Analysis

From Iran to Jerusalem: Five Days of Fear for the Middle East - and for the World

A dangerous series of events converging next month would challenge any U.S. administration. But the Trump White House is particularly ill-equipped to deal with them, not least when many are of its own doing

Palestinians hold Islamic flags while marching to congratulate the new Hamas Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Ramallah. March 31, 2006
AP

In the age of Trump, the news cycle moves so quickly that important stories are missed or instantly forgotten, making it nearly impossible to differentiate the drama from the important.

Amongst the cacophony, not enough attention is being paid to a critical five days that are upcoming in mid-May that could shape the Middle East’s trajectory for the next few years - and impact the future of nuclear competition in the region, the return of ISIS, and an inflamed Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

First, on May 12 or sometime shortly before, President Donald Trump will decide on whether to continue to waive sanctions on Iran or, as looks increasingly likely, walk away from the nuclear agreement with Iran. This decision won’t trigger an immediate conflict, instead setting off a slow motion crisis that will play out over a number of years.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends the National Army Day parade in Tehran, Iran, April 18, 2018
\ TASNIM NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS

We do not know precisely how Iran will respond. Despite rosy claims that it will stay in the nuclear agreement, and try to separate Europe from the United States, it appears increasingly likely that Iran will feel the need to respond to political pressure at home from deal opponents and will not just sit on its hands.

At the same time, Iran has spent 30 years methodically building its nuclear program not by dashing as quickly as it could to a bomb, but instead by crawling, slowly making progress while trying to not provoke a major international response. Tehran is likely to follow the same approach restarting some elements of its nuclear program while taking its time. 

International sanctions will return with mixed results. Certainly, many companies will quickly pull out of Iran for fear of losing the U.S. market, but there will also be significant political opposition in Europe and from China and Russia to the U.S. withdrawal. 

And China in particular is likely to push back; it's not about to start reducing its purchases of Iranian oil which played such a critical role in imposing the type of crippling sanctions regime that brought Iran to its knees in 2012 and 2013.

Meanwhile, it will be nearly impossible to bring Iran back to the negotiating table with the U.S. for years to come, as its leaders will conclude that there is no point in concluding agreements with the United States. 

And so we will be left with a world where Iran inches towards a nuclear weapon, does not face sufficient pressure, and has no interest in negotiations. That means in a few years, the U.S. will be left with a stark choice: military action or living with a nuclear-armed Iran.

Campaign posters in Baghdad on April 30, 2018, ahead of the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP

Such a momentous decision would be enough to absorb any administration but May 12 is also happens to be Election Day in Iraq – a critical milestone that, if not properly managed, could create a new opening for ISIS. 

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been a good partner for the United States, playing a vital role in stabilizing Iraq and pushing back ISIS, while pursuing a non-sectarian agenda that tries to knit Iraq back together.

But if he were to be replaced by a leader who does not see the point of ruling with an inclusive approach, and pursues instead a sectarian Shia agenda, we may see a return to the days of 2013 under Nouri al-Maliki where Iraq’s Sunnis became so alienated and desperate that they turned to ISIS. 

As has been the case since the fall of Saddam, the Iraqi political system is highly fractured; no party on its own will win a governing majority. After the elections, Iraq will likely face a period of prolonged uncertainty as the parties pursue delicate negotiations. In the past, this process required serious diplomatic engagement from the United States to help break the deadlock as well as tacit agreement from the two most influential outside powers in Iraq – Washington and Tehran.

Will the Trump administration be ready and willing to play this role? In the aftermath of an American exit from the JCPOA, will either Iran or the United States be willing to work together to support such a compromise? Or will the envitable result of Iran pursuing a friendly, sectarian Shi’a government against an increasingly hostile Trump administration, committed to pushing Iranian influence out of Iraq, be military escalation? 

Such a dynamic could become dangerous - leaving Iraq in a prolonged state of political paralysis, and opening the door for extremist groups to take advantage, as they have done before.

A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot during clashes with Israeli forces on the Israel-Gaza border, during the fifth straight Friday of mass demonstrations. April 27, 2018
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

And even as all of this is going on, two days later on May 14, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump will be in Israel to participate in a ceremony marking the symbolic opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem.

The situation between Israelis and Palestinians could not be more delicate. Tensions in Gaza have escalated in recent months with weekly protests that have left more than 20 Palestinians dead.

The event is taking place on the 70th anniversary of the declaration of independence of the State of Israel – a highly symbolic day for both sides, one which is referred to by the Palestinians as the Nakba, or "the catastrophe."

And to top matters off, the embassy move occurs the day before the start of Ramadan – always a politically charged time, given the religious undertones of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.    

President Donald Trump shakes hands with national security adviser John Bolton in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Washington D.C. April 9, 2018
Susan Walsh/AP

The embassy move may pass without significant violence - just as President Trump’s announcement back in December did not trigger the type of violence and instability in the Middle East that many had feared.

Or it could explode - and we could find ourselves in the middle of a new war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Nobody knows, but it is irresponsible for the United States to be dumping gasoline on this potential fire. 

A toxic witches' brew of political instability and further potential violence is stewing in the Middle East.

Such a flood of huge events would be challenging for any American administration to manage, but, unfortunately the Trump administration - with its massive vacancies in key positions across the Middle East, and undisciplined and erratic policy process -seems particularly ill-equipped to deal with these problems, many of whom are of its own doing. 

Ilan Goldenberg is the Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a Policy Advisor to the Israel Policy Forum. He previously served as part of the U.S. team during the 2013-2014 Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations. Twitter: @ilangoldenberg