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Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad with Russian President Vladimir Putin Photo Credit: Kremlin
In the past few hours, President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement and restore economic sanctions on the country has already led to drastic escalations rippling throughout the region. The deal, implemented by President Obama and strongly supported by France, Germany, and the U.K., prevented Iran from producing and purifying the uranium necessary for offensive nuclear weapons. However, both President Trump and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly expressed that the deal did not sufficiently address their concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program, as well as fears of the country’s nuclear activities when the deal was set to expire in 2025. In his announcement, Trump described what he believed was “a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never been made” and claimed that, had the deal continued, it would have fueled a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Less than an hour after Trump’s announcement, the Israeli military began preparations near the northern border, where Iranian-allied Hezbollah militants have been backing the Syrian army’s operations. The military’s high-alert status was followed by a series of airstrikes on military command posts in Damascus, reported by a pro-Assad regional military commander. While Syrian state media maintains that the missiles were shot down, this is a clear indicator that Syria is going to represent a major battle ground for the triangular interests of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Trump’s announcement, whether planned or not, escalated the deployment of strategic interests in the war-torn country. So far, the Iranians have given mixed responses. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has indicated that Iran will remain in the deal, working alongside European allies, but Iranian state media has warned of security repercussions around the region.
So far, it’s hard to predict when exactly the matter will escalate, but geographically speaking, Iran has a long arm of military and political influence extending through Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, where a recent electoral victory in Zahle has furthered their political standing. The Israeli Defense Forces have already expressed grave concerns about the growth of armed militia groups at the Golan border, and has alleged the sighting of Iranian military installations south of the capital. Today’s airstrike in Damascus is a further indicator that Israel will not hesitate to take preemptive measures if it believes the Iranian threat is looming. In the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967, preparations for civilian protections were immediately underway.
For years, Israel has been prepared for conflict with Hezbollah on its northern border, but the IDF is now planning for full-scale military operations that could spillover throughout the Middle East. If Israel chooses to target Iranian ballistic and alleged nuclear sites, it will most likely need American equipment to do so. Specifically, Israel would need to use so-called “bunker buster” bombs, which are designed to penetrate deep underground facilities which make up the bulk of Iran’s nuclear and high-tech military programs. Historically, President Obama had repeatedly refused to grant Netanyahu access to the technology, fearing that Israel would use it unilaterally without American coordination. However, in the likelihood of a direct conflict with Iran, President Trump is more likely to be willing to grant Israel the military backing it needs.
In a particular way, Trump has put Israel in a dangerous position. Before, the Iran deal was not perfect, but definitely enforceable and allowed a much more stable, diplomatic path towards resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis outside of the Syrian civil war. While Israel may be prepared to target Iranian operations in the country, Russian forces are strongly intertwined with the Syrian Army in battles against rebels. Israel may believe its targeting Syrian targets that are vital to Iran, but those same targets may be equally if not more relevant to Russian forces protecting Assad and his presence in Syria. Now, Iran has the chance of pulling Israel into the Syrian battleground, capitalizing on the Israeli norm of preemptive strikes, and protecting itself through Russian strategic support. Here, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal, immediately followed by Israel’s strike on Damascus, is rushing into a conflict that could easily bring Russia and the United States into direct conflict, risking drawn-out, bloody proxy attacks further tumbling the Syrian crisis beyond solution.
The decision to withdraw from the Iranian deal will no doubt reverberate for a long time. It’s hard to predict the role Saudi Arabia will play in this new arrangement, as Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has taken a clear, aggressive stance towards the Iranian regime but will likely steer away from supporting the Israeli-American alliance. Rather, the Saudis have the most to gain in this approach, as the weakening of Iran would allow them to counter Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen more effectively, returning them to the Saudi camp of influence.
So far, while conflict seems inevitable, it’s likely that Iran will begin by securing its friendships. The new sanctions will make it harder for Iran to sell its oil on the global market and target their government’s institutional capabilities in order to cripple Iran’s attempt at allegedly refining uranium. Iran has likely been working on contingency plans to trade its oil with friendly powers like China, Russia, and, if the Iranians can maneuver it, the European allies angry at Trump’s withdrawal from the deal. Germany, France, and the U.K. will play crucial mediatory roles that will be necessary to avoid all-out conflict if that even remains on the table. Iran will also likely use this to campaign for a pro-Iranian government in the Iraqi elections, forcing American troops to depart and securing Iraq in Iran’s hold.
Iran has not officially responded to the strikes in Syria, but is expected to make a statement on how, or if it all, about its involvement in the deal after the American withdrawal. Syria has condemned the Israeli aggression as attempts to destabilize the region, and Hezbollah stated through the semi-official Manar TV that its forces are ready to confront Israel’s military. The next few days will show the degree to which Trump’s decision ripples throughout the region, but many expect it to hold grave military and geopolitical consequences, ones that all sides may not be prepared for.