actors may actually view the breakdown of the nuclear deal as a stepping stone towards wider conflict

In one sense, last night’s attacks were not directly linked to the fate of the nuclear agreement. Iran and Israel have been playing out an increasingly deadly game across Syria over recent months. Israel views Iran’s entrenched position across Syria as the key strategic threat facing it, particularly when combined with the strength of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement in neighbouring Lebanon. Israel increasingly looks at the two countries as one northern front and has sought to enforce a series of red lines aimed at countering the threat. These include preventing the establishment of a permanent Iranian military infrastructure across Syria, blocking an Iranian military presence on its direct border, and preventing the transfer of enhanced missiles capabilities to Hezbollah. Over recent weeks Israel has increased direct targeting of Iranian assets and personnel across Syria.

But this regional dynamic is not separate from ongoing developments on the nuclear front. Donald Trump’s decision comes as part of an intensifying push by the United States, and its key regional partners Israel and Saudi Arabia, to more comprehensively push back against Iran. As part of this, Trump’s team, led by national security adviser John Bolton, is increasingly embracing an agenda of pursuing regime change, with the end of the nuclear deal seen as a necessary first step in this direction. While the president likely remains cautious about directly committing the US to this fight, both Israel and Saudi Arabia undoubtedly believe that recent steps represent the beginning of locking in more full-hearted US support. Trump has now publicly committed himself to ensuring that Iran does not produce a nuclear weapon. Without the safeguard provided by the JCPOA the spectre of military action is likely to once again become a dark cloud hanging over the region.

Iran views the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal as one element of a broader “pressure package” against it, and this understanding will shape its own actions. It is not beyond reason that Iran waited till after Trump’s nuclear decision to launch strikes on Israel. More broadly, Tehran will certainly assume an assertive position of its own in response to increasing pressure. This may well extend beyond the Syrian theatre given the increased interlinkage of regional conflicts, including Tehran’s links to the Houthi movement in Yemen, which has been responsible for a series of missile strikes in Saudi Arabia.

For too long Europeans have sat dissociated from the regional theatre. They now urgently need to wake up to this situation. And as they respond to Trump’s decision they must resist the urge to tie stepped-up European pressure against Iran on the regional front to residual concessions from Trump aimed at salvaging the JCPOA even without ongoing US participation. This is a doomed approach that will only feed widening escalation.

ECFR will next week publish an extensive new report examining the regional dynamics and areas where Europeans should play a more proactive role in preventing a deadly new regional war. But the immediate priority must be to advance de-escalation possibilities between Iran and Israel in Syria before it is too late. Clearly the US is not going to play this role. The Europeans may have a weak hand, but they should at least:

1) urgently accelerate recently launched regional talks with Iran, moving the discussion beyond the issue of Yemen where it is currently focused;

2) engage in quick and deeper consultations with Israel but also Russia, which is one of the few on-the-ground actors with mediating ties to all the ground actors;

3) push the issue to the forefront of the United Nations Security Council agenda;

4) and, of course, do all they can to salvage the nuclear deal without shackling it to dangerous designs aimed at remaking the Middle East.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

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