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    History and Present – The Middle East and Iran’s Nuclear Deal – let’s not burn that bridge when we come to it as Iran doesn’t need a nuclear bomb or missiles to hurt the rest of the world

    April 2019

    Trump, by taking a hard line on Iran, drew some needed attention to Iran’s bad behavior and created an opportunity to improve a nuclear deal. But to do so would have required Trump to admit that there was merit in the deal Obama had forged and to be content with limited, but valuable, fixes that the US European allies likely would have embraced. Instead, Trump again pushed for the max-torched the whole bridge, separating the US from Germany, France and Britain, undermining the forces of moderation in Iran and requiring Trump to now manage-again on his own – a complex, multidimensional confrontation with Tehran.

    Color me dubious that a president who has not been able to manage his confrontation with a stripper, or prevent leaks in his White House, can manage a multifront strategy for confronting Iran and North Korea and trade wars with China, Europe and Mexico with almost none existing political and diplomatic experience.

    Obama’s view which we share of the Middle East was that it was on outlier region, where a toxic brew of religious extremism, tribalism, oil, corruption, climate change and mis-governance made positive change from outside impossible; it had to come from within.

    From the cataclysmic wars in Syria and Yemen to the volatile assemblages of Iraq and Lebanon, Sunni-Shiite relations are at a breaking point. The Saudi – Iranian regional rivalry is central to it, and the Trump administration – in both its rhetoric and its policies – is aggravating rather than ameliorating it. Saudi Arabia and Israel had aggressively discouraged the Obama administration from pursuing the Iran nuclear deal. The Saudis were thrilled when Mr. Trump – who constantly attacked the Iran deal during his campaign – was elected. Last May, during his visit to Riyadh, Mr. Trump echoed the Saudi view that Iran alone was to blame for all of the region’s troubles and must be stopped at any cost. Ditching the Iran nuclear accord should be seen as a coordinated United States – Israel – Saudi shift toward isolating and confronting Iran.

    But the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is far more complex and goes back to “the seventh – century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad – Shiites or Sunnis.”

    Even President Obama, who staked a lot of political capital on the nuclear deal with Iran, invoked the specter of “ancient sectarian differences” to explain the turmoil in the Middle East. In his final state of Union address, Mr. Obama asserted that the issues plaguing the region are “voted in conflicts that date back millennia.”

    But just projecting current conditions back and imagining they are this way because they have always been this way is a grave mistake. Global conflicts have more proximate causes and are driven by state actors pursuing political power and strategic interests. During the Cold War for example, Saudi Arabia and Iran enjoyed amicable relations. Both countries had warm relations with the United States, and they were on the same side of the region’s defining issues.

    In the Yemeni civil war of the 1960s, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan allied with royalist partisans of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom; Egypt, Iraq and other Arab republics supported the so-called Yemen, Arab Republic. The Arab republics supported their fellow republicans in Yemen while the Saudi and Iranian monarchies supported their fellow royalists.

    The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran changed this equation. Fearing the spread of political Islam from across the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia responded by investing significant resources in undermining the appeal of the revolution. It sought to portray it as a distinctly Shiite and Persian phenomenon – a foreign and deviant form of Islam. Consequently, the 1980s saw relations between the Sunnis and the Shiites deteriorate across the region. Although the theological inspiration of the Iranian revolution was decidedly Shiite, people across the Middle East and Asia saw it as a popular anti-imperialist uprising against a repressive Western-backed monarchy. The specter if mass mobilizations, in the form of political Islam, against other Western-backed monarchies in the region terrified the Saudis. Saudi Arabia’s strong support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war intensified the animosity. With the end of that war in 1988, tensions between Tehran and Riyadh subsided and relations improved. A cold peace lasted for most of the 1990s.

    The American – led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a turning point in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and in sectarian relations across the region. The Saudis were horrified that the invasion ushered in a Shiite – led government with strong ties to Tehran.

    After the United States toppled Iraq’s dictatorship in 2003, Iran sent arms to militias and backed political parties there, bringing Iraq into its orbit. After the Arab Spring uprisings early this decade battered the governments of Syria and Yemen, Iran deployed fighters and supported militias. In the chaos of Syria’s long-burning civil war, Iran seized the opportunity to build military infrastructure there.

    In2008, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia exhorted the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” with a military strike on Iran. The Arab uprising in 2011 seemed to temporarily sideline the sectarian narrative. In Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, Sunnis and Shiites marched together, chanted the same slogans, and met the same repressive fate at the hands of their governments. But in each of these cases, cross-sectarian popular movements morphed into sectarian conflicts. Sectarian violence is now engulfing the region, and the Saudi-Iranian war of hegemony is propelling this lethal drama. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has committed atrocities in Yemen on a weekly basis, bombing hospitals, markets, weddings, funerals and residential areas, killing thousands of civilians.

    Iran is deeply complicit in the war crimes of President Basher al-Assac in Syria, which include deliberate starvation, bombing of medical facilities and residential buildings and the inveterate use of chemical weapons. Iran is not only Mr. Assad’s key regional ally, but it has arrayed a massive transnational flow of Shiite fighters in Syria and is engineering population swaps along sectarian lines to fortify the Assad regime. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are both responsible for this horrific carnage. Both states are responsible for deepening the sectarians fault lines in the region.

    Saudi accusations of Iran orchestrating a serpentine Shiite takeover of the Arab world are self-serving exaggerations that conveniently cloak Riyadh’s own malfeasance, yet Iran’s policies in Syria make these claims sound perfectly plausible to many Sunnis. Sectarianization has taken on a life of its own. It needs to be reversed, not exacerbated. But by buying into Saudi Arabia’s sectarian narrative and by backing its war in Yemen, the Trump administration is helping to perpetuate sectarianism.

    Obama by comparison, by the end of his eight years presidential term was skeptical of all the leaders in the Middle East – Iranian, Arab and Israeli – and of their intentions. It made Obama a policy minimalist on the Middle East: keep it simple and focus on the biggest threat. That meant joining with Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China to keep the most dangerous weapons – nuclear weapons – away from the most dangerous bad actor there – Iran. By lifting sanctions on Iran as part of the deal, Obama at that time hoped Iran would become integrated into the world of acceptance and moderate the regime.

    The latter did not happen, but the former did. Iran agreed to fight restrictions on its enrichment of nuclear weapons – grade materials for 15years in return for an easing of sanctions. Two years in, Iran has abided by the restrictions, confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

    It was a transactional deal that kept Iran’s latent nuclear capabilities latent – not a grand bargain, not a transformational breakthrough encompassing all of Iran’s objectionable behavior. It was a deal that served the purpose. The deal never covered Iran’s regional aggression or its ballistic missile program.

    By contrast, Trump’s team is made up of maximalists. They want to limit Iran’s ballistic missile program, reverse its imperialistic reach into the Sunni Arab world, require Iran to accept terms that would ensure it could never ever enrich enough uranium for a nuclear bomb, and, if possible, induce regime change in Tehran.

    But the Trump administration has left many key questions unanswered: Who is going to take over in Tehran if the current Islamic regime collapses?

    One thing we have learned from the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled their leaders is that in almost every country the alternative to autocracy turned out not to be democracy, but disorder or military dictatorship. If Iran, a country of 80million people which is comparable to Germany’s population, was to go to the way of Syria, it would destabilize the entire Middle East, and refugees would again pour into Europe.

    It is true that Iran has projected its power deep into the Arab world. But that was not because of money it got from the nuclear deal and sanctions relief, as argued by Trump and his administration and new friends. It was because of the weakness of the Sunni Arab states and their internecine fighting, which created power vacuums that Iran has filled with its network of Shiite proxies. That’s how Iran today has managed to indirectly control four Arab capitals: Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sana.

    One more perfect example for Sunni Arab state instability is Qatar, a member state of the GCC. Qatar, the richest country in the world on a per capita basis is challenging the impact of the embargo under which it has been out by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain since last June – one month after Trump’s visit to Riyadh and after his consultation. The schism has turned US allies on each other, undermining Washington’s attempts to build a united front against Islamist terror and Iran. The US, which has its regional military headquarters in Qatar, is pursuing a compromise deal but only a few believe a breakthrough is imminent, with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi content with Doha’s isolation.

    The Qatar crisis was triggered when Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, self-appointed guardians of regional stability, were incensed by tiny Qatar’s support fir popular Islamist movements that grew out of the tumult of the Arab spring, plus more established organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which briefly governed Egypt, and the Palestinian group Hamas. They feared these groups could upend the Gulf’s conservative monarchies.

    To his credit, Trump has drawn attention to Iranian misbehavior in ways the Europeans never have. Israel gets censured for implanting settlements deep into the West Bank. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates get censured for contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. But the Iranians have gotten away with murder, mass murder, at home abroad – with virtually no censure.

    Iran’s clerical regime has stifled one of the great civilizations, prevention so many of Iran’s youth from realizing their full potential, and mercilessly jailing and killing the regime’s opponents. In Syria, Iran’s Special Forces and its mercenary recruits, – Hezbollah militiamen from Lebanon and Shiite hired guns from Central Asia – have helped President Bashar al-Assad perpetrate a ruthless genocide against Syrian Sunnis, including the use of poison gas, in order to maintain a pro-Shiite, pro-Iranian dictatorship in Damascus. Millions of Syrians have been made refugees with Iran’s help.

    Good for Trump for calling Iran out, but he still needs a strategy to translate his pressure on the country into sustainable gains. As we all know “Strategy without leverage is feckless” and “Leverage without strategy is feckless”.

    Trump should have kept it simple as well and should have been much more diplomatic. Rather than scrapping the deal, he should have told the Europeans that all he wanted to stay in the deal were three fixes:

    1. Extend the ban on Iran’s enriching of uranium from the original 15years Obama negotiated to 25years.
    2. Europe and the US agree to impose jointly sanctions if Iran ever attempts to build a missile with a range that could hit Europe or America.
    3. The US and Europe use diplomacy to spotlight and censure Iran’s “occupations” of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

    In such a scenario, Europeans likely would have jumped at that deal. It would have maintained a united Western coalition to contain Iran’s most important threat and it would have created a huge fight inside Iran between moderates, who would have been tempted to accept the revised deal to avoid a re-imposition of sanctions and to get Trump off their back, and hard-liners, who would have rejected it. All the onus would have been on Tehran, not Trump. Such a strategy could have been called “The Art of the Deal”.

    Instead, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel said that European Union (EU) countries agreed that the Iran nuclear deal was “not perfect” but insisted it should be preserved, after the US withdrawal threw the accord into doubt. EU leaders meeting in Sofia have backed a “united” approach to keeping the deal alive after US President Donald Trump pulled out and reimposed sanctions, complaining the accord did nothing to stop Iran’s ballistic missile programme or interference in Middle East conflicts.

    “Everyone in the European Union shares the view that the agreement is not perfect, but that we should remain in this agreement and conduct further negotiations with Iran on the basis of other issues such as the ballistic missile programme,” Merkel said during the summit.

    French President Emmanuel Macron said the bloc was working to keep the existing agreement alive “so that our business can remain” in Iran. Macron ruled out any trade war with the United States over its withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal as a wave of European companies quit business with Tehran, fearing the global reach of US sanctions. This effort would run alongside work to “pursue negotiations on a vital broader agreement,” Macron said.

    “The 2015 agreement needs to be completed by a nuclear agreement beyond 2025, an agreement on ballistic activities and Iran’s regional presence,” Macron said. The EU will begin with moves to block the effect of US sanctions on Iran in the bloc, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said, as part of efforts to preserve the nuclear deal with Tehran.

    “We will begin the “blocking statute” process, which aims to neutralize the extraterritorial effects o US sanctions in the EU. We must do it and we will do it “Juncker said in Sofia.

    The European Union is trying to limit the damage caused by Mr. Trump’s decision and is trying to find ways to keep Iran in the 2015 accord by safeguarding the economic benefits Tehran gained in return for giving up its nuclear programme, after Donald Trump abruptly pulled out of the deal.

    Tehran has warned it is prepared to resume “industrial-scale” uranium enrichment “without any restrictions” unless Europe can provide solid guarantees that it can maintain the economic benefits it gained from the nuclear agreement despite Washington reimposing sanctions.

    But in our opinion there is one big question remaining – does Iran really need uranium and long ranging ballistic missiles to hurt and damage the US? – Not at all – !

    Inside the Pentagon’s cyberwarfare unit, analysts have been closely monitoring internet traffic out of Iran. Six thousand miles away, Israel’s elite cyberintelligence team, Unit 8200, has been running war games in anticipation of Iranian strikes on Israeli computer networks.

    Government and private-sector cybersecurity experts in the US as well as in Israel worry that President Trump’s decision to pull out if the Iran nuclear deal will lead to a surge in retaliatory cyberattacks from Iran. Within 24hours of Mr. Trump’s announcement that the US would leave the deal, researchers at Crowd-Strike, a security firm, warned customers that they had seen a “notable” shifts in Iranian cyberactivity. Iranians hackers were sending emails containing malware to diplomats who work in the foreign affairs offices of United States allies and employees at telecommunications companies, trying to infiltrate their computer systems.

    Security researchers discovered that Iranian hackers, most likely in an intelligence-gathering effort, had been quietly examining internet addresses that belong to US military installations in Europe over the past two months. Those researchers would not publicly discuss the activity because they were still in the process of warning the targets. Iranian hackers have in recent years demonstrated that they have an increasingly sophisticated arsenal of digital weapons. But since the nuclear deal was signed three years ago, Iran’s Middle Eastern neighbors have usually been those hackers’ targets.

    Now cybersecurity experts believe that list could quickly expand to include businesses and infrastructure in the US. Those concerns grew more urgent after Israeli fighter jets fired on Iranian military targets in Syria, in response to what Israel said had been a rocket attack by Iranian forces.

    Over the years, state-backed Iranian hackers have showed both the proclivity and skill to pull off destructive cyberattacks. After the US tightened economic sanctions against Tehran in 2012, state-supported Iranian hackers retaliated by disabling the websites of nearly every major American bank with what is known as a denial-of-service attack the attacks prevented hundreds of thousands of customers from gaining access to their bank accounts.

    Those assaults, on about 46 American banks, described in 2016 federal indictment, were directly attributed to Iranian hackers. Iranian hackers were also behind a digital assault on the Las Vegas Sands Corporation in 2014 that brought casino operations to a halt by wiping Sands data, according to the indictment. Security researchers believe the attacks were in retaliation for public comments made in a 2013 speech by the Sands majority owner, Sheldon G. Adelson, when he said that the United States should strike Iran with nuclear weapons to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program.

    But after the nuclear deal with Iran was signed, Iran’s destructive attacks on American targets cooled off. Instead, its hackers resorted to traditional cyberspionage and intellectual property theft, according to another indictment of Iranian hackers filed in March, and reserved their louder, more disruptive attacks for targets in the Middle East. With the nuclear deal at risk, American and Israeli officials now worry Iran’s hackers could retaliate with cyberattacks of a more vicious kind. The Israeli war game sessions have included what could happen if the United States and Russia were drawn into cyberwarfare between Israel and Iran.

    The United States already has a blue-print for what it might expect in Saudi Arabia, where there is growing evidence that Iranian hackers may have been responsible for a string of attacks on several Saudi petrochemical plants over the past 16months.

    These attacks crashed computers and wiped data off machines at the National Industrialization Company, one of the few privately owned Saudi petrochemical companies, and Sadara Chemical Company, a joint venture of Saudi Aramco and Dow Chemical.

    The hackers used malware-nearly identical to the bugs used in a similar 2012 Iranian assault on Aramco – that replaced data on Aramco computers with an image of a burning American flag. Private security researchers and American officials suspect that Iranian hackers also played a role in a more serious attack at another yet-to-be identified Saudi petrochemical plant in last August that compromised the facility’s operational safety controls.

    Analysts believe it was the first step in an attack designed to sabotage the firm’s operations and trigger a chemical explosion. The tools used were so sophisticated that some forensic analysts and American officials suspect Russia may have provided assistance. The August 2017 assault in Saudi Arabia marked a dangerous escalation that put officials and critical infrastructure operators in the United States on high alert. The industrial safety controls that hackers were able to compromise in Saudi Arabia are used in tens of thousands of other installations, including nuclear plants, oil and gas pipelines and water treatment facilities across the United States. So we can conclude that Iran has upped its game much faster that analysts anticipated. American officials now fear that the Saudi Arabia attack was just a training drill for a future attack on infrastructure or an energy company in the United States. The previous attack was ultimately thwarted by an error in the attackers’ computer code.

    Similar attacks have happened before. In 2013, Iranian hackers infiltrated computers that controlled the Bowman Avenue Dam in Rye Brook, N.Y. They managed to gain access to computers that control the dam’s water levels and flow gates, according to the 2016 indictment.

    But any attempt to manipulate the dam’s locks and gates would have failed because the dam was under repair and offline. The dam hack was one of about a dozen security incidents at American critical infrastructure providers, including some power grid operators that officials in the US attributed to Iranian hackers.

    The 2016 indictments named individual Iranian hackers, but there have not been any arrests.

    Officials believe there is little deterrent to stop them from trying again especially with the United States leaving the nuclear deal and by imposing the strongest sanctions in history on Iran with demands, no country would accept.

    Given the history of Iranian cyberactivity in response to geopolitical issues, the American energy sector has every reason to expect some type of response from Iran.

    Even so the United States has some of the most sophisticated offensive cyberwarfare capabilities in the world; the country is at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to playing defense. America is together with China probably one of the most automated technology countries in the world where technology innovation is at the forefront. They might have a very good offense, but so does Iran.

    But unfortunately, the US has much more to lose in this game.