July 27, 2015 - Immediate regional repercussions of the Iran nuclear deal

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This week, Alpher discusses ramifications of the Iran nuclear deal for US-Israel relations, as well as regionally; Israel’s relations with Jordan and Saudi Arabia; how Turkey has exploited the momentum of the Iran nuclear deal; and at this time, two weeks past the conclusion in Vienna of the Iran nuclear agreement with the international community, who is gaining and who is losing in the Middle East.

 

Q. The ramifications of the Iran nuclear deal for US-Israel relations seem to be dominating the headlines. But are there significant regional ramifications as well?

A. Yes. All interested parties in the Middle East seem to be in a frenzy to exploit a perceived shifting of power relationships in order to improve their regional security and bargaining stance. At first glance, Israel and Turkey appear to be the most pro-active players.

 

Q. How does this work? Let’s start with Israel.

A. Based on what little has been made public, the Netanyahu government appears anxious to project both a readiness to take peace and security initiatives with the West Bank-based PLO, and closer strategic relations with neighbors fighting the Islamic State: Saudi Arabia and particularly Jordan.

On the peace process front, Netanyahu is reacting to European pressure. The European Union is exploiting the momentum of successful diplomacy with Iran to promote renewed negotiations. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini last week introduced an effort to create a new “international support group” with United Nations Security Council backing and re-launch a peace process in the fall.

More immediately, the EU is leading a very public campaign, backed by the US as well, to pressure Israel to prevent the evacuation of the Palestinian residents of the village of Susya in the southern West Bank. Publicity over a forcible remove of Palestinians from their homes is the last thing Netanyahu needs right now. But he has heavy settler pressure to contend with; the settlers want Susya’s land.

Netanyahu has reason to be concerned that Iran is ostensibly off the agenda and the Iran process has given a boost to international diplomacy. To preempt European and possibly American pressure he sent Sylvan Shalom, minister in charge of the peace process, to Amman last week to meet with PLO chief of negotiations Saeb Erekat. Israel-PA security cooperation against Hamas has also been tightened. If Netanyahu can claim that Israeli-Palestinian relations are being enhanced through bilateral efforts, he can presumably hope to rebuff European pressures. His only problem is that a genuine peace process with the PLO is a non-starter for Netanyahu’s hawkish settler government, and the EU presumably knows this.

 

Q. And Israel’s relations with Jordan and Saudi Arabia?

A. It was a senior American source who revealed last week that Israel had transferred 16 US-made attack helicopters to Jordan, for use in the fight against the Islamic State whose forces are gathering on Jordan’s borders with Iraq and Syria. This is the most far-reaching instance of Israeli-Jordanian security cooperation publicized to date. Clearly, behind the scenes the two countries are consulting and cooperating closely regarding the shared threat emanating from the chaos in Syria.

Regarding Saudi Arabia, where criticism of the Iran nuclear deal has been almost as strong as in political circles close to Netanyahu in Israel (on balance, the Israeli security community is not quite as critical), a rapprochement of some sort with Israel has been hinted at repeatedly in the course of recent months as the Iran nuclear deal approached. Last week witnessed publication of a single photo--of a Mercedes with a Saudi license plate parked in Jaffa--that appears to bear witness to an ever closer relationship. Meanwhile, Riyadh strengthened its bargaining position vis-a-vis the Houthi rebels and their Iranian backers in Yemen by landing troops in Aden and taking back the city on behalf of the legitimate Yemeni government.

If we add to these news items regarding Jordan and Saudi Arabia the constant stream of reports of closer Israeli-Egyptian cooperation against the growing IS threat from Sinai and potentially from Gaza, the outlines emerge of a closer regional alliance, however tacit and clandestine. While this relationship is directed first and foremost against IS and not Iran, it nevertheless offers the potential of regional balance against Iran and Iranian allies like Syria that have been encouraged by the Iran nuclear deal.

 

Q. How has Turkey exploited the momentum of the Iran nuclear deal?

A. Turkey last week actively entered the war against IS after seemingly sitting on the sidelines of the chaos in Iraq and Syria for four years. It finally gave permission for US aircraft to use its southern air base at Incirlik and southeastern one at Diyarbakir for intelligence and attack flights against IS units in the two Arab countries to Turkey’s south. This radically shortens flight times for American aircraft and, accordingly, greatly improves their efficiency. Until now they had to fly from Bahrain, Qatar and carriers in the Persian Gulf.

At the same time, Turkish Air Force planes also joined the fight for the first time. And they are attacking not just IS but also Syrian Kurdish fighting units, with the declared objective of creating a buffer zone on Syrian territory just south of the Syrian-Turkish border where the Kurds live and operate militarily.

The dramatic Turkish moves appear to reflect a confluence of three events: recognition of the new US regional role; the uncertain outcome of Turkey’s recent parliamentary elections; and a devastating suicide bombing by a Turkish IS recruit at Suruc, a largely Kurdish town in southern Turkey. Election setbacks caused President Erdogan, an Islamist, to back away from recent attempts to negotiate with Turkey’s large Kurdish minority. Now he is spearheading coalition talks with a right-wing Turkish party that opposes rapprochement with the Kurds. Thus the Turkish Air Force attacks, using Suruc as justification, appear to be targeting not only IS fighters who are primarily extremist Islamist Arabs, but Kurdish extremists based both in Syria and in an enclave in northern Iraq.

All of this Turkish military activity serves the goal shared by Iran and the US of weakening IS. The Kurdish military revival in Syria that has exploited Assad’s weakness and scored victories over IS will pay the price and Turkish-Kurdish tensions will be fueled. This serves the purposes of the Assad regime in Damascus, which is now almost entirely reliant on Iran and its Hezbollah proxy for its survival. Accordingly, it was strange to hear Assad on Sunday not only congratulating Iran on its nuclear “victory” but attacking Turkey for its interference as well.

Assad did not mention Israel in his rare public appearance. Yet these events, which eventually can affect the balance of power in southern Syria, are of potentially critical importance for Israeli security.

 

Q. What’s the bottom line? At this point in time, barely two weeks after the conclusion in Vienna of the Iran nuclear agreement with the international community, who is gaining and who is losing in the Middle East?

A. The agreement appears to have at least tentatively and temporarily put wind in the sails of European diplomacy, of the American military campaign against the Islamic State, and of Iran’s proxy forces in the Levant who are fighting IS. Turkey seemingly feels obliged now to actively oppose IS in Syria and is exploiting the opportunity to settle accounts with the Syrian Kurds. Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors, all of whom oppose Iran as strongly as they oppose IS, are firming up strategic cooperation. But everything is still fluid and it’s too early to draw hard-and-fast conclusions.

One indication of the new flexibility introduced into the region was a report late last week, which seemingly turned out to be without foundation, that Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran had reached some sort of understanding whereby Iran would abandon its Houthi ally in Yemen, the Saudis would enforce a ban on financial support for the IS Islamists, and Russia and Iran would witness a strengthening of the anti-Islamist forces in Syria--meaning the Assad regime, which both support but Riyadh opposes. In a fragile Middle East, we can in the near future expect more such rumors, some bogus, some substantial.

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