In the hours that followed the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Benjamin Netanyahu boarded a flight to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin at the annual Victory Day parade while his air force bombed Iranian military installations south of Damascus, taking out Russian-made missiles.

At the same time Iranian and European leaders reiterated their commitment to maintaining the deal, trying to stave off the U.S. destruction of a Middle East order.

The attack on Syria was followed by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels firing a barrage of missiles at Riyadh several hours later, demonstrating that Israeli bombs in Syria elicit Yemeni retaliation in Saudi Arabia. It is a war where Saudi brutality in Yemen and Bashar Assad’s sectarian counterrevolution, fought with chemical weapons, are increasingly part of the same killing field of regional tit for tat.

Europe is desperately trying to throw up a roadblock to war.

As if to further the point, by Thursday, May 9, Iran was firing missiles at the Golan Heights while Israel responded with strikes it claims hit every Iranian military installation in Syria. Since then things have only continued to spiral as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded Iran abandon its regional proxies and allies while, under the threat of expanded regional conflict, only offering a return to the economic status quo of a few weeks ago in exchange.

Like the Palestinian Authority leaders who are now shopping an Oslo-style negotiation to EU leaders and Russia in a bid to delay a final collapse of the two-state process, Tehran and Brussels are struggling to maintain an Obama-era status quo. Yet the new Washington Consensus is that of the old allies of the Bush administration in Israel and Saudi Arabia alongside an eager Trump team blasting a path to war with Iran through the region’s proxy conflicts.

Still, Europe is desperately trying to throw up a roadblock to war. Recognizing the European Union’s investment in the JCPOA — in 2017 alone, German firms made 3 billion euros in Iran, and France signed a 5-billion-euro deal to develop its Pars gas field — the new Iran sanctions regime is also a Brussels sanctions tool.

EU firms caught trading with Tehran will be slapped with debilitating fines just like they were before the Iran deal was ratified. Since the collapse of the deal, European companies have begun to shutter their businesses in the country to save their U.S. assets. Despite Europe wanting to maintain the deal and fighting to keep it alive, what it can offer Iran will be negligible if all its companies abide by U.S. sanctions out of fear of losing access to American markets.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, it asserted itself as the sole global empire, revelling in the destructive excesses of what Dominique de Villepin, French foreign minister at the time, dubbed a “hyperpower.” It was a war that bled America’s economy, weakened its worldwide influence, strained its military and left the Middle East in ruins, to be squabbled over by authoritarian elites, jihadists and sectarian forces.

A more cautious Obama administration tried to rule the region indirectly and failed. The only local gain it made was the Iran nuclear deal, whose value was far different for the Americans than for the Europeans. For the U.S., it helped stabilize Iraq by rewarding Tehran for securing the peace with its Shi’ite community. For Europe, it was an economic opportunity, helping plug the gaps created by the sanctions regime on Russia triggered by its 2014 seizure of Crimea.

America seeks to turn the clock back 15 years, while Russia under Putin sees the region as a staging ground for the emerging empire of a 21st-century tsar.

As Washington pulls out its red pen again to redraw the map of the Middle East, it’s now finding there are other powers also marking it up. Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Gulf states now join the U.S. in poring over the map, forming a coalition of those willing to stake a claim on the ashes of the popular revolutions of 2011.

The politics of the Arab Revolutions have been buried by the many faces of counterrevolution, crushed by national militaries and regional governments allied to the U.S. or bled out by sectarian wars, at times exacerbated and prolonged by Moscow working with Iran to secure its clients.

The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal similarly could shatter any American-Iranian convergence in Iraq, opening up a country that has just unified its fractured divides enough to rout ISIS and hold elections to a new round divisive proxy battles. It’s a situation where the U.S. also fears Moscow picking at in a cynical attempt to re-ingratiate itself to a former Soviet client. Washington’s response reflects their growing fear about a new scramble for the region where Russian and Iranian influence from Baghdad to Damascus adds to the U.S. portfolio of Middle Eastern communities to turn into turf wars. Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has pulled Turkey away from its traditional role as a supporting NATO ally, instead charting a neo-Ottoman course that puts a Turkish stamp on the region.

The farce that Karl Marx spoke about when he described how “history repeats itself” has arrived in the form of a war that at its core is being made possible for the pettiest of reasons

The popular revolts that began in Tunisia and brought down long-running authoritarian regimes across the Arab world were fuelled by rage at oppressive governments and social inequality. For a brief moment, in an explosion akin to May 1968 in Europe and the U.S., the streets of Cairo, Benghazi, Damascus, and Sana were consumed by protests that threatened to upend the region’s social order and chart a new political future for the people living there.

But it only lasted for a moment. Now America seeks to turn the clock back 15 years, while Russia under Putin sees the region as a staging ground for the emerging empire of a 21st-century tsar.
The collapse of the Iran deal is a consequence of this logic, with war unsurprisingly its next step. The JCPOA was forged in the fallout to the Arab Revolutions, when regional and global powers sought to maintain the old balance of power by putting it in a new light.

As a result the agreement ensured the same diplomatic table but with Iran having a seat and a recognized role in the Middle East as a sovereign state. The deal also indirectly fuelled the conflicts that followed the Arab Revolutions, providing a theatre to engage in proxy fights as an alternative to direct war.

However, the end of the Iranian nuclear deal will only compound the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya at the same time as putting Israel and Saudi Arabia on course for an all-out war with Iran, one that will likely bring in the U.S. and could even see it clashing with Russia.

In the face of this reality, it’s completely understandable that Tehran and Brussels are desperately trying to say the centre can hold, even as things fall apart. What else is there to say when the centennial anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars seems to be marked by the second coming of a clash of empires in the Levant that threatens to shatter the region.

The farce that Karl Marx spoke about when he described how “history repeats itself” has arrived in the form of a war that at its core is being made possible for the pettiest of reasons: Trump’s racist obsession with reversing the policies of his Black predecessor and a hope that this will resonate in the midterms.

To do this, the U.S. president has deferred America’s foreign policy to a populist Israeli prime minister, hoping that conflict with Iran will bury his corruption indictments in a new wave of militaristic nationalism.

Seven years ago it seemed like the future of the Middle East was finally falling into the hands of its peoples. Now, a war that could decimate the entire region is tied to the short-term interests of two erratic and blusterous heads of states and the powers they compete with.

Joel Schalit is the author of Israel vs. Utopia and Jerusalem Calling, both of which are available from New York’s Akashic Books. Based in Berlin, Schalit comments on European affairs for Israel’s i24News and edits Souciant.

Jesse Rosenfeld, a journalist based in the Middle East since 2007, contributes regularly to a number of publications, including The Nation, the Daily Beast, and Al Jazeera. His work in the region is the basis of the new National Film Board of Canada documentary, Freelancer on the Front Lines.