A recent Iranian missile attack from Syria and a fierce Israeli counter-response highlighted why the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal came in such a bad moment. Even when Saudi Arabia said that it would pursue nuclear weapons if Iran re-energizes its own activities, the deal’s implosion still feeds the risks of starting a larger regional conflict, which can only end in a disaster. Meanwhile, Europeans are now scrambling to ensure that the deal survives in some form, but if they want it to succeed, they need to be far more responsive to rapidly intensifying regional risks, which isn’t something that the EU is known for.
In one sense, the recent attacks were not directly linked to the fate of the nuclear agreement. Iran and Israel have been playing out an increasingly deadly game across Syria over recent months. Israel views Iran’s entrenched position across Syria as a key strategic threat, particularly when combined with the strength of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement in neighboring Lebanon. Israel increasingly looks at the two countries as one northern front and has sought to enforce a series of red lines aimed at countering the threat. Over recent weeks Israel has increased direct targeting of Iranian assets and military personnel across Syria.
The Europeans may have a weak hand, but they should engage in quick and deeper consultations with Israel and also Russia as Moscow is one of the few on-the-ground actors with mediating ties to all the ground actors and as such it could help salvage the nuclear deal without starting a large-scale conflict. But this regional dynamic is not separate from ongoing wider developments on the nuclear front.
Donald Trump’s decision comes as part of a push by the United States, and its key regional partners Israel and Saudi Arabia, to more comprehensively put pressure on Iran. But while the US President likely remains cautious about directly committing the US to this fight, both Israel and Saudi Arabia undoubtedly believe that the recent steps represent the beginning of a more full-hearted US support. Donald Trump has now publicly committed himself to ensuring that Iran does not produce a nuclear weapon.
On the other hand, Iran views the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal as a pressure release, which is why Iran waited till after Mr. Trump’s nuclear decision to launch strikes on Israel. More broadly, Tehran will certainly assume an assertive position of its own in response to increasing pressure. This may well extend beyond the Syrian theatre given the increased interlinkage of regional conflicts, including Tehran’s links to the Houthi movement in Yemen, which has been responsible for a series of missile strikes in Saudi Arabia.
‚How to Prevent Regional Escalation After Trump’s JCPOA Decision‘ – Commentary by Julien Barnes-Dacey – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.