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Endgame

Updated May 14, 2018

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WITH his penchant for pomp, his nods to nepotism and his tendency to label opponents as ‘enemies’, President Donald Trump is quite the caricature of a third world autocrat — except for the fact that he is in charge of the most powerful country in the world.

Trump, much like garden-variety megalomaniacs, delights in reversing the key projects and agreements set in place by the previous administration. He has pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, has gutted Obamacare and has now withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, which was the signature foreign policy achievement of his predecessor Barack Obama.

Given that the US isn’t the only signatory, the eventual fate of the deal remains unclear, with Iran expressing anger and European capitals going into damage control. Nevertheless, Trump is unfazed and determined that this "horrible" deal is now off the cards, that sanctions against Iran will be reimposed and that Iranian "expansion" will be checked.

The effects have been immediate: oil prices and regional tensions have gone up, and US credibility has gone down. The first provides a boost to the oil-dependent Gulf economies that are arrayed against Iran and — unintentionally — also gives much-needed relief to Russia whose geopolitical ambitions don’t quite match up with its economic strength.

As for the second, Israel took the opportunity to launch its most wide-ranging attacks on Syria to date, targeting dozens of sites it claims hosted Iranian military sites and installations.

Israel has struck targets in Syria before — interdicting logistical supply lines and recently striking the T-4 airbase as well as bombing a Syrian air force base in April, reportedly killing several Iranian advisers.

The latest attacks, Israel claims, were in retaliation for alleged Iranian missile attacks on Israel — all of which Tel Aviv claims were interdicted with no damage.

Israel is trying to drive a wedge between Iran and the Assad regime.

Iran denies having launched any assault on Israel, calling such claims “fabricated and baseless excuses”, and indeed there seems to be little logic in their having done so, except as an attempt to salvage pride and make a show of defiance in the aftermath of Israeli strikes. But then if that were the case, it seems unlikely that Iran would deny it in the first place.

What is more likely, and this is hardly a revelation, is that Israel seized the opportunity granted by the US withdrawal to advance the long-desired strategy of rolling back Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

As always, there is contradiction in Israel’s claims: on the one hand it paints Iran as a nigh-unstoppable hegemonic power, but simultaneously claims that one day of strikes has set back Iranian plans by ‘months’.

Along with physically bombing Iranian targets, Israel is also trying to drive a wedge between Iran and the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In the aftermath of the Israeli strikes, Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman called on Assad to “throw the Iranians out … they only do harm and their presence brings only damage and problems”.

While this is unlikely to happen in the short term, given how beholden Assad is to Iran for its help in securing his rule, this may change as Israel ups the ante — and the pain inflicted on Assad’s regime.

Ironically, Iran’s success in buoying the Syrian government may prove a liability for Tehran as an increasingly secure Assad may become less dependent on direct Iranian support. The friendship of princes is notoriously fickle.

The same goes for czars; prior to launching the attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, reportedly walking away with assurances of Russian non-interference in the Israeli campaign against Iran.

One should note that none of Russia’s vaunted air defence systems were engaged in any of these strikes and that, following Netan­­yahu’s visit, Russia backtracked on providing its advanced S-300 air defence system to Syria, something Moscow had hinted it would do last month after Western strikes on Syria.

For Russia, which used the Syrian conflict to shore up its international standing and reach, being caught in the crossfire is not a desirable scenario, and it seems strategic ambiguity is a far more preferred stance.

Iran, it seems, has now reached a major hurdle in its plans to project influence in the Middle East. While domestically the US tearing up the nuclear deal has validated the stance of hardliners, boosting them in the short term, the economic pain from the reimposition of sanctions (European corporations are unlikely to give up doing business with the US for Iran’s sake) might cause serious political problems at home.

Pushed to the edge, Iran is now threatening to start uranium enrichment on an “industrial scale” even as it seeks to salvage the agreement by negotiating with European nations.

Were the former to take place, it is entirely likely that we will see Israeli strikes on Iranian soil in the near future, with all the chaos and conflict that will bring.

The writer is a Karachi-based journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2018

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