It isn't just oil and gas that Europeans are worried about

There's a nuclear dimension, too, and it isn't limited to what's going on in Zaporizhzhia

Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, inspects the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Enerhodar, Ukraine, last week. EPA
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From Ukraine to Iran, through Kaliningrad and Transnistria, nuclear blackmail is provoking a state of terror across a Europe already struggling with an energy crisis. The continent is caught between the possibility of an incomplete deal with Tehran and the decreasing likelihood of an agreement with Moscow as winter approaches.

There is no evidence that Russia is willing to accept compromises or mediations to end its war with Ukraine. It appears convinced that a military victory is possible. Theoretically it might happen, but winter could prove difficult for Russian forces in need of supplies. Making gains could prove costly at all levels. Some experts even believe that winter could favour Ukraine, which, nonetheless, would need additional forces to take control of cities such as Kharkiv.

But the Europeans are looking to exit a conflict that has imposed costs on their economies. They are overcome by nuclear fears due to attacks on and around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, one of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear facilities. There is concern that Nato may be forced to directly intervene in Ukraine, which could lead to a nuclear disaster. Europe could be damned if it intervenes and damned if it doesn’t, with implications in both cases on public opinion on the continent.

Nato’s pledge, as endorsed by governments in the US and across Europe, is to not allow Moscow to destroy Ukraine or end its existence as a sovereign nation. But the Biden administration this week reiterated its position that no American troops would be deployed even to establish a demilitarised zone around Zaporizhzhia. Washington continues to insist on not fighting a war using its own forces and to limit itself to funding and arming others’ forces. The Europeans are following in the American footsteps, but they may not be able to sustain this position, because, ultimately, the war is being fought on their soil.

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The compass is broken, amid a growing nuclear clamour and a countdown to the unknown

Moscow is also determined to teach a lesson to the Baltic states and Poland. Amid rising tensions with the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin this week visited Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave situated between Poland and Lithuania. It was a sign of his confidence that Moscow will not be defeated. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, issued a warning to Moldova against endangering Moscow's peacekeeping force stationed in the pro-Russian separatist region of Transnistria.

Russia’s posture in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon is less escalatory, but it is supportive of the Iranian regime’s activities in those countries. Moscow has been trying to mediate between Iran and Israel, to secure an agreement to refrain from escalating tensions along Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon. So far, its efforts seem to have floundered in Syria, although the odds are better in Lebanon.

Israel has, so far, carried out 22 strikes in Syria, bearing in mind that Moscow has outsourced its mission in that country to Tehran. These strikes suggest that it is seeking to dismember the Iranian regime’s original project of building a land bridge to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The Biden administration has been turning a blind eye to this project because of its negotiations with Iran to secure a nuclear pact, but found itself cornered by Tehran’s recent attack on US positions in Syria. It came under even more pressure by the recent political unrest in Iraq, given Iran’s obvious fingerprints in that country's affairs and its support for militias within the Popular Mobilisation Forces, which have undermined Baghdad's attempts to rebuild the Iraqi state.

Iran’s behaviour is testing western hopes of securing a nuclear deal, which, in theory, would temper its expansionist activities in the region.

The Lebanese are anxiously watching the developments in Iraq and Syria, alarmed by the actions of Iran and Israel, especially after Israel launched direct military attacks on Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies, led by Hezbollah. But if Israel is intent on destroying Iranian military shipments to and through Syria, is it sparing shipments of Iranian-made rockets to Hezbollah in Lebanon? That would seem odd unless there is a tacit agreement between Iran and Israel, stemming from the ongoing nuclear negotiations, to stand down Hezbollah along the Lebanon-Israel border. Or is Israel preparing to stage similar attacks on Iranian assets inside Lebanon, which are under the command of the IRGC and Hezbollah?

Smoke billows following an Israeli air strike targeting south of Damascus, Syria, in July. AFP

Unless the features and fate of the nuclear deal with Iran become clear, it won't be easy to read what Israel has in mind for Lebanon specifically. The Syria-Israel front always appears under control despite Israeli strikes. The Lebanon-Israeli front, in turn, has remained calm for years since UN Resolution 1701. Hezbollah’s weapons have, instead, become the militia’s tools to undermine the Lebanese state. Perhaps there will be nothing new along Israel's two borders, regardless of what happens to the nuclear deal with Iran, and perhaps all the threats and warnings are part of the equations of an eventual accord. We simply do not know yet.

What of the fate of the nuclear talks? We could find out in a matter of days.

The crux of the matter remains Iran’s nuclear blackmail. Either the Biden administration and the Europeans yield to Tehran’s insistence on restricting the International Atomic Energy Agency's ability to monitor its nuclear weapons programme, rewarding it with billions of dollars in sanctions relief, and enabling it to export its oil to the thirsty European markets. Or the talks fail and the EU’s terror grows, as it loses out on the oil and gas imports meant to help offset the lost Russian energy supplies. Herein lies Iran’s nuclear and energy blackmail.

Perhaps none of this will happen even if the talks collapse. Perhaps Iran and Israel will decide that a military confrontation will not be in their interests, and Tehran will continue its nuclear programme without western funds to fuel it. Perhaps Washington will turn a blind eye to Tehran exporting oil to its allies and continue talking to the Iranian regime, without imposing additional sanctions or entering a military confrontation.

This assessment might sound confusing, but that is because the current situation itself is confusing.

I am given to understand that some within the Biden administration insist a deal will be ready in days, while others believe it won't happen at all. What a former US government official told me on condition of anonymity is noteworthy – that the continuation of the status quo, without a culmination or total suspension of US-Iran talks, is an "OK outcome".

This all suggests the compass is broken, amid a growing nuclear clamour and a countdown to the unknown.

Published: September 04, 2022, 2:00 PM
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