President Trump’s refusal to certify that Iran is abiding by its obligations from the 2015 nuclear deal has thrown much of the world into confusion, with some commentators criticizing Trump for undermining an international agreement which reduced the chance of a nuclear-armed Tehran; while others praised the President for addressing Iran’s misbehavior in the region. Here we look at a range of different scenarios which could result from this decision and the implications of these for the Arabian Gulf region:
A more confrontational Iran
Iran usually responds to these kind of threats by taking an even more confrontational and prevocational approach. This may take the form of anti-American statements by Iranian leaders; but Iran may also increase its trouble-making in regional states. For example, Tehran has often threatened the US naval base in Bahrain, so Iran may signal its ability to exert its regional influence by increased support for Shia militants in Bahrain who have been responsible for the deaths of many policemen in terrorist bombings.
Within a couple of days of Trump’s statement, Iran mobilized its allies in Iraq to capture the city of Kirkuk and other areas under Kurdish control. Iranian militants are also confronting American-backed forces in eastern Syria.
Strategies for containing Iran
If Trump is serious about addressing Iranian misbehavior in the region, then there needs to be a strategy for addressing Iranian interference in regional states; including Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Beyond sanctions this would have to include Iranian media propaganda, funds sent to terrorists, cyber-terrorism, targeting Iranian-backed groups, the role of the Republican Guard in weapons smuggling and proliferation activities, and the full range of other dangerous Iranian activities. Many regional states would certainly be actively supportive of such a campaign.
However, there is currently little indication that America has seriously thought through what would be needed in order to cause a genuine change in Iranian behaviour, meaning that Iranian meddling is likely to continue.
Increased regional tensions
Iran is working to secure a coalition of states and entities aligned with its interests. Along with those countries already tightly under Iranian influence, like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon; Iran is also exploiting the tensions between GCC states to consolidate ties with Qatar, and to a lesser extent Oman, while also seeking to ensure that states like Turkey and Russia are sympathetic to its own interests.
This illustrates how vital it is – one way or another – to address the Qatar crisis, so that Doha doesn’t end up being a state beholden to Tehran and other radical agendas, in the heart of the GCC. The GCC must be able to stand together against Iranian aggression. US and Western strategies towards Iran should also be aligned closely with the GCC to ensure a united front.
Cyber-attacks, espionage and terrorism
Over the past five years, Iran has developed significant capacities for cyber-warfare. Experts have observed hundreds of attempts to penetrate and attack GCC and Western computer systems. Often the targets are private businesses or civilian infrastructures which lack the expertise to resist such attacks, which have the potential to be catastrophic when they target basic utilities like the electricity grid, reservoirs, hospitals, and distribution of services and basic goods.
In Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other regional states, Revolutionary Guard and espionage sleeper cells have periodically been discovered. As well as gaining intelligence about GCC activities, such capabilities are ultimately developed with hostile intent and in past decades Iranian agents and proxy groups have been behind a number of terrorist attacks in these same states.
A US policy of provoking Tehran, but without taking effective measures to counter Iranian hostility, is certain to encourage increased Iranian investment in such tactics. GCC states should already be taking precautionary measures in anticipation of this.
A nuclear-armed Iran
Just as North Korea slipped out of its own nuclear agreements signed during the 1990s and rushed towards achieving nuclear capabilities; Iran may take Trump’s statements as meaning that the nuclear deal is dead and it does not need to abide by its obligations. A nuclear armed Iran would be a very dangerous prospect for nearby states, with some GCC states in previous years that nuclear sites just across the Gulf waters in Bushehr could expose them to a nuclear catastrophe in the case of a leak or explosion – particularly given Iran’s notoriously poor safety standards.
A nuclear-armed Iran would make it easier for Tehran to threaten its neighbours. Several states in the region have indicated that they would acquire their own nuclear capacities, in order to counter the Iranian threat. With Israel already possessing nuclear weapons, this would create major additional threats to an already very dangerous region.
If the nuclear deal collapses altogether American and Israeli sources have indicated that military force may be the only means of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. Iran would be likely to retaliate against American and Western targets, perhaps by mining the Arabian Gulf, attacking shipping and blocking the Straits of Hormuz, meaning that GCC infrastructure would inevitably be caught in the crossfire.
Iran’s support for militias in Iraq and Syria is also fueling sectarian and ethnic tensions which may result in entirely new rounds of regional conflict and the emergence of new extremist organizations which could threaten global security.
Collapse of the Iranian regime
The Islamic Revolution leaders are known to be unpopular with most of the Iranian public, so it is not unlikely that over the course of the next decade there will be a major change in how Iran is ruled; particularly as Supreme Leader Khamenei is not likely to live much longer. Figures from Trump’s Administration have indicated that they may support efforts at regime change and increased sanctions may result in further economic difficulties and domestic tensions.
In fact, the collapse of the Iranian regime may be the only route through which current tensions could come to an end. However, of course there is the possibility that civil discord inside Iran may give rise to an entirely new set of challenges and threats.