By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif*
US President Donald Trump will be the center of attention at the UN General Assembly this week. Just as he was last year, he is expected to be “undiplomatic” in criticizing foes and allies on many issues: Trade, defense strategies, counter-terrorism, and non-proliferation and denuclearization, among others. But, while he will not lambast North Korea, as he did last year, he will focus on Iran; especially his decision earlier this year to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear agreement that was meticulously negotiated by his predecessor, as well as Tehran’s regional meddling and its sponsorship of terror.
Trump’s view of the world is different from that of previous administrations. He appears at the UN podium as a leader who has rattled his closest allies and partners over defense spending, foreign policy, trade, immigration, Iran and military alliances. His views and positions on many foreign policy issues are in contrast with those of America’s closest allies. Certainly, he has taken the side of the Israeli far right in dealing with the thorny Arab-Israeli conflict. He has punished the Palestinians while claiming that he will unveil a plan that will end decades of hostilities and hardship. No ally of the US has endorsed his departure from the two-state solution.
But, when it comes to Iran, Trump may turn out to be on the right side of history, despite the widening gap that separates him from his European partners. There is no doubt that the nuclear deal that was adopted in 2015 was the result of years of secret and open negotiations and that it delivered what was then the best possible outcome. As it has turned out, Tehran did abide by the agreement, according to international and even Trump’s own experts. But, crucially, it did nothing to contain Iran’s regional ambitions, its support of terrorist groups and its ballistic activities.
Today the region is in turmoil and Iran is largely responsible for this. One can point to Iraq and its dysfunctional political system due to brazen Iranian meddling in its affairs. Tehran-backed militias have become a major player in Iraqi politics and have deepened the sectarian divide that has unraveled the fabric of Iraqi society. As Iraqi politicians quibble over positions and benefits, the country continues to sink into a quagmire of corruption and mismanagement. Iran’s interference in Iraqi affairs has become a source of discontent among both Sunnis and Shiites, as was evident in the recent protests in Basra.
The Yemeni crisis is a poignant reminder of Iran’s irresponsible meddling and regional disruption. All attempts to end the Houthi insurgency that has destroyed Yemen’s foundations and institutions have been foiled by Tehran. Iran’s role in prolonging Yemen’s ordeal is undisputed.
Tehran’s controversial involvement in the Syrian crisis is another cause of regional instability. The Syrian civil war took a sectarian trajectory following Tehran’s intervention. Iranian-backed militias, as well as members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, are complicit in countless war crimes in Syria. A just political settlement in Syria will remain elusive so long as foreign meddling continues.
Regardless of how effective the nuclear deal is, it did nothing to contain Iran’s regional ambitions and its bullying of its neighbors. Trump may have wanted to derail the agreement simply because it was negotiated by Barack Obama but, now that the US has withdrawn, the world must address its aftermath.
Europe will not be able to save the agreement in its present form. Trump has taken a hardline position, threatening to punish companies and states that do business with Iran. The next batch of sanctions in November will hit Iran hard as it targets its oil exports. So far, US sanctions have dealt a heavy blow to the Iranian economy and ignited a major political crisis between President Hassan Rouhani and parliament. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may end up ditching Rouhani and enabling extremists. Such a move will only deepen Iran’s crisis.
But, despite Trump’s strong words and actions, he has left the door open for a possible settlement. He has expressed willingness to meet with Rouhani unconditionally, while a close aide has said that the US will seek to negotiate a treaty with Iran rather than an agreement.
So far Khamenei has stuck to his anti-US rhetoric, rejecting calls for a dialogue. This is a big mistake. Iranian leaders can’t afford to wait as their citizens suffer; largely as a result of the regime’s foolish regional meddling. Dialogue with the US will go a long way toward addressing regional grievances. Tehran must change course if it wants to normalize its ties with its neighbors and open up to the world. Trump is right to pressure Tehran to negotiate.
* Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.