by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
The Trump administration has defied a recent International Court of Justice (ICJ) order not to take any action that would further complicate the US-Iran dispute. It has imposed a fresh round of sanctions that target more Iranian financial entities as a prelude to the November 4 oil sanctions. The action reflects the administration’s unwavering, solid determination to implement its policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, to paraphrase Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Foreign Affairs.
The Pompeo article appeared on the day the secretary of state returned from his “fact-finding” trip to Saudi Arabia and then Turkey, where he reportedly listened to the audio of Jamal Khashoggi’s methodical execution by henchmen of Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), who wired $100 million to the State Department coffers ahead of his visit, earmarked for Syria’s “stabilization.”
Trump is now adopting the Saudi cover-up story blaming Khashoggi’s death on a “brawl” and exonerating the real mastermind, MbS, despite global skepticism. Praising the Saudis as a “great ally” that provides a “counterbalance to Iran,” Trump has demonstrated that he is less concerned about their heinous crime and more about their promised $110 billion arms purchases, an amount so exaggerated that the U.S. media deems it to be fake news. The Machiavellian president may now slap the Saudis on the wrist with some nominal penalties, thus scoring on the “moral clarity” ground while utilizing the crisis to leverage more concessions from his murderous ally.
For its part, Tehran has opted to play curious bystander in the unfolding drama between Washington and Riyadh. Iran is basking in the fact that new U.S.-Saudi tensions for the moment,have de-centered the Iran “threat.” Saudi Arabia now faces a serious backlash in the international community leading to a boycott of the much-anticipated “Davos in Desert” economic summit. Tehran is calculating the extent of the damage, its longevity, and thedirect and indirect ramifications for Iran and the broader region. Intent on not giving any excuses to the other side to refocus attention on Tehran, Iranian officials have been tight-lipped about the Khashoggi “affair.” Neither the foreign ministry nor the office of the president has yet released an official statement.
The Iranian press, on the other hand, has devoted extensive coverage to the story. For instance, the conservative Kayhan has published a front-page story on the latest report from Turkey that Khashoggi was “sawed to death alive,” drawing comparisons to the atrocities of “Saudi-backed” Islamic State terrorists. A number of Iranian pundits, on the other hand, have predicted a shake-up in the regional geopolitical landscape that might lead to a ceasefire and peace in Yemen, since the crisis has rendered Western complicity with the Saudi-led war in Yemen untenable. Not everyone concurs with this interpretation, however. Foreign policy expert Sadegh Maleki has warned that Turkey has its own calculations in the Khashoogi case. Iran should be careful not to copy Ankara’s attitude, he suggests, and should continue to pitch for normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia. Turkey’s recent omission of Iran in summits on Syria has not gone well with Tehran.
Indeed, Tehran is not completely blind to the possibility of a new thaw in Iran-Saudi relations as a result of the new friction in U.S.-Saudi relations, which extends to OPEC and Trump’s recent pressures on the cartel to lower prices and boost production (with at best moderate success). Indeed, this “crisis of opportunity” could help Iran extract gains from both sides. It could impress on Trump the need to reevaluate the carte blanche given to the reckless Saudis, and it could hammer home with Riyadh the importance of peaceful co-existence in the Persian Gulf.
On the other hand, Tehran is skeptical that any damage to U.S.-Saudi ties will be enduring, given the extent of their strategic partnership. Even so, there is no denying the temporary shift of U.S. attention to Saudi misbehavior. This was the first time in many years, perhaps decades, when a U.S. secretary of state visited the region and failed to indulge in Iranophobia. Not only that, Pompeo’s Foreign Affairs piece ends with reference to the need for “negotiations,” which Tehran won’t accept as long as Washington insists on regime change in so many words.
Trump’s Iran policy may be “working” for now, but it has dim prospects. The international community has ostracized Trump’s Saudi buddies, U.S. allies have rebuffed Washington’s unilateral sanctions, and countries such as India and Japan continue to purchase Iranian oil despite the threat of sanctions. The new “sanctions regime” is built on the fantastic delusion of international cooperation, which is not forthcoming. In fact, on his recent visit to Tehran, former UK foreign secretary Jack Straw called the U.S. sanctions policy one of the administration’s worst mistakes. Correcting this mistake is not in the cards unfortunately, but at least the Trump administration’s most virulent Iranophobia is not for the moment at the foreground of U.S. policy as a result of this spat with the Saudi client state.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team and the author of several books on Iran’s foreign affairs.