by Mitchell Plitnick
Just a few sentences into Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) yesterday, the entire world was laughing at the President of the United States. Reactions to the rest of his speech might have vacillated between anger and ridicule, while his loyal base and administration servants sat with self-satisfied grins. But some of what he said should cause concern.
Whether it was his repeated emphasis on sovereignty over alliances—a common theme of authoritarian leaders—his railing about trade deficits whose effects on the US economy he clearly doesn’t understand, his attacks on international institutions and partnerships, or his general air of condescension and hubris, Trump reaffirmed his intention to move the United States deeper into a belligerent isolation from most of the world.
Trump’s use of the UNGA platform to build the case for aggression against Iran, and even to add more obstacles to a peaceful resolution of tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic, was particularly offensive.
“It was the sort of head-snapping schizophrenia one has come to expect from Donald Trump,” wrote the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin after Trump’s address. “After seeming to express regret that he would not be meeting in New York with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani—going so far as to call Rouhani “a lovely man” in a Tweet—Trump unloaded on the Islamic Republic in his speech to the UN General Assembly.”
Even before the speech, Trump was creating a fiction around Iran. Early Tuesday morning, he tweeted, “Despite requests, I have no plans to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Maybe someday in the future.” In fact, Trump has been the one to express a desire to meet with the Iranians, saying on several occasions that he would be willing to meet to hammer out what he would see as a better deal than the nuclear deal he violated. Iran has rebuffed him, quite sensibly, saying they would not be willing to meet unless the United States resumes the responsibilities under the nuclear deal that it has shirked. Unfortunately, US media coverage of this has largely supported Trump’s fictitious view.
In his speech, Trump said, “Iran’s neighbors have paid a heavy toll for the agenda of aggression and expansion. That is why so many countries in the Middle East strongly supported at my decision to withdraw the United States from the horrible 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimpose nuclear sanctions.”
Although Iran has certainly moved to expand its influence in the region, its footprint in the nearby devastation—particularly in Iraq and Yemen—is dwarfed almost to invisibility in the very same areas by that of the United States, sometimes directly, sometimes through its Gulf allies.
As to support for leaving the nuclear deal, Slavin pointed out, “While it is true that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backed the move, the vast majority of countries in the world—including U.S. allies Britain, France, and Germany plus China and Russia—are sticking by the JCPOA and devising means to circumvent new US sanctions.”
Tying Syria to Iran
But perhaps Trump’s most dangerous statement was this one: “Every solution to the humanitarian crisis in Syria must also include a strategy to address the brutal regime that has fueled and financed it: the corrupt dictatorship in Iran.”
Trump is clearly supporting Israel’s stance that Iran must be compelled to abandon its presence in Syria. But tying Syria to Iran in this manner would mean an unending U.S. presence in Syria and could potentially be used to link a resolution to the conflict and rebuilding Syria to regime change in Iran.
The statement is disconnected from reality. Iran had been an ally of Syria’s long before the civil war. It is there by invitation of the Assad regime. Although Trump has repeatedly hammered at the theme of national sovereignty, it apparently doesn’t apply to countries he doesn’t like.
More to the point, Iran’s presence was not particularly influential, especially compared to Russia’s impact on both the fighting and the diplomacy in and around Syria. There is no practical reason, in terms of Syria, to condition outcomes on Iranian actions.
Trump’s statement lays the groundwork for a continued U.S. presence in Eastern Syria. Moreover, he may be preparing to pivot militarily from ensuring that the Islamic State does not re-establish itself in the area to confronting Iran more directly than the US has to date. It does not mean that such a decision has been taken, but it does provide a basis for doing so.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and National Security Advisor John Bolton, both of whom attended the UNGA, clearly had a hand in this statement. Somewhere on the sidelines of the UNGA, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was no doubt grinning ear to ear.
Increasing Israeli-Russian Tension
It remains to be seen what Russia will think of joining the questions of Iran and Syria in this manner. Russia has, in the past, been open to considering an arrangement where Iran would be pushed out of Syria physically. But since Syrian anti-aircraft batteries shot down a Russian plane a week ago—due to Israel’s use of the Russian jet as camouflage, according to Moscow—Russia is not in a particularly generous mood when it comes to Israeli concerns. Israel has tried to reduce tensions with Russia over the incident without admitting that it was to blame or had done anything to endanger the Russian plane. They have been unsuccessful, and Russia has now agreed to dramatically upgrade Syria’s anti-aircraft capabilities.
Israel has stated that it will not compromise what it sees as imperative security concerns to placate Moscow. “We will do whatever is necessary to protect Israel’s security,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday, while Bolton called the upgrade of Syria’s defenses, a “significant escalation.”
In this atmosphere, stoking the simmering fire by conditioning a peaceful outcome in Syria on expelling Iran raises tensions even higher. Should Israel decide that the movement of some truckloads of armaments or other military activity inside Syria merits another attack—something Israel claims has happened 200 times since 2017—and an Israeli plane is shot at or brought down, there is an increasing danger of a widening conflict, one that might even draw in the United States.
This march to war is not inevitable. On the contrary, it took a willful disregard for stability and common sense to create the current powder keg.
The UNGA speech was largely a rehashing of typical Trump talking points: America first, the International Criminal Court can’t touch Americans, trade deficits are bad, and so on. For the most part, his remarks on Iran and Syria were also just more of the same.
But circumstances today are shifting quickly. Iran and Syria do not exist in some vacuum where Russia does not play a role. Israel and the United States are not in the same position they were even two years ago, where their ability to act with impunity was limited more by domestic concerns and international diplomacy than realities on the ground. Trump’s words from 2017 may cause larger ripples in 2018 and 2019.
Trump used the UNGA platform yesterday for bluster and the needless ratcheting up of tensions. Should elections change the face of Congress in five weeks, the newcomers should realize that foreign policy matters and the United States should stop being the problem and start being part of the solution.