War between Israel and Iran may hinge on fate of nuclear deal

Iran is in a severe, prolonged economic slump thanks to the ruinous policies of its President Hassan Rohani. Even with most sanctions lifted following the nuclear deal agreed to during the administration of Barack Obama, Iran's economic woes threaten catastrophe.

The currency, the rial, is worthless. There is massive unemployment and inflation. And the standard of living of ordinary Iranians has not risen despite promises from the regime.

Then there are the hugely unpopular wars in Syria and Yemen, for which the Iranian citizens are paying dearly.

In short, Iran is a mess.


At the end of last year, the World Bank predicted that Iran’s economy would grow by 4 percent in 2018 and 2019 – about half the government’s desired pace. Industrial growth hit 18 percent during the second half of 2017, but has been just 4 percent so far this year. Production has flatlined. And the economic reforms Rohani promised to include in this year’s budget disappeared almost completely due to protests over the planned increase in prices and cuts in subsidies.

Things are so bad that some military people on Iranian social media have actually suggested that Iran needs a military man at the top to set things right. This is unheard of in a theocracy like Iran and should be a cause for worry by Rohani.

The nuclear agreement with the US is set to be renewed on May 12. The Trump administration has given every indication that they plan to scuttle the agreement. Our European allies, desperate to maintain their business ties to Iran (which have become quite lucrative since the nuclear agreement went into effect), have been negotiating with the US, trying to find some way to strengthen the deal that would satisfy both America and Iran.

They have failed. So the question becomes, with rising tensions in the Middle East between Israel and Iran, can war be avoided?

If Trump pulls out of the nuclear deal and Iran restarts its nuclear program, it will force the Europeans to re-establish at least some sanctions. Even if they're only token sanctions, they will almost certainly damage Iran's fragile economy. This leads to a dilemma for Iran, who has endured several attacks by Israel who is looking to deny the Iranians the use of Syria as a base.

An outbreak of hostilities between Iran and Israel – something New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Israeli officials themselves have warned of – will apparently have to wait until at least mid-May.

Paradoxically, the battle between Washington and European capitals has seemingly contributed greatly to Iran’s restraint in the face of airstrikes on Syria attributed to Israel. Iran believes it can’t afford to start a new Mideast war, because that would play into Trump’s and Israel’s hands by releasing the European brakes.

The combination of the nuclear agreement and the economic crisis has backed Iran into a corner in which it is not only barred from developing its nuclear program, but also can’t risk a conventional war.

At most, it could return to the agreements in force prior to the nuclear deal – like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty without the Additional Protocol, which mandated less stringent oversight than the nuclear deal did – and scrap the nuclear deal’s detailed timetables. But if it takes those steps, it is liable to clog the pipeline of cooperation with Europe and put even Russia in a difficult position.

Its domestic constraints will also force Iran to make decisions in other arenas, especially Syria. The recent exchanges of aerial and verbal blows with Israel, and the possibility that Israel will increase its attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, require Iran to accelerate the diplomatic process Russia is spearheading.

The Israeli airstrikes will actually result in closer cooperation between Iran and Russia in an effort to reach a comprehensive agreement that will consolidate Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, demarcate both countries’ spheres of influence in Syria, set up de-escalation zones, restore control of the entire country to Assad and constrain Israel’s freedom of action in Syria.

To neutralize the danger of Israeli strikes on its bases in Syria, Iran can employ the strategy it successfully used in Iraq: embedding the militias which operate under its control into the Syrian army. In this way, it eventually forced Iraq to add the Popular Mobilization Forces to the army, which now pays the militiamen’s salaries.

Joint Syrian-Iranian army units and bases would make it harder for Israel to claim it is trying to keep Iran from consolidating its position in Syria, and every strike on a joint base would be considered a hostile act against the Assad regime.

So the Trump administration has Iran pretty much over a barrel. They can't risk further sanctions from their new business partners in Europe which will constrain their nuclear efforts as well as their drive to make Syria a forward base for war against Israel. This doesn't mean that a US attack on Iran is any more or less likely but it does mean that, for the foreseeable future, Iran's hands will be tied.