Russia’s war on Ukraine is destabilizing the Middle East

Despite recent threats to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal – officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – Russia continues to hamper progress on retaliating for sanctions related to its military activities against Ukraine . This, in turn, causes Iran to react accordingly.

On March 10, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed responsibility for ballistic missile attacks on US diplomatic facilities in Erbil, northern Iraq, claiming the targets were part of an Israeli “strategic center”.

While the attacks were widely seen 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 Shiite allies, Tehran was also sending a message that ‘he wouldn’t wait forever for the nuclear negotiations to yield results.

Adding to the urgency, Iran is closer than ever to a nuclear escape capability. This increases the 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 Russia‘s trade with Iran would not be subject to Ukraine-related sanctions. If so, it could allow the JCPOA talks to continue. However, the longer it takes world powers to complete the deal with Iran, the more likely 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 could be deadly. For example, Tehran’s proxies would likely step up attacks on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain if the IRGC was not removed from the US State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list.

This has been one of Tehran’s main demands in the JCPOA discussions. Without it, Tehran will target investor sentiment towards the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and hamper the two countries’ ability to export oil.

Along with the missile attacks on Erbil, Iran also suspended ongoing talks with Saudi Arabia, conducted with Iraqi facilitation. Instead, Iran negotiates with brutality.

In January, the Iran-backed Houthis attacked strategic sites in the United Arab Emirates with drones and missiles. Then, on March 19, the Houthis attacked an oil facility, a desalination plant and a power plant in southern Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, the Houthis also rejected the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered talks on the Yemen issue, which were due to be held in Riyadh this week. On Friday, the Houthis carried out a wave of drone and missile attacks against Saudi oil facilities, including an Aramco storage site in Jeddah. Plumes of smoke rose above the city where Formula 1 drivers were training for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to destabilize the region in many other ways. For starters, it could jeopardize Israel’s fragile coalition government.

Despite religious and cultural ties with Ukraine, Israel has long had good relations with Russia and has so far not condemned the Russian attack. Instead, he sought to strike a balance between Washington and Moscow. With the tacit approval of the Kremlin, Israel carries out aerial bombardments of Iranian militias in Syria. The missile attacks on Erbil came days after Israel killed two IRGC members in Syria.

But Israel’s evasive approach to the Ukraine crisis is being tested. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who also carries the title of alternate prime minister, 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, while Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urged ministers to remain silent on the topic. Should the coalition government collapse, it could set the stage for the re-emergence of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, who would pursue a decidedly more hawkish policy toward Iran.

The Russian invasion could also give the Islamic State (ISIS) the perfect opportunity to regroup and wreak havoc in the region.

Because Moscow has decided to extract its pound of flesh from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime by planning to airlift thousands of Syrians to the battlefield in Ukraine, the Syrian military has taken a hit at home. Some reports indicate that up to 40,000 Syrians have signed up to fight in Ukraine, a significant part of the Assad government forces.

This would include the elite 4th Division formed in Moscow and controlled by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. While this does not necessarily jeopardize the regime’s hold on Damascus, it could create a power vacuum in other areas.

Finally, let’s not forget that countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia are likely to see rising discontent before Ramadan, as their food import bill increases due to the war with Russia. Just weeks before the start of the holy month, consumers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) rushed to stock up on wheat due to the double whammy of import shortages and the rising transportation costs.

Regimes in all of these countries could face the prospect of “bread riots” breaking out, leading to a repeat of Arab Spring-style protests across the region.

None of this is inevitable. But as the world focuses 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.

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