From Ukraine to Iran, the West's 'moral high ground' is ever-shifting

The values driving great power politics these days are not clear-cut, and that undermine's the western cause

European Union diplomats meet with Iran's nuclear negotiators in Tehran, Iran, on March 27, 2022. AP
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Relationships within the West – namely, between the US, UK and Europe – are being reinvented these days, not long after facing an existential crisis under former US president Donald Trump. President Joe Biden has come to office with an agenda to overturn everything Mr Trump had said and done. This includes everything with respect to Europe, Nato and especially Russia. But it also means reviving the nuclear deal with Iran originally signed when Joe Biden was vice president and subsequently abandoned by Mr Trump.

The same team that midwifed the deal back in 2014 now insists on returning to it at almost any cost. And it is important to bear in mind that co-operation with Russia, a party to the agreement, is one of those potential costs. Other costs, if the deal is handled poorly, could include a deterioration in the quality of US relationships with Arab countries, many of whom worry that the final agreement will ignore their concerns.

US-Arab relations have already been affected by America’s efforts, which began under Mr Obama, to distance itself from many of its oldest Arab allies, coupled with a rapprochement with Iran that at times seemed to border on awe and veneration. Since then, many Arab states have worked to diversify their alliances, forging more ambitious relationships with the East, particularly China and Russia.

It is remarkable how many in the West demand, in their analysis of the positions of Arab states on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a black-or-white stance, and condemn the shades of grey on which the countries of the region, as well as India, for that matter, instead have to rely.

The West’s lectures on Ukraine, of course, contain valid arguments, because Moscow’s actions there have been abhorrent, even if one subscribes to the argument many have made, that Russia fell into a trap set for it by Nato. Any invasion of a neighbour to impose new facts on the ground should be denounced internationally, and be met with strong measures to deter others from doing the same.

It is remarkable how many in the West demand, in their analysis of the positions of Arab states on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a black-or-white stance

But, leaving aside the freedom of Ukrainians and others to choose whether to join western blocs and alliances, it is naïve to think Nato’s expansion over the years would not have been read in Russia as a provocation. Indeed, Nato was once a North Atlantic alliance – now it reaches deep into the Baltic and Black Seas.

In this context, there is plenty of excuse for the West to be more conciliatory, if it wants to be. Such an approach would also help to woo Russia away from China, which, one might have thought, would be a more profitable goal for the West, if China is indeed the real rival. And yet, western leaders seem to know that Moscow, for its part, is unlikely to back down, and they do not to want to provide it with any offramp from which to do so. This is, perhaps, because they believe that letting Russia get bogged down in this war in Ukraine could accelerate the current government’s decline.

There is little thought being given, however, to how the West is meant to deal with a such an eventuality, particularly if Russia’s economy has been destroyed by sanctions. The current focus is on immediate interests.

The positions of other nations in the Middle East and Asia, therefore, should also be understood in terms of national interests, rather than through prescriptive moralising. These countries are speaking the language of their national interests when they choose to diversify their foreign relations eastwards, especially after the US and European states adopted “strategic appeasement” with Iran and “strategic indifference” to their alliances with the Arab states.

Frankly, there is zero ethical or civilisational value in the West’s decision to sacrifice the sovereignty of Arab states, from Lebanon to Yemen to Syria to Iraq, that have fallen under the dominance of Iran, its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and their local proxy militias that receive marching orders from Tehran at the expenses of their homelands. The western pretext that the priority should be stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear arms lacks morality, because in return the West has given Iran free rein to pursue an aggressive regional behaviour by separating that issue from the nuclear talks.

This happened when the nuclear deal was struck under Mr Obama and is happening again under Mr Biden, with clear European complicity.

The nuclear agreement so far appears likely be signed this month. The Biden administration and European states appear to be even more determined than before to sign the deal. Iran’s oil is a European imperative, and separating Tehran from Moscow, even if temporarily, is in the western interest.

In the meantime, despite the damage the war in Ukraine is having on Europe, the West may think it is advantageous if Russia is embroiled in a longer and deeper war in Ukraine.

In 1980, 1584 Soviet soldiers died in the first year of the war in Afghanistan. Nearly the same number of Russian soldiers are thought to have died last month in Ukraine. The impact of a military quagmire and a weakening of Russia’s economy, may serve western powers, but probably only for now.

Published: April 03, 2022, 2:00 PM