Main Image Credit Courtesy of Hani Al-Ansi / DPA / Alamy
With signs that a revival of the Iran nuclear deal is imminent, concerns are growing in the Middle East about the implications for regional security.
As the US prepares to re-enter the Iran deal, its allies in the region are becoming anxious. Israel and many of the Gulf states were highly critical of the Iran nuclear deal – also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – signed by then President Barack Obama in 2015, for doing too little to reign in Iran’s regional activities and containing no provisions regarding Iran’s ballistic missile programme. Yet supporters of the deal insist that despite its flaws, it remains the only diplomatic path that can prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons without military confrontation.
This situation becomes even more complicated when dealing with Iran’s affiliates in the region, such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Iran has been striking a delicate balance between supporting these groups and thereby making itself a major player in many of the region’s conflicts, and distancing itself from their actions to avoid direct responsibility. As a new nuclear deal appears to be imminent, the question arises of whether this time it can help make the region safer and more stable.
Iran’s support of militias and non-state actors remains the most sensitive issue for the security of the Gulf states and Israel. It is estimated that Iran supports over 40 militias distributed between Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen. These militias are embroiled in civil conflicts, but their activities are contained within each country’s borders. This is the case with the Houthis in Yemen. Although commentators usually refer to such groups as proxies, it is important to point out that Iran does not necessarily direct them; rather, they help Iran to enhance its regional influence.
Since mid-January 2022, the Houthis have used drones and ballistic missiles against targets in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The most prominent attacks occurred on 17 January, targeting an oil facility in Abu Dhabi, and on 10 February, hitting the Abha Airport in southern Saudi Arabia. This is in addition to approximately 10 ballistic missiles fired on the city of Marib in Yemen since January this year. Although these Houthi attacks are more related to the dynamics of the war in Yemen, rather than being part of a regional campaign explicitly directed by Tehran, Iran is clearly the behind the proliferation of armed drones and ballistic missiles to the Houthis. Its support for the group means that the Houthis are a greater threat to regional security today than they were in 2015, when the JCPOA was signed.
The Houthis’ activities have also increasingly disrupted international shipping routes. In January 2018, the Houthis threatened to block the Red Sea shipping lane. The Red Sea is an important trade route, with more than 10% of global trade passing through it. The Houthis’ threats materialised a few months later when they attacked two crude oil carriers on 25 July 2018. The attack led to Saudi Arabia temporarily halting all oil shipments through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. On 3 January 2022, the Houthis received international condemnation for seizing the UAE-flagged vessel Rwabee. Utilising their control over a third of Yemen’s 2,000 km coastline, the Houthis have deployed booby-trapped boats and released sea mines, and they have recently begun to actively seize vessels. This is yet another development that the Obama administration did not anticipate when signing the JCPOA in 2015.
The Houthis’ activities in the Red Sea will continue, and Iran will be sure to utilise this as a projection of its regional influence. The JCPOA – or another Iran nuclear deal – is unlikely to provide answers or assurances to change such behaviour.
The main reason why Iran’s regional activity will not decline even if it signs a new agreement is the design of the agreement itself.
The JCPOA is focused on monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities, preventing further uranium enrichment and increasing the break-out time – the time it would take for Iran to achieve 90% uranium enrichment, which would allow it to build a nuclear weapon – but contains no provisions regarding Iran’s support for militias in the region. It is crucial to understand how Iran and its allies viewed the agreement. They believed that Iran had agreed to pause its nuclear programme in exchange for gaining regional influence. Although these were not the terms signed by the Obama administration, this was the message received across the Middle East.
Supporters of the JCPOA have made the case that reintegrating Iran into the international market will encourage it to change its regional policy. They believe that when Iran feels the economic benefits, it will have an incentive to act differently and will reduce tensions with US allies in the region. These voices tend to forget that there are precedents across the region for the opposite taking place, and that the agreement has failed to produce concrete results in this regard. Sending a signal that the US is no longer committed to the security of its allies will backfire.
In Yemen, the administration of Joe Biden has adopted an appeasement policy towards the Houthis, and one of Biden’s first acts as president was to remove them from the US’s list of terrorist organisations. This appeasement policy has failed to encourage the Houthis to engage with the political process. In fact, they have escalated their attacks since the Biden administration came to power.
It is important not to overestimate the JCPOA as a possible solution to all crises in the region. The conflict in Yemen, to a certain extent, proceeds within its own sphere. In other words, even if Saudi Arabia and Iran were to reach an agreement, the conflict in Yemen would continue. It still has the potential to drag on for years to come, despite what happens with the JCPOA.
However, it would be negligent not to use the JCPOA as a tool to pressure Iran. The fact that the JCPOA contained no clause discussing Iran’s support for non-state actors is a fundamental flaw in the agreement. Reducing the Houthis’ ballistic missile capabilities and depriving them of some of their resources is one of many steps that could cool down the ongoing conflict in Yemen. The many militias in the region that are supported by Iran anticipate a bigger role for themselves after signing the JCPOA, not a lesser one. Iran will be well-resourced, sanctions-free, and without any obligations towards its neighbours in the region. Signing a nuclear agreement with Iran should not come at a cost for the region’s security.