The Battle against Iran’s Behavior

The Battle against Iran’s Behavior

Monday, 21 May, 2018 - 07:30
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
A new difficult and decisive chapter in American-Iranian ties, which have been thorny for four decades, is expected to kick off on Monday with a speech by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. A new difficult and decisive chapter in ties between Iran and Arabs is also set to kick off. It is not unusual to label this chapter as the most dangerous, especially after it became clear that Washington has changed, while Tehran insists that it has not.

US State Department media leaks of the speech are enough to cement the above-mentioned impression. The phase that began with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 is over. So too is the extraordinary success that Tehran achieved through negotiations that led to the agreement. This success can be attributed to Iran’s ability to limit the negotiations to its nuclear program and omit its wide attack on the region.

Former US President Barack Obama was obsessed with signing a nuclear deal with Iran, which is why he agreed to exclude tackling the problem of its regional behavior. This excessive keenness reached the extent of the US linking its policy in Syria to succeeding in signing the deal.

The region would not be on the verge of a new difficult chapter had Obama succeeded in reaching a comprehensive deal that eased the fears of regional or neighboring countries of not only Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but its destabilizing policy. Iran has never shied away from boasting about its regional role, with a number of its generals, on several occasions, saying that Tehran now has the first and final say in four Arab countries.

The State Department explained that Pompeo’s first speech on foreign policy will include a “roadmap” on cooperation with US allies in order to deal with “all threats” posed by Iran. It stressed that the US wants to ensure that any new agreement with Tehran would tackle its nuclear program, ballistic missiles, support for terrorists and violent and hostile activities that are fueling the civil war in Syria and Yemen.

This clearly means that Washington will in no way ease nuclear fears and turn a blind eye to destabilizing and roaming militia activity in the region. This also means that showing flexibility in one pending file was not enough to keep others off the negotiations table. It appears that Iran is required to not only change its stance from one issue, but to reconsider its entire policy, meaning its behavior.

The matter of Iran changing its behavior was clearly stated in US President Donald Trump’s May 8 speech in which he announced the withdrawal from the nuclear deal. In justifying his decision, he said that Iran was a state-sponsor of terrorism, was continuing its ballistic missile tests, supporting militias and targeting embassies and American soldiers. He accused Tehran of investing the funds it obtained from the deal in developing its ballistic missile arsenal and supporting terror.

Soon after announcing the withdrawal, Trump signed a presidential order that re-imposed American sanctions linked to Iran’s nuclear program. He also warned any country that helps Iran in its nuclear quest that it too may be slapped with severe US sanctions.

The other signatories of the nuclear deal did not appear to have accepted Trump’s decision. The European side felt that its interests were in danger and that the region will fall into a deeper military abyss. Europe rebelled against the decision and said that it would save the deal through reaching guarantees. Major European companies are, however, leaning towards withdrawing from the deal if it means they will not be shut out of US markets.

The intense consultations between the concerned powers to save the deal have demonstrated that it was very difficult to salvage it in its current structure. The deal must be saved through follow up measures or vows. Countries seeking to save the deal are not acknowledging Iran’s current behavior, especially in regards to its ballistic missile program and armament of militias.

This means that the deal can only be saved by having Tehran accept to change its behavior.

It is clear that we are headed towards a new difficult chapter between Iran, the US, the region and the world. Flareups, such as when Israel openly struck Iranian targets in Syria in retaliation to Iranian strikes against the Israeli-occupied Golan, cannot be ruled out. Russia may have so far succeeded in containing the strikes and consequently avoiding a comprehensive confrontation, but the game could at any moment run away from those holding the reins.

The days to come may likely prove that Iran committed a major error when it believed that the nuclear deal was a victory that demonstrated the United States’ limits and gave Tehran the green light to continue and escalate its behavior. They will prove that putting Iranian rockets in Houthi hands was a grave mistake given the power of the side they are targeting. Tehran may have also misinterpreted the significance of the withdrawal being announced by a president, whose reactions are unpredictable.

Pompeo’s speech will signal the beginning of the battle against Iran’s behavior. For Tehran, it will be more difficult than the battle over its nuclear program. The program itself is part of a policy that refuses to return Iran back into a normal state that cannot control countries near and far and use militias and rockets to spark major upheavals against historic balances of power.

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