(MENAFN- Syndication Bureau) By Dnyanesh Kamat
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is having a destabilizing effect on the Middle East. Despite recently walking back threats to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal – officially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – Moscow continues to impede progress in retaliation for sanctions related to its military activities. This, in turn, is pushing Iran to respond in kind.
On March 10, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed responsibility for ballistic missile attacks on American diplomatic facilities in Erbil, in northern Iraq, under the pretext that the targets were part of an Israeli “strategic center.” While the attacks were widely viewed as a warning to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq not to support a Muqtada Al Sadr-led government in Baghdad that omits Iran’s Shia allies, Tehran was also sending a message that it would not wait forever for nuclear negotiations to yield results.
Adding to the urgency, Iran is closer than ever to a nuclear breakout capability. This raises pressure on Israel to intervene militarily to prevent Iran from reaching a point of no return. On March 15, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had “received written guarantees” from the United States that its trade with Iran would not come under Ukraine-related sanctions. If so, this may allow JCPOA talks to proceed. However, the longer it takes for world powers to conclude the deal with Iran, the more likely that tensions will continue to rise between Iran and its regional rivals.
Moreover, if the nuclear deal withers on the vine, as US officials now fear, the regional ripple effects would be deadly. For instance, Tehran’s proxies would likely step up attacks against Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain if the IRGC is not removed from the US State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. This has been one of Tehran’s key demands in JCPOA discussions. Without this, Tehran will target investor sentiment toward the UAE and Saudi Arabia and hamper both countries’ ability to export oil.
Alongside the ballistic missile attacks on Erbil, Iran has also suspended ongoing talks with Saudi Arabia, conducted with Iraqi facilitation. Instead, Iran is negotiating with brutality. In January, Iran-backed Houthis attacked strategic sites in the UAE with drones and missiles. Then on March 19, the Houthis attacked an oil facility, desalination plant, and a power station in southern Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the Houthis also rejected GCC-brokered talks on the Yemen issue, which were to be held in Riyadh this week. On Friday the Houthis carried out a wave of drone and missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities, including an Aramco storage site in Jeddah. Plumes of smoke rose over the city where Formula 1 drivers were practicing for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
There are numerous other ways that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to destabilize the region. For starters, it could imperil Israel’s fragile coalition government. Despite religious and cultural ties to Ukraine, Israel has long maintained good relations with Russia and has so far not condemned the Russian attack. Instead, it has sought to strike a balance between Washington and Moscow. With the Kremlin’s tacit approval, Israel conducts aerial bombardments of Iranian militias in Syria. The ballistic attacks on Erbil by the IRGC came a few days after Israel killed two IRGC members in Syria.
But Israel’s non-committal approach to the Ukraine crisis is being tested. Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, who also has the title of Alternate Prime Minister of Israel, has diverged remarkably from the official position on the war. In mid-March, Lapid said there was “no justification” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, whereas Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has urged ministers to stay silent on the topic. Were the coalition government to collapse, it could set the stage for the re-emergence of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, who would pursue a decidedly more hawkish policy towards Iran.
The Russian invasion could also hand ISIS the perfect opportunity to regroup and cause havoc in the region.
Because Moscow has decided to extract its pound of flesh from the Assad regime by planning to airlift thousands of Syrians to the battlefield in Ukraine, the Syrian military has taken a hit at home. Some reports say as many as 40,000 Syrians have signed up to fight in Ukraine, a significant portion of the Assad regime’s forces. This reportedly includes the Moscow-trained elite 4th Division controlled by Maher Al Assad, President Bashar Al Assad’s brother. While this will not necessarily imperil the regime’s hold on Damascus, it could create a power vacuum in other areas.
Finally, let’s not forget that countries like Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia are likely to see rising discontent before Ramadan, as their food import bill increases due to Russia’s war. Just weeks before the start of the holy month, consumers across the Middle East and North Africa have rushed to stock up on wheat due to a double whammy of import shortages and rising transport costs. The regimes in all these countries could face the prospect of “bread riots” breaking out, leading to a repeat of Arab Spring-like protests across the region.
None of this is inevitable. But while the world is focused on the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Europe, it is equally important to assess and plan for its impact on the MENA region as well.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.
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