The crisis in Ukraine has exposed the frailties of the post-Cold War global order. Europe is distressed once again. An energy strategy that is too dependent on Russia has proven vulnerable to the winds of geopolitics. Germany has now declared an “early warning” of a possible gas supply emergency, hinting at possible disruptions given the increasing likelihood of a prolonged conflict in Ukraine. Consumers and companies have been urged to reduce their energy consumption, with Economy Minister Robert Habeck saying that “every kilowatt-hour counts”. This is striking, coming from the powerhouse of the European economy. As for the central role of Ukraine and Russia in the export of commodities and grains such as wheat, experts warn that the conflict in Ukraine could cause famine in Africa, political chaos in the wheat-dependent Middle East, and the degradation of the global middle class.
From a political perspective, the crisis in Ukraine has disrupted progress on several regional and international conflicts. Given its magnitude and impact on European security- namely energy and food security- the crisis in Ukraine has taken center stage, pushing all else down the pecking order of priorities. While the West may have been very eager to sign a nuclear deal with Iran, it’ll have to wait till the air is clear in Kyiv and European stability is restored. As for other destabilized countries, especially in the Middle East, their wait will be, unfortunately, prolonged. We’re talking Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon- in that Order!
After Ukraine: Signing the US-Iran Deal
It’s all but done. The US-Iran deal is reportedly ready, and the Iranian officials are “ready to fly to Vienna”. The world will soon wake up to a “friendly”, rather than pariah-state, Iran. An Iran that is embraced by the global community and cooperative on global issues, from climate change to European energy security. However, the crisis in Ukraine has stalled the negotiations for clear reasons. First, the European stakeholders are mobilizing all resources towards the Ukraine crisis, given the need to reassess food and energy security interests, as well as manage instability on the EU’s eastern flank. As for Russia, it will hold the Iran negotiations hostage. The Iran deal will stall until there is a resolution in Ukraine, allowing the Russian regime a path out of the war.
Nonetheless, signing a deal with Iran remains a US priority, especially with the US administration keen to unlock roughly a million barrels of oil a day once Iran enters the global energy market. That would reduce European dependence on Russia, and thus serve US longstanding interests in Europe, Asia, and out of necessity, the Middle East.
The war in Yemen is one that everyone is keen to end. Given the military impasse, nobody’s interests are served by maintaining the status quo. Saudi Arabia is especially interested in exiting the war. The Houthi visits to Riyadh for direct peace talks are a good indication of what is to come. Yet a resolution in Yemen requires a US-Iran deal as a precondition so as to agree on the extent of Iranian influence over future Yemeni political affairs, and thus Yemen’s post-war relationship with its GCC neighbors. For now, Yemen will have to wait. Meanwhile, more and more people will suffer and die as a consequence of the ongoing conflict.
Iraq, Syria and the broader Middle East Arrangement
Any deal in Vienna will set the foundations for the “new” Iran, including legitimizing its spheres of influence and defining its role in international relations. Iran post-deal will be nothing like Iran pre-deal. Remember the days of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi? No, we’re not going back to the good old days. Rather, we have a regional hegemon, in every sense of the word, that is going to realize its full potential. After decades in isolation, Iran has emerged victorious. And the West will need to establish a working relationship with the descendants of the Persian empire.
It seems likely that Iranian influence in Iraq will persist. True, the limits of geography and American withdrawal have thrown Iraq into the Iranian sphere. But the same can’t be said of Yemen or Syria. There, Iran has over-stretched. In Yemen, ending the war will pave the way for real Iranian-Gulf diplomatic relations, especially with the Iran deal already in place and placing Iran far higher up the hierarchy than its GCC neighbors. Moving to the Levant, it’s hard to imagine Iran maintaining its military influence given the Russian historical influence over Syria. In fact, tensions have risen between Russia and Iran over Iran’s presence in Syria. What’s certain is that Iran won’t be able to maintain its influence in Syria- especially when nobody wants it there- from Russia, to the US, Israel, the GCC countries, and the Syrian regime itself. And do not kid yourself, any US-Iran deal will, in the backgrounds, bring up all of this, as well as draw the borders of, may I say, “Greater Iran”.
Lebanon- Spare Me Some Change?
Lebanon is the forgotten country in the Middle East. Once the “Paris of the Middle East”, Lebanon failed to make much of around 30 years of peace and stability after the civil war (civil war from around 1975-1991). Today, Lebanon is a low-income country in disarray, a country completely captured by elites. In 2019, Lebanon witnessed the unfolding of simultaneous and ongoing crises- a financial crisis, banking crisis, balance of payments crisis, debt crisis, healthcare crisis, social crisis, political and institutional crisis… Since the 2019 crisis began, around 250,000 Lebanese- among them the youth, the talented, the brains, and the most qualified- have left the country. It’s unclear whether Lebanon will make it. It most likely won’t- at least not in its current form. Lebanon’s political elites have proven incapable of reforming the system from within. Rather, they are busy playing politics and fighting over nits and bits while the country disintegrates before their very eyes. Instead, the politicians have been in perpetual waiting mode; they keenly await the negotiations in Vienna to beget a US-Iran deal.
The deal in Vienna will pave the way for a new framework for Lebanon- Lebanon 3.0 if you like. And once the Deal, eventually, produces clear winners and losers in Lebanon, the country’s incompetent leadership will then be ready to sit down and discuss the architecture of a potential new framework that organizes who gets what among the various sects- Christians, Sunnis, Shi’as, Druze.. Or maybe Lebanon is better off broken down into 3 Lebanons if the various parties agree that a divorce better suits their interests? Regardless, any such grand conference requires a Paris to host it; Lebanon needs the international community to give it attention it simply cannot provide.
We’re far from it. First comes Ukraine, with wheat and oil prices affecting global energy and food security. Then comes Iran and the nuclear deal. Then comes Yemen, Iraq, and after that Syria. That would give us a good idea about where Iran’s post-Vienna boundaries lie precisely, and would also stop a war that the GCC countries are very eager to conclude. At that moment, it’ll be clear what Middle East we’ll be getting, and what roles Iran, Turkey, and Israel (and the GCC and Egypt) play in it. And thus, only then, the world might take a moment to revisit Lebanon. If President Emmanuel Macron- who demonstrated some interest in Lebanon- succeeds in his re-election campaign, then maybe he’ll find himself back in Beirut before his second term is over. And who knows, if the Lebanese manage to make it that far without a reversion to civil war, then maybe there will be a Lebanon in 2025.
If you’re interested in the geopolitics of the Ukraine crisis, its root causes, and what to expect next, check this out: From Kyiv to DC- Ukraine Is But A Small Piece of the Jigsaw.