Driven by their determination to conclude a deal in the next 10 days to rein in Iran's nuclear weapons programme, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (plus Germany) are attempting to navigate the red lines set by both Tehran and its adversary Israel.
The Iran nuclear weapons saga is a curious one. When Iraq was suspected of possessing weapons of mass destruction, the international community set out to disarm it, placing it under a strict monitoring regime and demanding that it provide the impossible proof of non-possession of biological weapons – which it had destroyed to avoid admitting to having them. Further, the US-led powers sought to "tame and destroy" Iraq for having dared to acquire WMDs in the first place. And yet, Iran is being treated differently.
Indeed, Tehran's nuclear blackmail has been met with surrender if not rewarded by the global powers. Meanwhile, both the East and West have turned a blind eye towards Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons. And so, today, both Israel and Iran are nuclear states in varying degrees of advancement. Whatever the global powers say with respect to Iran's weapons programme, the latter is already a nuclear state. It is exactly why Tehran doesn't want to allow international scrutiny of its nuclear facilities.
In fact, the primary reason that the ongoing negotiations have yet to produce an agreement is the thorny issue of monitoring and inspecting these nuclear reactors. Even as Washington seeks strict controls, Tehran refuses comprehensive monitoring. The Europeans are seen to be making concessions, at the expense of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s jurisdiction, setting a dangerous precedent.
Israel has categorically said it will reject any deal that fails to address its existential anxieties. Its security is, right now, not top-of-mind for Biden administration officials, given their focus on the Ukraine war. But with Israel likely to be a talking point in this year's US mid-term election, the question is whether the administration will end up cutting a deal with its leaders to ensure it doesn't obstruct a deal with Iran.
The European powers of France, Germany and the UK, known as the "E3", appear more concerned by Iran’s red lines than by those set by Israel. They believe they can, along with Washington, assuage Israel’s concerns. On the other hand, they are in dire need of Iran’s energy given their fractured relations with Russia over to the latter's ongoing war with Ukraine. The E3, as well as Russia, are confident of influencing Israel through security guarantees, business and trade. But if Israel rejects the deal outright, they are likelier to stomach its military striking Iranian nuclear sites than they are willing to risk a no-deal scenario.
Russia is operating from a position of influence both with the Iranian and Israeli governments, leveraging the nuclear talks to restore whatever global standing it has lost due to the Ukraine war. Indeed, it views the Middle East as a stage upon which to reassert its prestige. According to one Russian source, Moscow has found in Iran a “political alter ego”, especially in Syria where it has outsourced its mission to Tehran.
A pertinent question being asked is whether the global powers are considering the implications of a nuclear deal on the Arab states' collective security. The Kremlin has apparently warned Tehran against "creating problems" in the region, at least in the short term, or there will be no deal.
But Moscow believes that Iran's influence and actions in the Middle East – be they direct or through Hezbollah, Tehran's proxy in Lebanon – cannot be stopped. My source told me that it cannot curb Iranian activities in Lebanon. "In our view, Iran is responsible for Lebanon, and its role there is historic. Lebanon is a security issue for Iran … this is Iran’s business, not ours, and nothing in Lebanon can be changed without Iran."
The West shares Moscow’s view that their collective priority should be to prevent cross-border military activities by Iran or Hezbollah against Israel. Given such a consensus, a prospective deal with Iran could include conceding to Tehran its primacy in Lebanon, in exchange for its assurance that peace on the latter's border with Israel will be maintained. However, such an agreement would be short-sighted. For allowing Tehran to turn Lebanon into a military base for itself would – from the West's point of view – benefit the Iran-Russia-China strategic troika, not to mention undermining the sovereignty of an independent state and risking civil war. Furthermore, it's hard to imagine there won't be a military clash in the future anyway.
And so, it is incumbent upon western ambassadors in Beirut to explain to their respective governments the consequences of such an agreement. Lebanon should press its ambassadors to the concerned countries into diplomatic action. The Lebanese people need to organise and mobilise, and ensure that they are not seen as silently surrendering to such a fait accompli. They should object to a nuclear deal that contains such sweeteners for the Iranian regime.
The US's continued global leadership means Washington bears primary responsibility for any deal with Iran. The Biden administration's enthusiasm to reach an agreement may be underpinned by its determination to avoid a war in the region. It may also be keen to revive the JCPOA, which was seen as an Obama-era achievement that the succeeding Trump administration had binned. But that doesn't mean it should willfully blind itself to the implications of the deal.
"Gifting" Lebanon, an independent country, to Tehran to use as a forward military base is something that Washington will come to regret. Further, unless the US understands the need to tackle Iran’s regional behaviour in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, it would be making a huge strategic blunder. For it would, effectively, be leaving the region open to influence from its rivals.