It All Comes Back to Iran
The Middle East has never been known for its stability, but Iran's fondness for meddling in its neighbors' affairs has made peace in the region all the more difficult to preserve. At least, that's the belief that will fix Washington's gaze squarely on the Islamic republic this quarter. As the United States steps up its efforts to counter Tehran's activities abroad, Iran will devote its attention to digging in its heels and defending its turf. For the most part, it will succeed, standing its ground on the Syrian civil war and preserving its political influence in Iraq and Lebanon as each country holds elections.
Still, Iran will have little control over one aspect of its fate: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Rather than having much say in the future of its nuclear deal with the global powers, Tehran will have to wait to see what legislation U.S. lawmakers and European diplomats craft to increase international oversight of Iran's nuclear program and facilities. Hoping to fend off attempts by the West to constrain its behavior, Iran will probably keep its long-range ballistic missile tests and provocations in the Persian Gulf to a minimum in the months ahead. But when all is said and done, Tehran won't be willing to compromise its own strategic interests by hamstringing its weapons program at home or by curbing its support for militant groups abroad.
The Art of the Nuclear Deal
U.S. President Donald Trump issued an ultimatum in January to Congress and the European Union: Fix "the disastrous flaws" in the JCPOA by May 12 or the United States would withdraw from it. Despite this vow, however, the White House doesn't want to give Tehran a reason to resume its nuclear program by triggering the agreement's collapse. Instead, to keep the JCPOA intact while working to strengthen it, the United States will put in place mechanisms to automatically reinstate sanctions if Iran violates its commitments to the accord. Washington will also slap new sanctions on entities that support Tehran's ballistic missile program, though it will take care to avoid flagrantly violating the nuclear deal itself.
Iran may even agree to minor constraints on the range and testing of its ballistic missiles. However, it probably won't enshrine these limits in a formal pact, especially as it clings to its professed need for a weapons programs amid the threats mounting against it elsewhere in the region. Iran will make its case to friendly partners in Europe, such as France and Germany, as they work with the United States to draw up a supplemental agreement aimed at discouraging some of Iran's more controversial activities.
In the end, the European Union will back parts of Washington's plan for discouraging further strides in Iran's long-range missile program. But the bloc will ensure that the bargains it makes do not blur the line between Tehran's nuclear and ballistic missile activities or reinstate sanctions against the latter — measures the Continent promised to abandon under the nuclear deal. Because Europe considers the JCPOA to be a cornerstone of Middle East security, it will make sure that any allegations of violations by Iran filter through the deal's dispute-settlement mechanism. The United States will hardly get everything it wants, but the new measures will be enough to persuade it to keep waiving certain sanctions, in spite of its deep misgivings about Tehran's intentions.
Iran's Arc of Influence
The uncertainty surrounding the nuclear deal will reaffirm Iran's desire for a robust defense policy that includes the very activities fueling U.S. fears: ballistic missile development, covert operations and support for regional militias. But these outward objectives will clash with Iran's need for domestic economic development — much of which can stem only from closer trade ties with the world at large.
Iran can't afford to ignore the economic grievances of its citizens, either. The country, still reeling from some of the largest protests to sweep across it since 2009, appears to be nearing a potential turning point in its politics. The financial strain caused by lingering sanctions has triggered a debate about how to reform the political and economic model that has defined Iran for the past 40 years. Though an answer won't emerge this quarter, the conversation will unfold over the next few months.
That Iran's elected and appointed officials don't see eye to eye on the issue will drag out the discussion even more. Though the administration will pay lip service to economic and social change, it won't have the leeway to take action as Iran's hard-liners use the precarious state of the nuclear deal to undermine President Hassan Rouhani and his moderate allies. Moreover, the government will have little attention to spare for domestic discourse while it's distracted with the many military and political challenges abroad that lie before it.
The Syrian Civil War
The greatest military threat to Iran's wide reach across the Middle East will arise in Syria. Turkey, Israel and the United States will each confront Iran there, but they will do so in their own ways and in pursuit of their own interests, rather than as a united front.
The most prominent clash will pit Turkey against Iran in northwestern Syria. Turkey is determined to weaken the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in the region, and it has pressured the United States to support the withdrawal of those fighters from the city of Manbij, east of the Afrin canton. (Ankara will not launch a military offensive against the district while Washington's allies are still in the area.) But Iran will seek to curb Turkey's influence in the war-torn country by aiding Syrian troops and YPG militias in Afrin. Just to the south, Iran will also try to undermine the "de-escalation zones" that Turkish troops currently monitor in Idlib province, where Ankara hopes to bolster its influence by fortifying its Syrian rebel allies in their battle against extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Though the conflict between the Iranian and Turkish proxies will intensify in the months ahead, it won't spill into the two countries' trade relationship.
Russia, for its part, will work hard to make sure the fighting dies down. Having failed to translate peace talks into an exit from the protracted civil war, Moscow will settle for a conflict frozen in place instead. De-escalation zones will offer a means to that end. But Syrian President Bashar al Assad and foreign patron Iran won't be willing to recognize these areas, throwing a wrench into Russia's plans.
Troops loyal to al Assad, along with their Iranian allies, will also risk coming face to face with Israel as they conduct operations against rebel positions in southern Syria. Israel has a narrow window in which it can strike at its longtime adversary, Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and at Iranian targets across its northeastern border with Syria. Israel will probably take it, with the aim of preventing the entrenchment of Iranian-backed fighters along the edge of the Golan Heights.
Iraq and Lebanon Vote for Iran
Iran's rivalry with its neighbors and the United States will seep into the region's political battlegrounds in the months ahead as well. Iraq will hold general elections on May 12, and the bloc that emerges with the most votes will win the premiership — the country's most influential political position. Iran's local allies, who are well-placed and well-connected, will vie for the post alongside Iraqi nationalists and politicians backed by the Gulf Arab states.
Iran will count on Iraq's mostly Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces and their associated political parties to perform well in the races. The fighters have become popular among Iraqis, thanks to their lengthy battle against the Islamic State. However, their growing presence nationwide has also elicited backlash from Iraq's minority groups. To complicate matters, the Popular Mobilization Forces lack the full support of Iraq's Shiite community. Nationalist parties and factions hoping to insulate Iraqi policymaking from external interference have split the country's Shiite majority. These nationalists will cross ethnic and sectarian lines in search of coalition partners that will preserve the state's sovereignty.
And therein lies Tehran's deeper problem: Iraqi Shiites will not unite behind it, no matter how strategically positioned Iran is within its neighbor's borders. Of course, that doesn't mean Gulf states will be able to translate Tehran's predicament into meaningful gains for their preferred candidates. Though these countries will try to use hefty investment into reconstruction and development projects in Shiite and Sunni regions to build relationships with Iraq's citizens and political parties, the elections will likely still bring to power a weak government that favors Iran.
Iran's allies will likewise stay in power in Lebanon, despite the best efforts of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States. While the first two states compete for control over Lebanon's fragmented Sunni constituency, the latter two will try to weaken the grip of Tehran's partner — Hezbollah — by threatening the group, sanctioning it or aiding its Lebanese opponents. But in the absence of a viable challenger within the country's Shiite community, none of these actions will strip away seats from the ruling party or, by extension, its Iranian backer.
Wading into its neighbors' elections won't be the only play for influence the Turkish government makes this quarter. As Ankara reveals its reach in northwestern Syria, popular support at home for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will swell, perhaps even distracting citizens from the country's foundering economy, which remains plagued by high inflation. The public's approval could encourage the president to try to cement his rule by calling for an early election. (The vote is currently set for November 2019.)
Turkey's boldness will be on full display farther abroad, too. In northern Iraq, Turkey is likely to deepen its existing operations against Kurdish militants, risking sparking conflict with Shiite militia forces allied with Iran. The country will continue to press its claim to the eastern Mediterranean Sea as Cyprus tries to drill for oil and natural gas beneath it. For now, Ankara will be undeterred by European threats to halt talks on Turkey's EU accession and on the expansion of their customs union if the Middle Eastern power does not stand down in the sea. Meanwhile, Turkey will actively reinforce its economic partnerships in Africa, alarming many of its Gulf Arab neighbors with their own interests to protect in the region.
The GCC: A Bloc Reformed?
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will also be making some bold moves this quarter, even if most take place within its own borders as the bloc's members implement their visions for economic reform. The United Arab Emirates, led by Dubai, will forge ahead in adopting such key technologies as blockchain, creating new rules for cryptocurrencies and preparing for its first satellite launch.
Saudi Arabia will concentrate on tech as well, working to attract investment in data storage and to equip the kingdom's private sector to become more competitive — in part by promising greater transparency. But in the wake of a string of anti-corruption probes that raised eyebrows late last year, it is unclear whether Riyadh will be able to balance the need for openness with its desire to control the economy and the flow of information at home. Though many young Saudis will welcome the social changes that accompany the kingdom's economic reforms, such as the June removal of a ban on women driving, others will not. These undercurrents of dissent could someday empower the country's religious extremists.
Meanwhile, the rifts that have long pulled the GCC's members apart will be made clear in the bloc's activities in Yemen and Qatar. Amid a stalemate in the Yemeni civil war, countries belonging to the intervention force led by Riyadh will pursue their own priorities: Saudi Arabia will focus on severing Houthi rebels' access to Iranian funds and weapons, while the United Arab Emirates will try to keep Yemen's southern secessionist movement focused on fighting the Houthis and extremist groups. All the while, the problems underpinning Qatar's ongoing diplomatic spat with its fellow GCC members — and the blockade still in place against the tiny nation — will likely go unresolved. Nevertheless, the United States will advocate for a solution that offers all parties involved an opportunity to save face. Should the GCC take it, discord within the bloc may dissipate over the next few months, allowing its members to set aside their differences for the time being.
The Difficulties of North African Reform
Like its Gulf neighbors, Egypt will be fixing up its economy this quarter. Having sidelined his political opponents, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is poised to win another term in office when voters head to the polls on March 28. He will channel his fresh mandate into the implementation of economic reforms that the International Monetary Fund has recommended, including further subsidy cuts.
But behind the scenes of a seamless re-election, questions about the president's legitimacy will linger. The country's seemingly intractable insurgency will spur power struggles among the Egyptian security forces and undermine the government's claim that only al-Sisi can protect the nation's security — as well as the social contract between ruler and ruled that rests upon it.
In much the same way, Tunisia's local elections will fail to live up to the expectations of its people. Many citizens hope the May races will pump new blood into the national government. Yet the municipal vote will represent only a small step toward overhauling the country's economic and political structure, while the politicking before and after the elections will put new strain on the ruling coalition.