By Arab News
US President Donald Trump’s decision to sack Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may signal hard-line foreign policy shifts on Iran and the Qatar dispute, analysts told Arab News.
The dismissal of Tillerson, and the appointment of Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, as his successor, came after a series of public rifts between the president and his top diplomat over hot-button issues such as North Korea and Russia.
But it was their disagreement over the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump had pledged to scrap during his election campaign, that the US leader referred to when explaining his decision on Tuesday.
“We got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things,” Trump told White House reporters.
“When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something and he felt a little bit differently, so we were not really thinking the same.”
Jonathan Cristol, a fellow at the World Policy Institute think tank, said that after Tillerson’s removal, the administration might crack down on Iran and a nuclear deal on which Trump is expected to make his final decision in mid-May.
“This may be the death knell for the Iran deal,” Cristol told Arab News.
“Tillerson was one of the leading voices in the administration for renegotiating the pact. With him gone, and Pompeo moving things to the right, at the very least we can expect harsher language against Tehran.”
Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group, echoed this on Twitter, saying: “The writing seems even more clearly on the wall as to the fate of the Iran deal” following the State Department reorganization.
The reshuffle may also signal a shift on US policy on the Qatar crisis. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt cut travel and trade ties with Doha last June, accusing it of supporting terrorism and their arch-rival Iran. Qatar denies the charges.
While Trump accused Doha of funding terrorism at a “very high level,” Tillerson tried to ease tensions by signing an anti-terror financing deal with Qatar the following month and was working on a Camp David rapprochement summit of Gulf leaders in May.
That policy divergence last summer came at the same time that Tillerson was reported to have privately called Trump a “moron” after the US leader suggested a 10-fold increase in the US nuclear arsenal.
Steven Cook, an analyst at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said Tillerson’s sacking will be welcomed in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which wanted US support to leverage major policy shifts in Qatar.
“I am guessing that the folks in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are pretty happy right now. Tillerson was regarded as pro-Qatar,” Cook said.
Cristol agreed, but said that Tillerson was not a lone voice in the administration seeking to maintain stability in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
“US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will ensure that there are no changes and that the US remains committed to Qatar regardless of what the president tweets,” said Cristol, while attending a conference in Doha.
“It was widely understood that Tillerson did not have good relations with Trump and was on borrowed time, so his actual influence on policy was questionable. While we may see a move to the right, Mattis and the Pentagon may ensure policy is reasonably stable.”
The biggest shakeup of Trump’s cabinet since he took office more than a year ago was announced on Twitter, and came as the administration prepares for key meetings on North Korea and the Middle East.
A senior White House official said Trump asked Tillerson to step down on Friday, but did not want to make the dismissal public while he was on a trip to Africa. Trump’s announcement came only a few hours after Tillerson landed in Washington when the trip was cut short.
The official said Trump works well with Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, and wanted him in place before planned talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and trade negotiations.
Trump is also set to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on March 20 at the White House, when the Saudi heir to the throne visits Washington, New York and Boston.
On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the two men would discuss “ways to strengthen ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and to advance our common security and economic priorities.”