Washington has stated that the resumption of the Vienna negotiations hinges on Iran’s position, although both parties are talking of postponing Vienna. Some Americans are enthusiastic about a return to the former nuclear deal, despite the catastrophe this will engender due to the lifting of sanctions imposed on Iran. In my discussion with a veteran US politician, he said the real issue is not the nuclear file. Rather, the situation in the Middle East is that Iran wants to control the region. But is it able to achieve this objective?
There are two possibilities in this regard: Iranians could get to the threshold of nuclear weapons but without control over the region, or they could achieve control over the region but without reaching the nuclear threshold. Which is more dangerous? Control, of course. Because reaching the nuclear threshold is only a tool that helps achieve control. So, if Iran is strong enough to control not only Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, but also Jordan, this would be more dangerous than standing on the threshold of making a nuclear weapon. Hence, if we look at things from a strategic perspective, we see that the US, Israel, and Europe are not looking at things strategically, but are merely saying no to Iran having nuclear weapons. A strategic perspective would mean arriving at a different conclusion: all that is bad for Iran is good for the other parties, and all that is good for Iran is a disaster for the others.
My interlocutor goes on to explain that in the event that Iran discovers tomorrow a huge gold mine, for instance, this would be much more dangerous than a nuclear weapon, because if Iran’s regime is strong, the Middle East is in danger, and so are Arabs, Israel, Europe, the US, and Turkey. The objective, then, is a weak Iran. However, this can prove complicated for the US and Europe, as they do not think like the people of the Middle East do. These people adopt a mentality of “all that is bad for my enemy is good for me.” Surely, this is not an ideal way of thinking, but as far the Iranian threat is concerned, it works well.
Take, for example, WWII, when the US backed Russian strongman Joseph Stalin. At the time, the US believed Stalin was a bad guy, but he was fighting against Hitler, and “by reinforcing Stalin, we can fight Hitler more efficiently.” On several occasions, then, what was good for Russia was not necessarily bad for the US. However, with the current Iranian situation, the objective should be that all that weakens the Iranian regime is welcome, because the only way to deal with the great danger that Iran represents is a change in the system, which the US cannot support given the international consensus that working to change systems of government is illegitimate. However, many support a change in the system in Iran and deem it legitimate to turn Iran into a stability factor in the region compared to the disaster it represents today.
The possibility that remains is to support all that weakens Iran. But can the US be convinced of this choice? Probably not. What about Europeans?
Not a chance. Hence the fear that these two groups will make Tehran stronger, which is a blessing for Iran. Some hope that Iranians will bite more than they can chew and torpedo the agreement with their own two hands. But Iran is smarter than that, which is why the risk of a strong Iran is very real. Remarkably, one should also take into account the subversive activities taking place inside Iran through cyberattacks and other means. My interlocutor says he does not know who is standing behind these acts, but it sure isn’t Norway. It might be Israel, because Iran put itself in a position where it is at war with Israel, but the opposite is not true, which is a mistake. What is needed is to harm Iran, regardless of the means used.
From the strategic perspective, my interlocutor moved to a different perspective, one meant for the cultivated and wise. He said: Iran works against civilized norms more than any other state in the world, especially with regards to its terrorist network that covers the whole world. Therefore, when a state carries out acts never adopted before by any state, it must be confronted with equally unprecedented acts. Iran’s terrorist activities have reached as far as the US without any deterrence whatsoever, as former US President Barack Obama encouraged gave way to Iran’s influence and gave in, which is why I sincerely hope that the new President in Iran will be so extremist to an extent that would make US President Joe Biden refuse to give in to him.
I asked my interlocutor how he sees Iran under the new President Ebrahim Raisi. He said Raisi will be cautious, despite wishes of the opposite.
The reason for that is that Iran rarely loses in its considerations and calculations. In any case, the President is affiliated with the Supreme Leader, and we have to keep in mind that he was not sidelined for killing many Iranians, which means some of the players in Iran today are ruthless. This brings to mind Stalin, who was ruthless but also aware of the Western deterrence, and abandoned Berlin when the Americans entered it.
If Iran has a nuclear bomb, will it dare use it and against whom, I ask. My interlocutor doubts that Iran would use it, or that it even wants a nuclear bomb in the first place. What it wants is a position where it can produce a bomb within a few weeks. Iran does not want to get to the production phase for just a bomb, but rather for a whole nuclear arsenal. The possibility of an arsenal is practically as good as the arsenal itself, and “this is a threat to Arabs.” I ask: Arabs first, then Israel, then Europe, then the US? Will there be a nuclear race in the Middle East? His answer: yes. I do not believe states like Turkey and Egypt will sit idly by as Iran nears possession of a nuclear weapon. Turkey first, with a figure like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Egypt, with a figure like Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
My interlocutor believes there’s no solution at the moment. Rather, the problem is worsening because of Biden. I ask: Don’t you see he’s bombing Iran, and Iran’s agents are bombing US bases in Iraq? Biden’s retort will likely be well thought-out, he says, especially since the American people are no longer enthusiastic about military intervention in the Middle East after the Iraq war. Furthermore, Americans want to confront China, not Iran, which is why the ban is a good thing and must be tightened even more.
If the negotiations in Vienna resume, will the US agree to revive the deal and lift the sanctions? He says: if Iran halts the negotiations, the US will double the sanctions. But Iran is smarter than that. The problem with the US is that they want the other side to trick them, as do Europeans, and the ever-polite Iran will oblige if politely asked to trick the US.
My interlocutor doubts that the US can expand the framework of the former agreement to include Irani militias and the missile program. He does not believe anything positive will come out of the negotiations and dismisses State Secretary Antony Blinken’s statement on wanting “a longer and stronger agreement” as insignificant.
So, will Iran manage to take control of the region? Tehran does not need to control the whole Middle East. It seeks to weaken Saudi Arabia and Egypt and may work on establishing a foothold in Jordan. Some states in the Middle East are suffering from economic deterioration, and if the US gives Iran the funds it needs, the latter will use them to establish its presence more firmly in these states. After all, if sanctions are lifted, hundreds of billions of dollars will flow to Iran and will be used in Lebanon and Jordan.
I ask why the emphasis on Jordan and not Syria: is Iran that firmly settled in Syria now? He answers: In Syria, oddly enough, there are two key factors. First, Israel disrupted all military and militant presence in Syria. Second, Russia is siding with the US because it is vying to control Syria without Iran’s participation, which is why Israel was allowed to wage military attacks. But there is also something else: Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want a nuclear Iran. At the same time, he realizes that a strong Iran would be bad for the US, which is why he will not allow the US to weaken Iran except economically, which Russia cannot prevent anyhow. As for China, my interlocutor said it had already initiated commercial ties with Iran before knowing the ban will be lifted.
I ask whether Iran has its eyes set on Jordan given my interlocutor’s repeated mention of the latter. He replies: Iraqi oil supply through Jordan to Egypt then to Europe is set to begin soon. I do not have enough information on whether Iraqi oil is so controlled by Iran that the latter gets its revenues, but should that be true, this would mean Jordan’s involvement in something that aids Iran. But I repeat, I do not know whether this is an Iranian project.
Every day, the Middle East finds its night darker, but the sun will not shine on Iran either.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.