Middle East Ticker

What Comes After the Iran Deal?

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, March 27, 2018, 10:00 AM

The Last Days of the Iran Deal?

With the replacement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Sen. Bob Corker told CBS News earlier this month that he does not think that the Trump administration will remain a party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action beyond May. The appointment of Amb. John Bolton as the new national security advisor, replacing Gen. H.R. McMaster, makes this all but certain. Pompeo and Bolton have been committed critics of the agreement—going back to 2015, before the deal was finalized, through the present—and the ascendancy of their hawkish views within the administration coincides with reports that, now more than a year into his presidency, Trump feels empowered to follow through on more aggressive policies that he favors but deferred in his first year.

On Monday, a bipartisan group of more than 100 national security experts, including retired ambassadors and generals, circulated a letter in support of the JCPOA. News of Bolton’s appointment last week has made even critics of the JCPOA anxious. “My long-standing support for a fix for the Iran deal may have just died an untimely death,” the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Mark Dubowitz told Reuters after Bolton’s role was announced. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who has offered mild support for the Iran deal but also advocates confronting Iran’s influence in the broader Middle East, “told colleagues before the appointment was announced that he would find it difficult to work with Mr. Bolton,” the New York Times reported last week. David Ignatius, columnist for the Washington Post, said in a recent interview that Israeli defense officials are concerned about the fallout from the United States abrogating the JCPOA, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently criticized the agreement, including in his speech at the AIPAC conference earlier this month. Netanyahu and the Trump administration’s continued opposition have frustrated European parties to the agreement. German Chancellor Angela Merkel confronted Netanyahu at Davos in January, Axios reported last week. If the United States withdraws from the JCPOA, “[i]t will put us, the Brits and the French on the same side with Russia, China and Iran when the U.S. and Israel will be on the other side. Is this what you want?" she asked the Israeli prime minister.

As Merkel’s comment suggests, U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA will not be the end of the agreement, but it will likely be the beginning of its end. In the interim, the Trump administration will be engaged in an ugly diplomatic spat with some of the United States’ closest allies in Europe. Trump will blame the Europeans for not supporting his insistence on unilateral changes to the agreement; the Europeans will correctly fault him for abrogating an international agreement that, by all accounts, has constrained Iran’s nuclear program. The European states can try to maintain the agreement, but once the United States slaps nuclear sanctions on Iran once again, Iran can claim the United States has violated the terms. The burden of breaking the deal will be on Washington, not Tehran, and with so many Iran hawks in Trump’s cabinet, Iran may try to race for a bomb. The JCPOA lengthened Iran’s breakout time—the time it would need to enrich, stockpile, and assemble a nuclear weapon—from about three months to more than a year. That’s the window of time the Trump administration will have to act. It could try to push for a more stringent agreement, but having already violated the JCPOA, Iran will have little reason to believe a new deal will be credible. More likely is a military strike targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities—an option Bolton and Pompeo have advocated for years. But such a strike would only delay Iran’s nuclear development, strengthen Tehran’s resolve, and further limit Washington’s options.

Is the Trump administration willing to commit the United States to periodic strikes against increasingly hardened and hidden Iranian nuclear sites every two to three years? Will they commit the United States to something more drastic—another preventive war to change an adversarial regime in the Middle East? And what will Iran do in the meantime? “The destruction of the nuclear deal will also increase the Revolutionary Guards’ malign activities in the Middle East, making the challenge to Israel’s security and to America’s other allies even more difficult. These activities, in turn, will increase American calls for military action against Iran as the only viable option, since no Iranian will be able to enter new negotiations with the United States any time soon,” Wendy Sherman, who led the U.S. team at the JCPOA negotiations, wrote yesterday in the New York Times. “The march to military conflict will be hard to stop, especially with Mr. Bolton leading the National Security Council.”

Where Does Turkey Go after Afrin?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with leaders from the European Union in Varna, Bulgaria, yesterday. The EU was due to deliver $3.7 billion in funds to assist Turkey’s refugee burden, as part of an agreement reached in 2016, but Ankara’s relationship with Europe has been strained with its western neighbors—European countries have criticized Erdogan’s tilt towards authoritarianism and Turkey lashed out around the time of last year’s elections over frustrations that European countries prevented Turkish officials from campaigning to expats abroad. With its recent democratic backsliding, purges since the attempted coup in July 2015, and “mutual resentment” with Europe, Turkey is now further from accession to the European Union than ever. But Erdogan said yesterday that he would ask European leaders at the meeting to remove the restrictions preventing Turkey from joining the Union. “EU membership continues to be our strategic goal,” Erdogan told reporters before leaving for the summit.

The meeting was overshadowed by Turkey’s intervention in Syria. After two months of fighting, Turkish and Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army forces took control of Afrin earlier this month, and Erdogan has threatened to extend the offensive east into other Kurdish-held territory to carve out a buffer zone along the Syria-Turkey border—potentially into Iraqi territory. Erdogan said that Turkish officials are meeting with their Iraqi counterparts to discuss the Kurdish presence in Sinjar and that Turkish forces will do “what is necessary” if Iraqi troops do not root them out, Reuters reports. The Turkish intervention has stoked concerns from the United States and its partners. After the EU summit in Varna on Monday, European Council President Donald Tusk told Reuters that he was concerned about Turkey’s domestic policies and its role in Syria, but that, “in areas where we do cooperate, we cooperate well.” Hassan Hassan, writing for The National, argues that “the Afrin battle marks a turning point for the Syrian conflict” with far-reaching consequences.

Kurdish forces are now “more reliant on the US, and Russia lost its ability to use the group as a political and military lever against the rebels or the US,” Hassan writes. David Ignatius agrees, and writes that the United States should not abandon the Kurds or withdraw abruptly from the flashpoint city of Manbij. “The problem is that if the United States did what Turkey wants, the result would be bloody chaos in Manbij that might cascade south and east, unraveling the stability that was bought at such cost,” he writes. “A reasonable goal would be a gradual withdrawal by the United States and SDF from Manbij, as the Afrin conflict ends and there’s a deescalation in northern Syria.” U.S. officials toured the city last week, but further discussions with Turkish diplomats were postponed after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s firing.

Sisi Looks for Stamp of Approval in Election-Turned-Referendum

The three-day voting period in the Egyptian presidential election began on Monday. The result is a foregone conclusion: After running any potential competitor out of the race, President Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi will cruise to re-election. The only other name on the ballot is that of token candidate Mousa Mostafa Mousa, a minor politician who had announced his support for Sisi before joining the race. Rather than legitimize himself with a legitimate competitive election—and risk losing—Sisi is trying to legitimize himself in a referendum, and is doing his best to gin up turnout at the polls. Reporters have observed Sisi supporters discussing bribes they’ve received for months, and police and official vehicles with loudspeakers patrolled the streets over the weekend exhorting Egyptians to go to the polls this week.

“The form of popular investiture that al-Sisi seeks is an older, forgotten mode of legitimation, elections-as-acclamation rather than elections-as-competition,” Mona El-Ghobashy writes for Middle East Research and Information Project. “For al-Sisi, his fellow generals, and their Gulf and Israeli backers, acclamatory elections are but one part of the existential project to permanently undo the citizen assertiveness and leader accountability made possible by the revolutionary situation.”

Sisi’s first term has been typified by his consolidation of power and shrinking of the Egyptian public space. According to a new report by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, “Over the course of the four years since his inauguration, Sisi has effectively presided over the consolidation of legal and political institutions that are designed to serve as checks and balances to his power. The trend toward alignment behind the executive means these institutions will have even less ability to check and balance Sisi’s power in the coming term, and little political incentive to do so.” Sisi has concentrated on security operations and economic reforms, but has produced a mixed record on both counts. “Egypt’s economic performance during Sisi’s first term in office was defined by a rise in economic growth and a notable increase in foreign currency reserves, developments the government had promised it would secure. However, these positive indicators were funded by a substantial increase in domestic and foreign debt … The most prominent indicator was inflation, which soared during the last year of Sisi’s current term, and which is one of the most telling indicators of the sweeping effects that the president’s policies have had on Egyptians’ lives,” reports Mada Masr, an Egyptian news publication. With continued support from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, Sisi’s second term will likely be more of the same.