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Dr John C Hulsman is the Founder and Managing Partner of John C Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk firm. He is also a life member of the US Council on Foreign Relations.

“Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in!” So bemoaned the put-upon mobster Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III.

After spending decades at the head of his crime family, all the Don wants to do in his twilight years is to leave behind his unsavory past, allowing the next generation of Corleones free to enjoy the fruits of his ill-gotten gains from a perch of respectability. Of course, as is true in both art and life, escaping from one’s past is devilishly hard.

Presently, Michael’s fictional troubles are mirrored in the real world by British and American attempts to extricate themselves from the thankless Middle East, the political graveyard of both prime ministers and presidents alike.

Following Tony Blair’s ruinous neoconservative debacle in Iraq, both Boris Johnson and Joe Biden have come to power following what might be termed ‘The Barack Obama playbook’ for the region. Its thesis goes something like this:

‘The future of the world is in the Indo-Pacific, where much of the planet’s future risk (the brewing great power competition with China) and future reward (much of the globe’s future economic growth) are both located. As such, the UK and the US much pivot towards Asia and away from the Middle East.’

This is easier to accomplish because of the US shale revolution, which has amazingly transformed America from an energy mendicant to a superpower in a blink of a historical eye. Likewise, the UK gets much of its natural gas from Norway, about the safest political risk source of energy in the world.

In neither case is either great power overly dependent on the volatile Middle East, allowing both to rather easily turn away from this warlike, tempestuous region of thankfully declining importance.

This strategic diminution will see the UK and the US now functioning as off-shore balancing powers. Large-scale western military or diplomatic involvement would only be necessary in the Middle East if the five major regional powers (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and Egypt) fail to sustain a local balance of power equilibrium in the region, and a general war breaks out, directly threatening western interests.

Short of this emergency, both the UK and the US can pivot towards the far more geopolitically, strategically, and economically important Indo-Pacific, leaving the Middle East backwater largely to its own devices.

As such, Iran must be brought in from the cold, being accepted as a fully-fledged player in the region, rather than as a pariah nation.

This has been British policy for years, embodied in London (along with Paris and Berlin) pushing hard for the reinstatement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal the West struck with Iran in 2015. In return for strict monitoring of its destabilizing nuclear programme, Tehran was relieved from the onerous burden of the very harsh sanctions the West had levied against it.

The Obama thesis was that with Iran rejoining the Middle East as an accepted regional power, the West can leave the region to its own devices, and then – with a modicum of stability ensured there – pivot to Asia. All this was upended by the volatile administration of Donald Trump, which abrogated the deal in 2018; London is now determined to reinstate it.

So far, so elegant. But in typical Obama fashion, this rational thesis does not survive contact with the real world for long.

First, the JCPOA (like most of the overrated ex-President’s agenda) is so much less than meets the eye. At its best, even its defenders acknowledge it merely kicks the can down the road, placing its hopes on a highly dubious strategic bet.

For while the sanctions relief offered by the UK and its allies have no set time limit, the strictures on Iran’s nuclear program surely do.

Several of the key sunset clauses in the original JCPOA run out by 2030. One of the main reasons opponents of the JCPOA, such as myself, opposed the agreement is that, by simply waiting things out, Iran legally pockets its economic winnings, gets rid of the sanctions and then can kick the inspectors out in 2030, re-starting its nuclear programme.

The inconvenient truth of the Obama playbook, backed by the UK, is that it is based on an unspoken strategic bet about changes to the internal workings of the still-revolutionary state of Iran.

Obama bet (almost surely wrongly) that by 2030 Tehran, now nestled in the international family of nations, will have modified its revolutionary behavior. If this is so, on its own volition it will choose not to alienate the rest of the world and try to break out and become an outlaw nuclear power.

However, the opposite seems to be the case. The country is still led by the fervently anti-western Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The day-to-day government is the most hard-line in Iran’s history, being led by President Ebrahim Raisi, ‘The Butcher of Tehran’. Likewise, both the parliament and the judiciary are currently as hard-line as has ever been the case since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

In other words, every single real world political risk fact contradicts the West’s overly-hopeful political risk bet on Iran’s mythical coming moderation.

Second, JCPOA is also a deal strictly limited to the nuclear realm; it has almost nothing to say about Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC’s) wider efforts to construct a dominant, revisionist ‘Shia Crescent’ in the region, linking Tehran to Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

This anti-western power bloc has been on the march at the expense of Western allies, such as Israel and the Sunni-dominated Gulf monarchies. To ignore the rest of Iran’s strategic, anti-Western toolkit is to willfully miss the forest for the trees.

Recently, a third objection to the Obama playbook has emerged. Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, energy is a pressing need again.

Johnson is rightly wooing Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi Crown Prince, with whom London has retained good ties (unlike Biden’s moralizing administration), to pump more oil to make up for the energy shock caused by the Ukraine war. A gormless Europe is at last awakening to the obvious fact that security of energy supply actually matters. It turns out that the Middle East is not such a strategic backwater, after all.

In other words, all the premises on which the Obama playbook regarding Iran – so slavishly followed by the present British Government – are demonstrably wrong. Iran is not moderating its political and strategic behavior; the narrow focus of the JCPOA does not overly hinder Iran’s revolutionary toolkit; and the Middle East itself has found a new strategic importance, given the world’s present energy shock.

Ironically, the best hope of scuppering a new JCPOA agreement may be the Iranians themselves.

Filled with a new confidence due to the Ukrainian war, as Tehran is all too well aware that the West is desperate to pivot to Europe and Asia as its main strategic preoccupations to deal with great powers Russia and China, at the last minute Iran is driving a very hard bargain with its western interlocutors. Demanding that the IRGC be taken off the US’s foreign terrorist list may amount to a bridge too far for even pliant western negotiators.

One can only hope Tehran overplays its hand; for the UK has made a great error in following the Obama playbook.