The new Iran strategy announced by President Trump on October 13 not only paved the way for unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the resumption of sanctions war against Tehran but also laid down a basis for the division of pertinent actors into two camps.
Russia slammed the new strategy and called for compliance with the agreement that works. Fears of new Middle East tensions and prospects for lucrative business deals make Europeans strongly oppose the idea of undermining the Iran nuclear deal. On October 15, British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated the commitment of their countries to the agreement. On the same day, France urged the US Congress not to rip up the Iran nuclear deal. The issue tops the agenda of the EU summit this week.
On the other hand, the rejection of the US position is not flat. Merkel and May “also agreed the international community needed to continue to come together to push back against Iran’s destabilizing regional activity, and to explore ways of addressing concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program.” This can be considered as a partial victory for Donald Trump, while Europe is seeking a balanced position to back the deal and not alienate the United States.
The US president’s stance on the issue was supported by traditional opponents of Tehran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 13 welcomed US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would not recertify the nuclear accord with Iran, saying Trump had “boldly confronted Iran’s terrorist regime.” According to him, “If the Iran deal is left unchanged, one thing is absolutely certain — in a few years’ time, the world’s foremost terrorist regime will have an arsenal of nuclear weapons.” He said every responsible government should join the US.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman chimed in saying that the European nations — the UK, France and Germany — that continued to firmly support the 2015 agreement were “burying their heads in the sand just like they did before World War II.” It should be noted that in a rather surprising move he praised the Arab states Israel has a long history of animosity with. Moderate states in the Middle East, by contrast, said Liberman, have all recognized that Iran “presents an existential threat” if it were to acquire nuclear weapons. He was talking about the Persian Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia. The minister noted that the next confrontation on Israel’s northern borders will not be a “limited operation” and that Israel will have to emerge decisively victorious. Liberman is set to meet with US Defense Secretary James Mattis to discuss the US’s new declared approach to Iran.
Saudi King Salman praised US President Donald Trump for his “visionary” new strategy vis-a-vis Iran. The UAE followed suit. The US position was supported by Egypt, the most populous country in North Africa and the Arab world.
The division has come into the open. The US is shifting to those who oppose Iran to become the leader of the group. This stance makes Russia and Europe get closer to each other united by the goal to preserve the landmark security agreement.
Perhaps, further divisions are in store as the Iraqi government forces and the Iraqi Kurdistan Peshmerga militias clashed on October 16. The Iran-influenced People's Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), appear to bear the brunt of the battle. Iran has taken a hostile stance towards the Iraqi Kurdistan striving for independence. If so, the other camp may back the Kurds directly or clandestinely. If the fighting is viewed along religious lines as a battle between Shia and Sunni Muslims, the US, Turkey and the Gulf states will have to make hard choices. The Shia-Sunni divide is likely to exacerbate in Iraq, bringing closer the possibility of split in three. After all, Iraq’s Sunnis have been worried that they would be dominated by the Shia population ever since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
The independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is likely to inspire other Kurdish groups in the region which are seeking independence. Kurdish unrest inside Iran and Turkey is a real possibility. On October 16, Turkey said it is ready to cooperate fully with the central Iraqi government to end the presence of the outlawed Kurdish militant group PKK in Iraq. It brings it closer to Iran and makes Kurds-Turkey clashes in the northern part of Syria more likely. The fight for independence of their Iraqi brethren would likely encourage the Syrian Kurds to fight on for formal independence as well. In Syria, Israel may back the Kurds against the Iran-backed Shia formations. It is already waging an air war against the pro-Iranian Shia Hezbollah. This policy will be tacitly supported by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. It will open a new front in Syria making the crisis management efforts undertaken so far go down the drain.
All of this puts the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State militants, and the United States in particular, in an uncomfortable position. Turkey and Iraq are allies, at least formally, but not supporting the Kurds might embolden the United States' opponents and give the appearance that the US government is unwilling to challenge Iran, which would be raise questions home and abroad. So, it all boils down to the US stance on Iran again.
If the fighting sparked in Iraqi Kurdistan is not stopped now and the US continues its efforts aimed at burying the Iran nuclear deal, the fallout will be dire. Any war or conflict is unpredictable, but this time it may rapidly spread making the countries involved take sides, even if it is done reluctantly. The farther it goes the worst it gets. Urgent diplomatic efforts are the only hope left to prevent the worst.