In modern journalism, as well as in quite a few analyses, one can find abundant references to the ‘Thucydides trap’. Essentially most of contemporary analysis suggests that the eyes of those researching this phenomenon are fixated on the rivalry between China and the US. Nevertheless, there is another place in the world where this phenomenon is quite dynamic today – and that place is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
What is this trap, precisely? Thucydides was the first to have described it, namely in his work in which he was observing the increasing power of Sparta, inevitably placing it on a collision course with Athens, which ultimately led to the Second Peloponnesian War. Today, in observing the ongoing developments in MENA, one can realize the extent to which the countries there may be on a collision course. There, Iran would seem to be playing the role of Sparta today. Its behaviour is an iron consequence of the region’s entire status quo that has been shaped since decades.
JCPOA – the turning point that set the collision course
In 2015, Barack Obama signed what could be perceived as one of the least thought-out documents in history. The nuclear agreement with Iran between the US, China, Russia, UK, France, Germany and the EU was a remarkable media success for a while, but has since turned out to be one of the grandest disasters of the beginning of the 21st century.
It would seem that after the many experiences of the 20th century in international politics, there would be less naivety and a lot of perspicacity. This, however, is a fallacy that then costs humanity as a whole a dear lot. The US, led by Obama and his administration, after having engaged in a rather imprudent and ill-considered war in Libya, or implementing a reset in relations with Russia, which ended in Crimea and Donbass, should be able to draw conclusions from these setbacks. Unfortunately, it turned out that even when cautioned, it could not do so. For immediate political and image-related benefits, the decision to agree to deal with Iran followed, though many would directly point out the concept’s weaknesses and elaborated on the potential consequences.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu described the deal as a “historical mistake” and in a lengthy array of arguments he described what we can see today. These predictions have materialised, asserting that when released from sanctions, Iran will not invest the money that flows into the country into the economy, but would rather spend it on strengthening the military force, which would then agitate the region and inescapably, in a brutal manner, collide with the interests of numerous countries. The JCPOA focuses on stopping Iran’s nuclear programme, inasmuch completely without addressing other issues, such as the important missile programme. Several commentators illustrated the scenario – that whilst the there was an actual suspension of work on nuclear weapons, in its stead Iran is launching an ambitious missile programme. In building its military potential, military missile units, and develops a precision-guided munitions, and then relaunches a nuclear program from the place in which it ended, and proceeds to become a nuclear power in a maximum of 2 years. In fact, the beginning of this scenario really manifested at the touch of a magic wand.
When there is no vacuum
The mere regaining of subjectivity in regional policy had to have cause a short circuit. Once suddenly a country of 81 million situated in one of the most important places in the world “is released” from a form of confinement, one can be sure that it will strive to claim its own. The problem is that over the years the region has developed its balance of power and status quo, where Iran’s influence has been balanced and restricted. This balance was immediately broken when Iran supported the Shiite Houthi rebellion in Yemen and it became clear that the Ayatollahs did not intend to allocate new funds for economic development, but were investing them with the aim of upending the regional order completely.
To this they announced, and thereafter began to flood the markets with their cheap oil. As one could hear from the direct words of Iranian officials – Iran satisfies the price even of $ 15 per barrel, considering it is altogether new source of income for them, and at the same time it will hit their main opponent, i.e. Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. As a result, at the beginning of 2016 we were met with an agreeable surprise at the stations, when the price of the barrel fell to around $ 30. However, this caused, as we remember, many other considerable perturbations, which was a clear signal that the consequences of Iran’s actions would indeed be felt throughout the world.
Iranian influence, money and weapons immediately appeared in Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraq, and Syria. Additionally, this overlapped with the situation of the war against ISIL and the entire complex Syrian conundrum that drew attention away from the actions of Ayatollahs. In the Middle East, there was no vacuum that Iran could occupy, hence it began to occupy space with aggressive policies. This is generally a very predictable and natural process, which would give the Obama administration an even less favourable evaluation in that it had agreed to such a scenario.
Business as usual
In his speech during the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II on September 1 in Warsaw, Polish President Andrzej Duda articulated words which impeccably elaborate on the mistakes we made as humanity previous, and those which we unfortunately continue to make again. He appealed not to repeat mistakes when, for the sake of furthering interests, one turns a blind eye to negative actions or trends, which then lead to tragedy, because they embolden those who conduct aggressive politics without bearing their consequences. This is exactly the types of policy of JCPOA signatories in implementation we see after US withdrawal from the contract by Donald Trump. Actions particularly from France and Germany are guided by the intention of pursuing their interests in Iran without taking into consideration the broader context of the situation that has arisen and what it causes.
Forasmuch how negatively one has to assess, in principle, the unilateral termination of the deal by the US – because the agreements are signed in order to comply with them, and this should be a constant – in fact, withdrawing from this agreement relatively quickly after the change of power in the US indicates a high degree of analytical sobriety in the current administration. This form of agreement and upcoming foreign investments combined with aggressive Iran policy would be a 100% likeliness to lead to the outbreak of war in MENA in a short matter of time. And it must be said openly – dismantling the JCPOA gives a chance to avoid this war – although, let’s be honest, this chance does seem rather miniscule today.
The Middle East has never been, and is not, a place where any actor can suddenly grow in strength without enormous consequences for the region. We have been observing this for centuries and that is why the wars there at times seem to be cyclical, and permanent, elements of the landscape.
The Middle East in a trap
All things considered, , the JCPOA in effect closed the Thucydides trap, and set the current playmaker and pretender on one track, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Iran. In addition, the conflict between these regional powers is compounded by the centuries-old Shi’a-Sunni contention. In reality, when a growing Iran naturally reaches for ever higher influences by forming new alliances, the interests of these two countries and their supporters are beginning to cross, and worse still, the growth of some must take place at the expense of others. It never bodes well. In addition, sauce of US and Chinese rivalry is poured onto the whole thing, which means that China is ready to invest powerful resources in Iran and strengthen the Ayatollahs, giving them additional measures of confidence and vigour.
The role of and actions undertaken by Turkey in the region is not without significance, which has apprehended its chance in the changing status quo, and contributes to the instability in Syria and Iraq, in realizing its policy to become the leading power of the region.
Yet, the most puzzling element here is the role of Russia, which plays many pianos – from helping Assad in Syria, through the alliance with Turkey, cooperation with Israel – to alliances with China and Iran. It is Russia, as one of the few countries, that can depend on the escalation of the situation, including war. As a large exporter of weapons with large influence in the region and one of the largest oil and gas producers on which the country’s budget is based, Russia may contemplate, in its calculations, the chance to reverse many negative trends affecting Russia in the event of a major war outbreaking in the MENA region.
Genie out of the Lamp
While the nuclear agreement itself had indeed a positive element, i.e. closing the nuclear programme and “freeing” Persians from international isolation – which is always positive – the lack of coherent ideas of how to do it is like letting a genie out of a lamp. It would seem that the sole agreement is similar to scoring a goal – maybe not spectacular, but still a goal – except that in this case it is the fact that it is an own goal. Primarily absent was an implementation in stages over several years – which would give a chance to mitigate the effects of Iran’s return to the game for regional order. There was also a gradual withdrawal of sanctions, which would allow for the checking the Ayatollahs’ intentions and keep the spectre of breaking the agreement hovering over them.
Unilateral agreement termination and even quite effective US sanctions, however, have little chance of success. First, at the least, because Western signatories are still breaking away from the US line of approach to the matter. Second, because China or India support them by buying oil from them, which only strengthens their confidence. And thirdly, that most are terribly afraid of wars with the US – which in effect means that the Ayatollahs are completely void in the field of war cries and allow themselves to get away with a lot.
Saudi refineries – the defeat of old hegemons
The recent spectacular attack on refineries in Saudi Arabia was a display of strength and a very successful one at that. Most intriguingly, it does not even matter who actually did it. Whether they were those who claimed responsibilities i.e. the Houthis, which is rather unlikely, whether it really was Iran, or even if it was some kind of provocation aimed at provoking war – only the reactions matter significantly.
On the one hand, the reactions are toned down – like the Saudi side or the US side, which have opted to increase the sanctions, which, being honest, are unlikely to harm Iran much. On the other hand, Persian reactions are full of total war terror and the use of aggressive rhetoric with detaining three Australians in the background.
You can see that the US, just like upon the recent loss of a drone, is escaping from violent and emotional reactions, so it cannot be provoked. To some, it may be perceived as a weakness, but this is a completely false perception. The US does not want a war that would mean enormous costs to them and the compulsion to invest huge resources that it would have to take from Europe, and worse, from the Pacific, which in turn would cost them a loss of position in these regions – a position that could no longer be regained.
This policy is again a trap because it leads to even bolder actions of the Persians. And this, in turn, would finally lead us to a burst of emotions and a spiral that again would likely lead to war. The situation seems extremely problematic.
Gulf war – the end of the old world
Iran is trying to force concessions by noticing that the US cannot afford war, but too many concessions may cost the US too much globally. The situation could be one without a solution, unless one of the parties changes direction, yet this does not seem to be the case.
War, on the other hand, changes the world situation tremendously. To the extent, that, Iran does not have an outstanding military. Whilst most of the equipment comes from purchases made by Shah Pahlavi and those during the war with Iraq, though Iran does have several critical arguments.
Firstly, and foremost – the size of the country and its demography. Consider, 81 million people, an announcement of total war, as well as a number of allies who are ready to support Iran, make it an extreme adversary to conquer and even more so to maintain.
Secondly, modern missile forces and a large naval fleet mean that Iran can militarily affect the entire region. Rockets can effectively destroy the critical infrastructure of neighbouring countries, and the recent attack on refineries should dispel any illusions. Land-to-water missiles and the fleet can actually block Ormuz, which transports 40% of world oil transported by sea. Perturbations would be huge and hard to imagine for the world.
Thirdly – significant influence in Syria, Iraq, Hamas or Hezbollah mean that with a high degree of probability, smaller players in the region will probably go about their affairs and securing their interests. So it would bind large forces potentially thrown at Iran by opponents, and what worse still, the whole region would be ignited by a series of conflicts, as the widespread tensions in the Middle East are indeed numerous and multifaceted. For example, one could imagine that Turkey will decide to pursue its interest in relation to the Kurds, and perhaps with Syria and Iraq.
One thing is certain – the outbreak of war in MENA will completely change the world we know today and it will be one of lasting change.
Escape from the trap
As of today, scenarios in which the situation is resolved optimistically exist only scarcely. One of them is giving in to Iran and letting it gain influence until it is saturated – but here is another trap – the appetite grows as one eats, and may prove to grow uninhibited.
At the opposite extreme is the actual termination of JCPOA by at least a majority of signatories and a strong isolation of Iran again – which, however, is unlikely on the part of China or Russia, which may keep the regime afloat and in a warring mood.
Paradoxically, it is the nuclearization of the Middle East that can only lead to a more sustainable balance of power there, because the fear of annihilation mechanisms e.g. MAD, can prove effective deterrents. Hence, the JCPOA, which was aimed to prevent war, can paradoxically lead to it, and the very nuclear weapons which it aimed to inhibit, could be in the longer run continued. Iran’s withdrawal from the agreement may lead to a change in the rules of the game, unless the situation gets out of hand and the Thucydides trap is not closed completely. In a time of excessive tensions, one shot can really affect the fate of millions.
Paweł Opaczyński – expert in geopolitics and economy, Security Engineering student at the Silesian University of Technology, utomated production processes and production efficiency specialist. Administator and co-founder of “Geopolityka PRO” Facebook Group.