by Daniel Brumberg
What is the Trump Administration trying to achieve in the Middle East? The region’s leaders might be forgiven if they cannot decipher a clear answer. In fact, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo do not appear equally committed to using force against Tehran. More importantly, President Donald Trump has signaled his preference to avoid getting dragged by the region’s leaders (or his White House advisors) into the black hole of military conflict. Indeed, during his recent visit to Tokyo, Trump reiterated his rejection of externally induced regime change, thus underscoring the challenge of truly understanding US Iran policy.
The administration’s cheerleaders in some right-wing Washington think tanks are adding to the confusion. For example, the Hudson Institute’s Michael Doran holds that the Trump Administration has a strategy of “containment” that is coherent and clear, even if it “does not permit him to define a clear endgame.” He writes that this “containment policy does not seek war but will not shrink from it if provoked. Nor does it seek regime change. Rather, it recognizes that a transformation of Iranian politics is an essential precondition for a strategic accommodation between Washington and Tehran.”
With all due respect, this is nonsense. Doran knows full well that “transformation of politics” is a metaphor for regime change. Pompeo backed this position before joining the administration, insisting that “Congress must act to change … the Iranian regime.” For his part, Bolton has championed regime change for a while, including when he spoke before the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, an armed Iranian opposition organization that he described as “a viable opposition to … the ayatollahs.” Pompeo has tried to cloak this policy in diplomatic language by offering talks—but only if Tehran accepts 12 US demands, none of which any Iranian leader could endorse without inviting his political or physical demise. The White House is not only putting a gun to Tehran’s head; it is insisting that Iran’s leaders pull the trigger themselves or suffer the consequences.
Saudi Arabia seems to be on board with this policy. Its support for a US attack on Iran, signaled through its state-linked press, might reflect the risky calculation that the mere threat of force would get Iran’s compliance—or if it does not, that a few “surgical” strikes would be sufficient to do the job. But even limited attacks would probably ignite a prolonged war that could devastate Gulf economies and undermine internal political stability. Thus it is hardly surprising that the White House has elicited a wide range of responses from Qatar, Oman, and especially Iraq, whose volatile politics require steering clear of the US-Iran conflict. In examining US Iran policy, it is a fair bet that even those Arab leaders who back the administration hope that containment is the real policy and not merely an excuse for war. But Tehran sees things differently, so the game has become much more dangerous.
Iran Decides to Play with Fire
Over the past few weeks, the Gulf region has seen several events that may suggest that Iran is upping the military ante. Although no conclusive evidence points to Iran’s involvement, these events include the sabotaging of four oil tankers in the Arabian Sea and the firing of a Katyusha rocket into the US embassy complex in Baghdad. Additionally, Iran has exercised its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz if it is attacked or prevented from trading its goods internationally.
Some critics of US Iran policy have suggested that these reports have been concocted or grossly exaggerated to create a pretext to attack Iran. It is just as plausible that Iran is signaling that it will increase the costs the United States and its allies would pay for any resort to force. Carefully calibrated sabotage attacks on Gulf tankers might provide one way to make this point without necessarily inviting a wider US-Iranian confrontation. By contrast, aggression by proxy forces in Iraq risks inviting precisely the kind of full scale conflict that Iran would otherwise want to avoid. Whether Tehran or its Iraqi militias have risked this level of escalation is not clear. But it is very likely that Iran’s hard-liners do fear—with reason—that they face a real prospect of “an all out war” and thus must take action to deter a US attack.
Prospects for a US-Iran military confrontation may have been heightened by the growing domestic political isolation of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Last week, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei openly and vigorously blamed both men for backing a nuclear agreement that he insists was always problematic. This must have not only warmed the hearts of hard-liners; it also offered them a tremendous political boost in anticipation of next year’s parliamentary elections. Backed by Khamenei, they want to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and restart enriching uranium at a level equal to or higher than that which existed in 2014. Faced by this possibility, Israel and/or the United States may likely launch a major assault on Iran. Paradoxically, the promise by several Democratic presidential candidates that if elected they would recommit the United States to the JCPOA might induce Trump or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attack before the November 2020 presidential elections. Thus, the next few months could prove perilous.
The Worried Calculations of Gulf Arab States
Those Gulf Arab states that view Iran as an implacable enemy want to get the most strategic benefit from the White House’s policy of “maximum pressure” without risking the possibility that by design or default this policy will ignite war. This may explain the multiple signals coming even from the Gulf’s anti-Iran camp.
For example, on May 19 Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stated that “the kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not want a war in the region nor does it seek that.” Thus, he added, Riyadh “will do what it can to prevent this war and at the same time it reaffirms that [if] … the other side chooses war, the kingdom will respond with all force and determination.” Yet as noted above, this position conflicts with other signals from the Saudi government that suggest, at the very least, that the country’s leaders are improvising as they try to gauge what the White House might do. Given the continued fallout from the Khashoggi murder and the recent failed attempt by the US Congress to prevent $8 billion in new arms sales to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, Riyadh must avoid getting ahead of a White House whose leading policy-makers, from the president on down, are still sending conflicting signals about the ultimate purpose of “containment” of Iran.
UAE leaders must also tread carefully. They have invested enormous strategic, political, and financial capital in making their country the vanguard of a group of Arab states that are united by their opposition to democracy and their hostility toward Iran. Buoyed by a sovereign wealth fund estimated at $700 billion dollars, numerous reports suggest that the UAE has used some of these funds to purchase political support in Washington (and in the White House) for an aggressive defense policy that is focused on defeating Houthi forces in Yemen. The UAE’s financial support for—and direct military involvement in—that catastrophic civil war (on which Riyadh depends to sustain its military role) strongly suggest that UAE leaders would not object to a US attack on Iran, especially if it were proven conclusively that Tehran is behind the sabotaging of the oil tankers. But if Iran retaliates by trying to shut down shipping, the UAE would feel the heat. Thus it was not surprising that UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash not only avoided directly blaming Iran for the attacks on the tankers, but also insisted that the “UAE is very committed to de-escalation, peace and stability.” In a “turbulent week even by the standards of the region,” he stated, “we need to emphasize caution and good judgment.”
Such caution is much more intense in Qatar and Oman. Each country has its own compelling interests in, and reasons for, trying to dissuade Tehran and Washington from going to war. Qatar, of course, has been subject to a sea and air blockade imposed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both of which are determined to punish it for its support of Sunni Islamist movements and its continued efforts to sustain diplomatic and economic relations with Iran.
While struggling to defy these economic and geostrategic pressures, Doha has cultivated close military ties with the United States. The arrival during the second week of May of B-52 bombers at Qatar’s Al-Udeid Air Base underscores the tricky diplomatic dance that Qatar’s leaders must sustain. Indeed, it was only four months ago that Secretary of State Pompeo visited Qatar and signed an agreement with Doha to expand Al-Udeid while publicly complaining that the Qatar diplomatic crisis had “dragged on too long.” Pushed and pulled by its neighbors and its powerful US ally, Doha’s best bet may be to work behind the scenes to defuse the threat of war. Indeed, while Qatari officials have avoided public statements on recent events, there were reports that Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani has met with Iranian officials in a bid to ease US-Iranian tensions.
Oman also seems to be playing a similar role. On May 20, Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah met in Tehran with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. His meeting was accompanied by a tweet1 from the Omani Foreign Ministry underlining the government’s desire to work “with other parties to reduce tensions between Washington and Iran, and thus prevent the “danger of war which could harm the entire world.” Oman has particular interest in playing this intermediary role. After all, it provided the venue for the secret US-Iran talks that set the stage for the 2014-15 Geneva negotiations that produced the JCPOA. As the accord dissolves and the chances for US-Iran hostilities increase, Oman is likely to redouble its efforts to get the two sides talking.
Iraq Stuck in a Very Hard Place
Iraq’s domestic stability depends on something far more concrete than merely sustaining the goodwill of both Iran and the United States. Washington still has some 5,200 troops in Iraq whose primary task is to destroy the remnants of the so-called Islamic State, thousands of whose followers remain in active cells. US troops are effectively tied to and partly dependent on the protection of Iraqi Shia militias. But the latter have close ties with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), thus underscoring the very tricky balancing act that both the United States and Iraq must be attentive to if they are to sustain security and diplomatic cooperation.
That balancing act became much more difficult when Trump made a surprise visit to US troops in western Iraq in December 2018. Zarif effectively responded by making a five-day visit to Iraq, one that set the stage for Rouhani’s March trip to Baghdad. Trump had stated some weeks before this trip that he wanted to keep US troops in Iraq “because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran, because Iran is a real problem.” This did not help matters; indeed, his remarks surely provided a strong impetus for the ensuing demands of pro-Iranian MPs to remove US troops from Iraq.
These events were capped by the administration’s April 4 decision to declare the IRGC a “terrorist” organization. Given the close ties between the IRGC and Iraqi Shia militias, the administration’s move gave the latter reason to turn on American troops. US concerns about just such a scenario apparently prompted Pompeo’s May 7 visit to Baghdad. There he pressed Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi not only to cease purchasing Iranian energy (upon which Iraq depends), but as Pompeo put it, to ensure that Iraq’s government “adequately protect Americans in their country. We don’t want anyone interfering in their country … and [on that] there was complete agreement.” Responding to Pompeo, Abdul-Mahdi insisted that Iraq would “maintain a policy of building bridges … with its friends and neighbors, including Iran.”
Underscoring this point, on May 26 Iraq hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif for a two-day visit. Struggling to walk a fine line, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Alhakim noted that while Iraq did not support “one sided actions” by the United States, it was ready to mediate between Tehran and Washington. Iraq’s decision to send a delegation to an emergency Arab summit in Mecca, scheduled for May 30, could provide a useful opening for Baghdad to play peacemaker—but only if the administration is seriously interested in de-escalation.
“Deterrence” in the Eye of the Beholder
Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, insists that the administration is “not spoiling for a fight” and is “just trying to restore deterrence.” But Iran has cause to believe that any talk of deterrence or negotiations is merely a cover for a policy of economic warfare and regime change. The efforts of Iraq, Qatar, and Oman to pull the United States back from the brink will ultimately depend on the ability of the EU to rescue the JCPOA, which is now on life support.
Trump’s deepest instincts may be to avoid a war. But far from inducing Iran to the negotiating table, his actions could impel Iran to revive and expand a nuclear program that it had vastly scaled back in return for ending US nuclear-related sanctions. The reimposition of those sanctions has set about a train of perilous events that few, if any, Arab states probably wish for the region—but which they may be unable to prevent.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here. Republished, with permission, from the Arab Center Washington DC.