Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

On notice

The Trump administration is ratcheting up the pressure on Iran, with the new US president promising a departure from the approach of his predecessor

During the US presidential election campaign, then-Republican candidate Donald Trump vowed that he would tear apart the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group of July 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Three weeks into office, President Trump is reported to be looking into various scenarios to deal with both this agreement and Iran. Although it is not expected that the election pledge of the Republican president will be honoured, it seems that for the next few months we will be witnessing an escalation in rhetoric that will pit Washington and Tehran against each other — a clear and unmistakable departure from Obama’s diplomatic approach to Iran.

American-Iranian relations will undergo what you could call a testing of the waters in the next few months. In fact, President Trump, who has become a world class tweeter, tweeted last week that, “Iran is playing with fire. They don’t appreciate how kind president Obama was to them. Not me.”

This presidential tweet came in the wake of a well-calculated Iranian message to the new Republican administration that took the form of a provocative testing of a ballistic missile. The testing took place two weeks before a scheduled meeting at the White House between the US president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 15 February. The Iranian message was just a notice that Iran is an integral part of the region, and that it is capable of defending itself, just in case the Israeli prime minister would try to mobilise US support, under Trump, to revive the atmosphere of tension that had prevailed between the US and Iran prior to the conclusion of the JCPOA of 2015, to the advantage of Israel’s bellicose attitude towards Tehran that represents an “existential threat” to the State of Israel according to Netanyahu.

General Michael Flynn, national security adviser, said after the Iranian ballistics test that, “we are officially putting Iran on notice.” Days later, the US Treasury Department decreed a new set of sanctions against Iran that targeted 13 Iranians and 12 companies spread around the globe from Lebanon to China, passing through the United Arab Emirates. The ballistics test was not the only reason the new US administration decided to ratchet up pressure on Iran. The test coincided with the Houthis in Yemen firing a missile against a Saudi naval vessel near the strategic Bab Al-Mandab waterway, at the southern entrance of the Red Sea. If the Houthis have the means to target a naval vessel sailing under the Saudi flag, why not target any other naval unit flying any other flag, including American ones? The sanctions and the tweet by President Trump, in addition to the explicit warning of General Flynn, relate to this ominous development in the region.

Not only ominous but very serious, for it touches on free and unthreatened passage through highly-strategic waterways in the Middle East, the Gulf and the Red Sea, including the Suez Canal. Quoted in the weekend edition of The Financial Times, on Sunday, 5 February, an unnamed American official said that, “Iran continues to support behaviour that is not sustainable, not acceptable, violates norms and creates instability in the region. Iran has a choice to make.” Another American official, also quoted by the Financial Times, pointed out that “without a shift in Iran’s posture” additional sanctions “would be forthcoming”.

As President Trump said, he won’t be “kind” to Iran, as he judges his predecessor was. The question here is how far the United States can be unkind to Iran, and how this relates to a wider regional context. I would argue that the repositioning of the United States vis-à-vis Iran will not necessarily entail a degradation of bilateral relations between Washington and Tehran. After all Boeing Corporation signed a $17 billion deal with the Iranian government, and I doubt that an American administration bent on job-creation and mutually-beneficial business deals would forgo the opportunity of further lucrative deals with the Iranians. But it would work, with allies and partners in the Middle East, to contain Iran and push it to a certain regional retrenchment. Russia could give a helping hand in this respect, once the much-anticipated American-Russian Summit takes place sometime this year. 2017 is definitely the year of all possibilities in the Middle East.

A military confrontation between the United States and Iran is out of the question, for it would be sheer madness to target Iran militarily. Not because the American military can’t do the job, but the strategic cost of such a confrontation would be very difficult to calculate and bear. Most probably, American diplomacy will work to set up a regional front that includes Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf Cooperation Council member states and Israel under American leadership. Such a regional realignment of forces will not be easy to organise or operate for two main reasons. The first relates to Israel and its rejection of all peace overtures concerning the Palestinians. To make matters worse, the Israeli government, once President Trump was sworn in, has gone full steam ahead in implementing its illegal settlement policies in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Consequently, Egypt and the Arabs in an alliance with Israel against a regional power that champions, not only the Palestinian cause, but also the right of return of the Palestinians to their usurped land will be very difficult to justify. The other reason is that such an alliance will be in contradiction with the International Coalition to Degrade and Defeat IS (the Islamic State group). Although Iran is not a member in this coalition set up by former president Obama in September 2014, no campaign against IS would be successful without an active role on the part of Iran. The United States badly needs Iran in containing both IS in Afghanistan and the Taliban.

With General James Matis as secretary of defense, the strategic realities as well as challenges in the Middle East, the Gulf, the Red Sea and South Asia will become readily apparent to the new Republican administration, regardless of its initial positions concerning Iran, or Israel for that matter, or its ideological leanings and orientations.

Both Egypt and the Gulf countries should elaborate a common vision and position related to new realities in the region. The upcoming Arab Summit next month should be the occasion to come up with such a vision. The destiny of the Middle East and the Gulf should not be left solely to non-Arab powers to decide. The stakes are high.

Neither Israel, nor Iran, nor Turkey should become the new hegemons in these vital and strategic regions of the Arab world.

Arab-American relations should not be taken for granted in Washington. Two weeks ago, the American University in Cairo and the Middle East Institute in Washington co-hosted an important seminar in the Egyptian capital on the future of American-Arab relations with Donald Trump in the White House. Upon a kind invitation from both Ambassador Nabil Fahmi, the former foreign minister of Egypt, and Chairman of the School of Public Policy at the American University in Cairo, and Ambassador Magda Shahin, director of the Walid Ben Talal Centre for American Studies, I participated in a very healthy and timely debate that lasted two days, 29-30 January, entailing intensive and deep discussions among American, Egyptian and Arab officials, scholars, writers and diplomats that touched on this important topic. The discussions were forward-looking with a serious attempt on the part of panellists and participants to chart a new way forward amidst deep and fast-moving strategic developments in the Middle East and an emerging, albeit highly uncertain, new realignment of forces. The mood at the seminar was serious, purposeful and cautiously optimistic on the course of relations between the Trump administration and the Arabs.

Surprisingly, the seminar dealt with almost all the strategic — both political and economic — dimensions of the bilateral relations between the United States and the Middle East, but one important variable that has weighed heavily on the course of these relations throughout the last six decades was conspicuously absent. That is Israel. I am not sure the reasons why, but no debate on such an important question is comprehensive and broad enough without tackling the impact of American-Israeli relations on the relations of the United States with the Arab world.

At the present stage, whether speaking of American-Arab relations or American-Iranian relations, unpredictability and uncertainty looms large. Maybe, the course of these relations will become clearer before year’s end.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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