While the whole world’s attention is focused on the West-Russia conflict in Ukraine and the ongoing global economic-energy war shaping a new geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape, the seeds of a new regional security architecture, named “mini-NATO”, were sowed in the Middle East between Israel, U.S. and some friendly Arab countries that recently participated in the “Negev Summit”, in an effort to deal with a possible even bigger crisis that is simmering, which may lead to the actual threshold of a third World War, in a bid to counter the Iran-sponsored terrorism and its influence in the region, as well as prevent the incubating Vienna Agreement on its nuclear programe.
Anastassios Tsiplacos - Managing Editor
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the foreign ministers of four Arab states -Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates- together with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gathered recently in Sde Boker, launching the “Negev Summit”.
It is common secret that Jerusalem vehemently opposes a joint US-Iran return to the agreement officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Summit was meant to show a united front between the countries for regional prosperity and stability, and against Iran, which threatens all the participating countries.
The “Negev Summit” is the correct model for regional cooperation to fight terror and strengthen diplomatic relations that will ensure regional stability, Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid, who arranged the Summit, said.
A “mini-NATO” is born in the Middle East?
Behind closed doors, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani, whose country hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, talked about building a “mini-NATO” of countries facing security challenges. He was also the only Arab foreign minister to specifically mention the threats from Iran and its proxies, like the Houthis and Hezbollah, in his public remarks.
This “mini-NATO” of the US, Israel, UAE, Egypt, Morocco and Bahrain, should it come together, would be the crowning achievement of the “Negev Summit.” The idea is not a defense alliance, but cooperation, with the countries’ defense establishments in constant contact.
Israel is investing in an accelerated military buildup to counter the Iranian threat and complete building the regional anti-Iran alliance it is promoting.
In addition to strengthening ties with regional countries, it plans to increase its offensive capabilities, intercept regional activities carried out by Iran in other countries, and increase its defensive capacities.
As part of this buildup, Israel is putting together a framework it calls the Middle East Air Defense (MEAD) system with the participation of its regional allies, with other states in the region such as Saudi Arabia, described as observers providing external support.
In addition to expanding intelligence cooperation with the Americans, Israel plans to develop a regional intelligence coalition against Tehran.
Another big subject of the closed-door meeting between the six foreign ministers was America’s commitment to the Middle East. The Biden administration has long given the impression that it didn’t want to deal with the region, but between complications of Iran nuclear negotiations, Iranian proxy attacks in the Gulf and the Russia-related energy problems, Blinken assured the others his attention is on the Middle East.
JCPOA negotiations: The big question remains the removal of IRGC from the US terror blacklist
The deal for Iran’s nuclear program, which is lingering for some years now in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations in Vienna between U.S., U.K., France, and Germany, is far from certain yet as sticking points remain, such as the U.S. designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group. Iran wants this removed, while Israel, mainly, fiercely opposes such a move.
For Tehran, not only does the IRGC function as the guardian of the spirit of the country’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, but it is also the principal mechanism through which Iran can spread its own particular brand of Islamic faith across the world by whatever methods it deems necessary. These means, however, almost always require money and for this reason the IRGC has been allowed access to every layer of Iran’s business and financial networks to the point where now it is inextricably ingrained throughout the entire fabric of Iran’s economy.
Back at the beginning of 2016 the IRGC had significant ownership shares in 27 companies that are publicly traded on the Tehran Stock Exchange. This constituted a minimum 22% of its total value, at US$15.8 billion between them. In 2016, the IRGC was active in the Iranian oil, gas, petrochemical, automotive, transportation, telecommunications, construction, and metals and mining sectors, among others. Current estimates are that the IRGC has placed top commanders at the heart of more than 200 Iranian companies.
Since the IRGC’s designation as a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” (FTO) in 2019, however, this inextricable link between it and Iran’s economy has led to serious negative financial fallout for both. This means that the “Guards” are facing a crunch point when it comes to funding the international network of proxies used to project Iranian influence, including in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria payment is made in either U.S. dollars or gold.
Therefore, Iran since 2019 has needed an “out” in the JCPOA negotiations: on the one hand it is not practically possible for the government to remove the IRGC from its business and financial networks, even if it wanted to; but on the other it cannot commit to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) if the IRGC is still designated as an FTO with all the external monitoring ramifications that this brings with it.
Consequently, by removing the FTO designation of the IRGC -although it could, and most likely will, remain on various other terrorist organisation monitoring lists held by the U.S. and others- Iran can pledge adherence to the FATF. Whether it will abide by all or any of its rules and regulations remains to be seen.
Iranian short-range missiles are acceptable…
Superficially the U.S. has been committed to the restoration of all of the original hard-line clauses that were to have been part of the 2015 JCPOA agreement. Under the surface, though, the key clauses that really mattered to the U.S. -and to the U.K., France, and Germany- were those especially designed to guard against Iran’s development of longer-range missiles that could hit either Europe or the U.S. directly.
In this context, a notable piece of diplomatic theatre was acted out at a crucial juncture in the JCPOA talks, with the creation of a false conflict narrative from the Iranian Parliament Speaker’s Special Aide for the International Affairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, stating that Biden “should not include regional or missile issues in the JCPOA.” The key to this comment was that it conflated two separate issues -missiles in general and regional missiles- with the Iranians always prepared to agree to curbs on their longer-range missiles (if not to rigidly stick by their promises on this issue) but always wanting to retain their shorter-range ballistic missiles.
Iran has a major defence deficit in its conventional air capabilities, so it regards the shorter-range missiles as essential to its ability to deter an air force-led attack by a neighbour, such as Saudi Arabia. In addition, having such missiles and even the suggestion of access to nuclear resources from its own generation capabilities or North Korea or China, allows Iran to act as a major power in the region.
The U.S. for its part has long been pragmatically accepting of Iran having these shorter-range ballistic missiles, provided they do not threaten Israel. Washington thinks that the threat of an Iran having very short-range missiles will keep the Saudis more dependent on the U.S. for protection than it would be otherwise and will also continue to generate hundreds of billions of dollars of defence contracts for Washington. Therefore, this statement on regional and missile issues was designed by Iran to be able to claim to its people that the U.S. gave in on Iran keeping its regional missile program, although in reality the U.S. never cared about it, provided that there is no threat to Israel.
This removed one of the major blocks to the re-engagement of the U.S. with a new version of the JCPOA, as Washington had already tentatively agreed to the removal of key sanctions in the oil, gas, petrochemicals and automotive sectors, plus some of those on Iran’s banking sector, provided that clauses relating to Iran’s medium- and long-range ballistic missile program are included in it. The removal of the FTO designation on the IRGC and Iran’s ability, therefore, to commit to the FATF, were the last remaining hurdles to the new JCPOA being done, and millions of extra barrels coming into the oil market over time from Iran, which is what the Biden Administration desperately needs right now.
Difficult and complex relations…
When the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA with Iran in May 2018, a key concept in the White House was to use this hard-line stance on Iran to parlay into broader and deeper relationships with other Arab states that had become increasingly alarmed by Iran’s efforts to destabilise the region. This was to be achieved in large part through a series of bilateral agreements -later formalised into the “relationship normalisation deals”– to be done between Israel (a power more than equal to Iran in the region, tacitly backed up by the even bigger power of the U.S.) and those Arab states that Washington believed were open to becoming unequivocal allies of the U.S. These included the UAE, in which the U.S. has its Al-Dhafra Air Base, plus Patriot missiles, to help intercept any air assaults by the Iranian-backed Houthis or anyone else. They also included Bahrain, as a proxy for Saudi Arabia and home to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, and the Fifth Fleet, Morocco (a crucially-positioned ally to the U.S. in its counterterrorism efforts, so much so that Washington designated it “a Major Non-NATO Ally” in 2004) and Sudan -also regarded as a potentially important centre for counterterrorism activities by the U.S.
For the Middle Eastern contingent in these deals there was the added incentive for the U.S. that oil flows from these countries could be used in the short-term to counterbalance the net loss of oil to the markets that resulted from new sanctions on Iranian oil flows. Medium-term as well, thought Washington, by investing more money into both the UAE and Bahrain -with more oil-rich countries then encouraged to also sign relationship normalisation deals- they would see significant boosts in their oil production to allow the U.S. to reduce its relationship with non-cooperative Middle Eastern countries. Longer-term, the U.S. planned to be so self-sufficient in oil and gas that it only has to deal with countries that also offer it political allegiance in its struggle to retain its number one global superpower spot in the face of China’s advances. In any event, all of this was to be done whilst ensuring that the price of oil did not stay for any extended periods above the US$75-80 per barrel level, at which it starts to cause economic trouble for the U.S. and political trouble for the sitting president at the time.
Warning signs for the U.S. plan came as countries it had identified as being ripe for cultivation did not play their role as envisaged, but rather asserted their own intention to deal with both the U.S. and China as they saw fit. News emerged, for example, that the U.S. discovered that China was in the process of building a secret military facility in the UAE port of Khalifa. Then there was the high-profile snub by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to U.S. President Joe Biden in not taking a phone call to discuss rising oil prices. Perhaps the most far-reaching was the series of meetings in Beijing between senior officials from the Chinese government and foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). At these meetings, the principal topics of conversation, according to local news reports, were to finally seal a China-GCC Free Trade Agreement and “deeper strategic cooperation in a region where U.S. dominance is showing signs of retreat.”
Moreover, the UAE and Saudi Arabia did not sign on to a US-backed UN Security Council resolution last month condemning Russia for invading Ukraine. Consequently, it has been difficult for the Gulf states to work with the Biden Administration on defense issues, and the relationship has deteriorated.
Anthony Blinken hastened to attended the “Negev Summit” to show U.S.’s commitment to the Middle East and in a bid to quench fears of an imminent Iran deal, saying that Biden’s Administration commitment to the core principle of Iran never acquiring a nuclear weapon is unwavering, however the best way to ensure that Iran will not become a nuclear power is to seal a deal with Tehran.
Israel’s official line continues to insist that the emerging deal is bad and dangerous, and that it is incumbent upon Israel to pull out all the stops in order to convince the Americans and their five partners to avoid signing it.
During the “Negev Summit”, foreign minister Lapid issued a joint statement expressing concern over the potential move, saying “…even now, the IRGC terrorist organization is trying to murder certain Israelis and Americans around the world. Unfortunately, there is still determination to sign the nuclear deal with Iran at almost any cost -including saying that the world’s largest terrorist organization is not a terrorist organization. This is too high a price.”
At the same conference, Lapid admited that the US and Israel have a complex dialogue. “We don’t hide the fact that we have differences of opinion with the [Biden] administration. We publicized our vigorous protest,” Lapid said. “But what is more important… is that even if the US removes the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization, for Israel, practically and on the security and military level, the IRGC is a terrorist organization, and we will continue to treat it as such.”
Prime Minister Bennett has also spoke out against the possible delisting of the IRGC, calling it “delusional”. Asked, however, why he has been less vocal in his opposition to the Iran deal than his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett said it is clear the US wants a deal. “The Americans are fully determined to sign an agreement,” he said. “They will sign the agreement… I fight when I can win and for an appropriate goal. The difference between 2015 and 2022 is not the agreement [with Iran] but what Israel will do. We are going from words to actions. This time, unlike in 2015, we made a massive move to build up our force… Iran sees that when it sends its proxies to attack us, there is a more forceful response.”
Defense minister Benny Gantz has also called for a regional alliance and an expansion of intelligence cooperation in order to make up for a lack of inspections on Iran’s nuclear project. Iran is continuing its uranium enrichment and is close to 90% enrichment that is suitable for nuclear weapons, once they decide to reach it. The world must pressure Iran to stop advancing its nuclear program in the absence of a deal, “We are in a race against time,” Gantz warned. If there is no agreement, the world must “enact Plan B: Use economic pressure, use diplomatic pressure, use force”.
Nevertheless, divergent views are also being voiced behind closed doors. According to the assessment of the Military Intelligence Directorate, for example, while the agreement is bad and risky, it is currently the best option available. In other words, the option of signing the agreement, as opposed to rejecting it for the sake of other alternatives, is the lesser evil. Put in another way, it is horrendous, but there are worse disasters.
Proponents of this approach argue that reviving the 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers would grant Israel and its allies in the region and elsewhere an additional eight to nine years of relative calm, before Iran resumes its race for a bomb. This hiatus would allow Israel to invest in an accelerated military buildup to counter the Iranian threat and complete building the regional anti-Iran alliance it is promoting.
During the “Negev Summit” all of the Arab foreign ministers backed Lapid up when he expressed opposition to the US removing the IRGC from the FTO list, saying they find it hard to believe that the IRGC’s designation will be removed in exchange for a promise not to harm Americans. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told them that the move is not yet final and that it is still unclear whether there will be a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
During Blinken’s recent meeting with his “E3” counterparts from the United Kingdom, France and Germany to discuss the ongoing negotiations with Iran, they agreed that a diplomatic solution entailing a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA is the best outcome, but noted that they were prepared for other scenarios, because President Joe Biden seems reluctant to Iran’s demand that the United States remove the IRGC from the US list of FTOs.
In the meantime, the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said that Teheran will continue nuclear development activities as talks with world powers remain stalled. Speaking in a ceremony marking Iran’s national day of nuclear technology, the hard-line president said his administration will support an acceleration in research of peaceful nuclear technology.
The head of Iran’s civilian Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, added that Iran will soon pursue construction of a new nuclear power plant with 360-megawatt capacity. It is to be located near the town of Darkhovin in oil-rich Khuzestan province in the country’s southwest. The plant was supposed to be built before the 1979 Islamic Revolution with help from France, but the project was halted in its initial phase.
Iran’s sole nuclear power plant, with 1,000-megawatt capacity, went online in 2011 with help from Russia in the southern port city of Bushehr.
In any case, however, in practice, the region’s countries cannot prevent the outcome of Vienna negotiations with Iran and, apart from Israel, they are rather reluctant from confronting it militarily.
Therefore, despite Israel’s impressive achievement in holding the Summit in the Negev desert, the determination and ability of the participants to render the understandings achieved during the Summit into effective policy remains an open question…