On the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doubled down on the theme that has dominated his first international trip as Secretary of State; Iran’s influence in the region and solidifying the American threat to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Pompeo’s arrival in Riyadh followed a barrage of eight ballistic missiles fired into Saudi territory by Houthi fighters in Yemen, and both the United States and Saudi Arabia said that these missiles came from Iran.
Iranian ballistic missiles are also a chief concern for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his focus being concentrated on the risk of such missiles being fired from Iranian bases in Syria and by Hezbollah from Lebanon. With his talk of a U.S pullout from the JCPOA and new sanctions against Tehran, Pompeo’s language was almost interchangeable with Netanyahu’s.
Both men have also welcomed the U.S Embassy move to Jerusalem while there was no mention of the recent demonstrations along the Gaza border fence where Israeli snipers have shot unarmed protesters killing dozens and injuring hundreds. Mike Pompeo is a different proposition from Rex Tillerson, who spent most of his tenure as Secretary of State in a state of semi-detachment from the White House. Pompeo is very close to President Trump on the particular topic of Iran and this gives his words extra weight. When Pompeo visited Jordan, he laid out the framework for a tougher stance on Iran. The European Union, Russia, and China have all warned Washington from scrapping the JCPOA, but the countdown is on till May 12th.
This clear message that we are hearing from Secretary Pompeo about Iran destabilizing the region as the main threat that needs to be contained is somewhat misleading. However, despite all the ratchet rhetoric towards Iran, Tehran has shown a lot of restraint. Iran does not bulk large in Trump’s own imagination, but he wants to undo everything that President Obama did, and Trump’s targeting of the JCPOA is actually somewhat irrational and not connected to other policies.
In regards to Syria, President Trump has talked about getting troops out and letting Russia take care of Syria as a sphere of influence. Trump’s positions in this part of the world have no clarity, but the people around Trump like Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Pompeo are longtime Iranophobes, and so, there seems to be a division inside Trump’s cabinet.
The Trump Administration from day one has tried to contain Iran’s influence wholesale. However, all American governments since 1979 have tried over and over again to contain Iran and there is nothing very much new about that. On foreign affairs, Trump has been on the more diffident side himself, but for some reason has brought Iran hawks into his inner circle, and people like Mattis and Pompeo sometimes don’t agree with each other.
For instance, Secretary Mattis has pressed Trump to keep the United States involved in Yemen, and according to State Department leaks, Pompeo pressured the Saudis to bring that conflict to an end because it’s not succeeding and it’s a foreign policy disaster.
The so-called threat of Iran in the Middle East is vastly hyped and overexaggerated. Sure, Iran has a long hand in the region throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, but to solely blame Iran for the Middle East’s cancerous problems is simply a one-sided analysis. In fact, no Iranian officials have said that Iran controls any capitals whether it be Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, or Sanaa.
There is no doubt that Iran has a lot of influence, it is a regional power. Iran’s relationship with Iraq is with a government that has been democratically elected and ironically, the Americans themselves overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. In Lebanon, Shia factions like Hezbollah have seats in parliament and they are members of the cabinet. In addition, Lebanon has a Saudi dual national as its Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, and it has a slight majority coalition in the cabinet favoring Hezbollah and therefore other Shia factions like the Amal Movement. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia did more than anyone else to push the people of Yemen and Iran closer together. Before the Saudis launched operation decisive storm, there was no strong relationship between Iran and Yemen, but now this has dramatically changed, and the Saudis have failed to gain the confidence of the Yemeni people.
In fact, the Zaidis have mounted an indigenous force which is well-armed, but mainly with American weapons that were given to factions of the Yemeni Army. So, the idea of Iran dominating these places is quite bizarre, Iran has alliances of convenience and it apparently irritates officials in Riyadh, Tel Aviv, and Washington.
In regards to the JCPOA, Iran has made it clear that it will not renegotiate the deal even though many hardline Iranians were skeptical of it. Since the Iranians agreed to the JCPOA, the government has showed its commitment to the deal and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has concluded that Iran has complied with the agreement twelve times.
On the other hand, even under Obama and now under Trump, the U.S has violated the agreement from the very beginning threatening European, Chinese, and Russian companies to conduct business in Iran. Even when the protests broke out at the end of last year, despite a lot of domestic grievances in Iran, many Iranians have not benefitted from the full lifting of international sanctions promised in the deal. Under Trump, the deteriorating relations with Russia, and the trade war with China have pushed Iran closer to these countries and a U.S withdrawal from the deal will not give the United States maneuverability in the region.
The JCPOA is a seven-nation deal (a thirty-six-nation deal if you include the European Union) that was unanimously agreed upon in the United Nations Security Council to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. If the U.S pulled out of the deal on May 12th, possibly later down the road, it’s not clear that the JCPOA will survive even if a large number of analysts believe that the U.S will withdraw from the deal by the deadline. What the JCPOA accomplished was to lift international imposed sanctions on Iran and boycotts on its economy in exchange for Iran not obtaining a nuclear weapon. However, the deal did not totally lift the American sanctions. This was one of the major reasons why the Iranians came to the table in the first place, and the Iranians were looking for new partners to invest in its economy.
Containment is a very dangerous policy for the Trump Administration, but cooperation and diplomacy with Iran is a cheaper and reasonable option than another conflict in the Middle East. In fact, a regional summit between Iran, the Gulf countries, and Israel could set a new paradigm for the region along with a nuclear free zone that was proposed by Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud. If the Korean Peninsula progress continues on its very long and difficult route for diplomacy, hopefully the regional players in the Middle East can take a page out of this playbook and create a roadmap for coexistence as well. Time to stop pointing fingers and work towards peace and prosperity in the Middle East.