The Slatest

The Iran Deal Isn’t Dead Yet, but Things Are Already Getting Nastier in the Middle East

An Israeli soldier waves on a Merkava Mark IV tank.
An Israeli soldier attends a planned military drill next to a Merkava Mark IV tank in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on Monday. Jalaa Marey/Getty Images

It appears the Iran nuclear deal will survive without the United States for the time being. France’s Emmanuel Macron spoke with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday, following Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will be withdrawing from the deal, and the two agreed to work toward the “continued implementation of the nuclear deal and maintaining regional stability,” according to the French president’s office.

Rouhani had warned on Tuesday that Iran could start enriching uranium again “without any limitations” after the U.S. withdrawal, but he emphasized that the JCPOA was a “multilateral” pact—signed by Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the European Union—and that his government would consult with those countries before abandoning the pact.

Still, the future of the deal is shaky without U.S. participation. The U.S. decision to reimpose the sanctions that had been lifted under the JCPOA will affect the European firms that have invested in Iran since it was signed, although it’s unclear exactly how. Even if European countries aren’t abandoning the deal, U.S. sanctions could hamper companies that also do business in the U.S. or use American banks. The promised sanctions-relief windfall had already been slow to reach ordinary Iranians, and the meager economic growth was one factor behind the anti-government protests that broke out across the country this year. The return of U.S. sanctions—and the new ones Trump has vaguely promised—will make it harder for Rouhani’s government to defend its participation in the deal from hard-line critics. By far the most important of those critics, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was always skeptical of the nuclear deal, said Wednesday that Iran “needs nuclear power.” The Iranian government has insisted that its pre-JCPOA nuclear program was peaceful, despite the skepticism of Western governments.

Even with the deal still technically in place, there were alarming signs today of rising tensions in the region, pitting Iran and its proxies against U.S. allies.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels fired a salvo of missiles at the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, on Wednesday, which Saudi authorities say were intercepted in the air. The Saudi government had strong reservations about the nuclear deal and praised Trump’s decision to withdraw on Wednesday. Saudi Arabia has also led an increasingly deadly and controversial military intervention in neighboring Yemen since 2015, against the Houthis, who it considers to be Iranian proxies. Last week the New York Times reported that U.S. Army special forces had been deployed last year to the Saudi-Yemeni border to help Saudi forces locate and destroy Houthi missiles, a much more direct and substantial level of U.S. involvement in the war than had previously been acknowledged.

Syrian media reported on Tuesday that Israel had launched a missile strike against a military outpost near Damascus. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the missiles likely targeted rocket launchers belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the world’s most prominent critic of the Iran deal, going back to his 2015 address to Congress and culminating with last week’s presentation of seized documents purportedly showing Iranian deceit over its nuclear ambitions.

Netanyahu praised Trump’s “historic move” to withdraw from the deal on Tuesday. The Israel Defense Forces also called up reserves, and authorities in the Golan Heights opened civilian shelters, in response to reports of “irregular activity of Iranian forces in Syria” and fears that those forces could retaliate against Trump’s withdrawal by striking Israel. U.S. forces say they saw no unusual activity, and things have now returned to normal in the Golan Heights.

Critics of the Iran deal have charged that it did nothing to address—and may have even encouraged—Iran’s expansionist policies in the Middle East. Defenders countered that this was never the point: If Iran is going to be pressuring its neighbors, it’s better that it can’t do it with nuclear weapons.

Now that Iran’s enemies in the Middle East, with U.S. backing, appear to be inching closer to direct confrontation with the Islamic Republic and the deal is on life support, the region may end up with the worst of both worlds: violent conflict between Iran and its rivals as well as an unfettered Iranian nuclear program.