De-escalation in the Korean Crisis: Implications and Future Effects on Iran and the Middle East

Mohammad S. Alzou’bi

Senior Researcher at Rasanah: International Institute for Iranian Studies

MohammadAlzo3by

Photo:AFP


In 1972, the then-U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China, marking a historic strategic and diplomatic overture for the resumption of harmonious relations between the United States and China. The visit, which ended a 25-year hiatus of no diplomatic ties or communications between the two countries, was considered by Washington to be an opportunity to gain more leverage over its relations with the then-Soviet Union. While that key geopolitical advantage effectively ended in 1991 with the collapse of the USSR, it seems a similar scenario is now being repeated in the Pacific region.
The Middle, Near and Far East’s numerous shared geopolitical ties on all major economic, military and political issues mean that the United States is now pivoting towards the Asia-Pacific region and reorienting its geopolitical compass far more towards Asia. While Trump’s administration has focused on militarization, leading many other nations to mobilize in a similar direction, China is the only major power to be focusing primarily other issues; one of the Chinese leadership’s primary area of interest is in bolstering its status as an economic powerhouse, with the communist state putting massive effort into its trans-Eurasian One Belt One Road initiative rather than on a mooted bridge with Russia. The One Belt One Road initiative is likely to isolate Russia to some degree from the economic alliance being formed and led by the United States and China.
The United States is still concerned, however, about competition from China’s rapidly growing economy in the Far East, so it has adopted a containment policy in some ways. Among the deals that the United States is currently involved in, its rapprochement with North Korea’s regime is widely seen as a first step towards bridging the remaining gap with China, leading to the recent astoundingly rapid diplomatic reconciliation between the two Koreas and a thawing of the regional political atmosphere generally. While history suggests that the Cold War divided the two Koreas, this diplomatic rapprochement means that the isolationist Soviet concepts and the Russian dream of control are rapidly crumbling.
These sudden transformations will also affect the situation in the Middle East especially in Syria, where Russia and Iran have relied heavily on North Korean backing. To date, China, in partnership with Russia, has vetoed any action in regard to North Korea by the UN General Assembly, but the new geopolitical reality means that new scenarios are likely to emerge in the coming weeks in reality, the Syrian axis now revolves around two main areas, the region east of the Euphrates, the area which contains the majority of Syria’s natural wealth, and the region west of the Euphrates, controlled by the Russian-Iranian-Assad axis.

North Korea to distance itself from Iran
Iran has always been a lucrative client for North Korea, which supplied large amounts of weapons to the regime in Tehran, especially during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. This relationship blossomed, with the two totalitarian regimes forming a close relationship founded on military cooperation, exchanging nuclear expertise and technologies. North Korea and Iran also exchanged military expertise on underground facilities and specialist military and intelligence operations.
After North Korea first announced that it had attained nuclear power status, international concern about the Iranian-North Korean axis increased, with the Western powers in particular stepping up the international isolation of the regime there while China tacitly launched an initiative aimed at containing the crisis. This latest development ends a decades-long period of severed ties; by bringing the North Korean nuclear program under control, President Trump has found the right argument to justify his pulling out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal with Iran.

China unlikely to back Russia
The new US-Asian camp and a burgeoning US-Chinese alliance gave Trump a golden chance to deter Russia’s ambitions, which consisted of:
Controlling Iranian oil exports and prices and imposing an embargo which would give Russia greater leverage over European countries in Russia’s Eurasian sphere of influence.
Making the Syrian territories a regionally dominant area and a future export hub for Russian gas to Europe.
Exploiting the Syrian coastal area as an export base for Russian industries.

The alternative Chinese One Belt One Road initiative has undermined all aspects of the Russian project and deprived Moscow from its objective of attaining regional economic dominance. The new geopolitical balance has also helped, to some degree, in reducing US concern over China’s status as a fast-rising superpower in the following ways:
In Washington’s strategy-based calculations, China’s military power is reserved for use in protecting the state’s entity rather than engaging in wars.
The United States deployed its THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-ballistic missile defence system in Asia in order to satisfy its feeling of losing the new zone of influence to China.
The tacit US-Chinese deal may contain new trade exchange policy.
According to these calculations, this will work in distancing China from Russia, increasing Russian isolation and drastically increasing Iranian isolation, especially at the international level and giving both less leverage at the United Nation in promoting their positions and influencing resolutions on several issues including the JCPOA deal and Iran’s regional influence.

Russia-Iran axis to be dismantled
Isolating Russia as a competitor with the United States will eventually put Moscow’s Iranian ally under greater pressure, with Russia unable to fund its Western Syria operations and provide reconstruction materials without access to the resources in eastern Syria which will be controlled by the US coalition that is actively working to build an international force of alliances to control this region. Consequently, this will give an opportunity to Sunnis in Western Iraq to build an effective opposition to forces in eastern Iraq where ISIS and Iranian proxy militias hold sway. Under these conditions, Russia is likely to abandon its regional support to Iran in an effort to preserve its zone of influence in the Syrian coastal area.
Washington is also using this to place political pressure on Russia as a means of forcing it to accept the upcoming change in Iran’s regional status and to tacitly hand power to the US over the nuclear deal. Furthermore, as Israeli-Iranian tensions escalate, with great expectations that Israel will hit Iran’s forces in Syria and beyond, Moscow is unlikely to wish to complicate matters by entering into direct confrontation with Tel Aviv. This rebalancing means that the Iranian regime is set to lose its influential position in Syria, with its role there set to gradually weaken and ultimately collapse, obliging Iran to accept the new terms of any rewritten Iran deal or even its termination. Any efforts by the Iranian regime to gain sympathy for its status through resorting to its customary efforts to exploit the Palestinian issue and insist that it is somehow a ‘resistance’ to Israel will be curtly dismissed, with the region’s leaders and peoples no longer falling for these lies after years of the Iranian regime creating sectarian chaos and wreaking bloody war across the Middle East in its expansionist efforts to control the region while regime officials openly gloat over their control of four Arab capitals.

Iran Domestic Crisis
The recent downward spiral of Iran’s currency against the dollar is a primary factor in convincing all economic observers of the regime’s waning power as the May 12 deadline for the US decision on whether to renew the JCPOA deal grows closer. It seems that after this date, the situation and the resulting financial crises will ultimately lead to a public mobilization in Iran against Rouhani’s government and the ruling system.
Increasing public awareness in Iran of the regime’s true nature has already led to widespread disillusionment, with the worsening economic crisis intensifying public anger and putting the regime’s very existence at risk. In addition to the external pressure, the expected increased isolation by the international community and lack of any economic reforms domestically, which has already led to massive protests across Iran in recent months means that the regime is likely to face the biggest ever popular uprising due to the dismal conditions afflicting the Iranian people.
Although the Tehran regime’s brutal Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which effectively runs the country on behalf of the theocratic regime is likely to crush any effort at large-scale uprising, it may offer some concessions to the people in its efforts to preserve the Velayat-e Faqih (Leadership of the Jurist) system and provide at least short-term economic solutions, with Rouhani likely to face calls for early elections in an attempt to focus public anger towards his government and save the Supreme Leader.
Global Mobilization against Iran
Iran’s leadership knows that the international community does not accept its brutal theocratic ‘revolutionary’ regime, and is keen to see a normal political system under which Iran can conduct a less fraught nation-to-nation relationship with the rest of the world as in the Shah’s era. Despite this, however, the Iranian regime leader and officials continue to insist that there can be no cooperative action concerning the JCPOA deal or on four other issues causing widespread regional and international tension, including:
Iran’s regional penetration into other neighboring countries.
The regime’s ballistic missiles program.
Failure to allow inspection of military and nuclear sites.
The status of Iran’s nuclear program after 2025.r
The Iranian regime has threatened not only to abandon the deal, but also to pull out of other global treaties like the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, with any such move increasing the possibility of military action against Iran, especially by Israel.
When we examine all the aforementioned factors from a macro perspective, we see that the United States has mobilized its global power to act against the Iranian regime’s behavior and to isolate it from its supporters and allies; killing two birds with the proverbial one stone, Washington has begun to isolate Russia, subverting its economically ambitious plans to create an area of influence running from Europe to the Mediterranean in favour of a US-Asian alliance, thereby isolating Iran and leaving it vulnerable to the US and accountable in front of the international community in regard to many issues.

Regional normalization and domestic democratization
Another, though improbable, scenario is that Iran’s regime could choose to engage with the international community, if it:
Abandoned its totalitarian ‘revolutionary’ behavior and dealt with other states according to international law and norms.
Gave up its ambitions for a nuclear weapons program which the regime has harbored for years and which it remains zealously secretive about, refusing to allow independent observers or inspectors, and instead adopted a peaceful program to produce nuclear energy alone
Abandoned its dream of regional hegemony and overall custody of the world’s Muslims with no regard for their own sovereignty.
Stopped mobilizing militias and other non-state groups overseas and instead used that money to provide desperately needed financial support to the Iranian people who have the real right to own their countries’ wealth.
Ended its interference in Arab and other neighboring countries’ internal affairs, and normalized relations with them, which would give Iran more openness to the international community and potentially open new economic opportunities through access to the Gulf region.

It has become apparent, however, that under the current regime, there is no real prospect of real democratization, with obstacles including:
The Islamic Republic is based on the principle of a totalitarian theocratic state in which power is monopolized by a political and ideological elite.
The existing elections are essentially controlled by the regime with the Supreme Leader selecting the candidates and overseeing the electoral process, denying the right of non-regime loyalists to any access to powe, a system which is directly contrary to the basis of democracy.
All indicators show that democratization in Iran cannot be achieved except by means of revolutionary disruption, with the regime flatly rejecting any reform.
On the other hand, if Iran were to reach democratization through reform, all moderate opposition should be empowered, in order to achieve genuine democracy in an atmosphere free of repression and regime control, giving them the ability to bring about a truly democratic system. In order to achieve this, Iran must abandon its totalitarian system and give minorities’ real political equality, accepting the right of all parties across the political spectrum without regard to their origin, religious or sectarian status and political doctrine.
Conclusion
Through its new global policy, the USA has established new coalitions and alliances in the Middle East and beyond extending all the way to China, normalizing the Korean crisis and reshaping the geopolitical map, undermining global competitors like Russia. This policy will ultimately resolve the Iranian dilemma and deter the regime’s aggressive behavior across the region. Despite some suspicions over Washington’s ultimate agenda, this seems to herald a new era of dramatic changes in the Middle East, bringing unexpected challenges, which cannot currently be fully assessed.

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