by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
“Nations are rallying to our side to confront Iran in the region like never before,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a major foreign policy speech in Cairo on January 10. Claiming that his administration has rectified the “past mistakes” of the Obama administration, Pompeo exhibited the triumphalism characteristic of his president’s foreign policy. The thoroughly Iranophobic speech was also remarkable for walking back Trump’s announcement on the withdrawal of forces from Syria by pledging to “expel every last Iranian boot from Syria,” in sharp contrast to the president’s recent statement that “Iran can do what it wants in Syria.”
Pompeo has thus reinforced the hawkish position of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who assured Israel about U.S. intentions in Syria and, by the same token, angered Turkey’s President Erdogan, who refused to give him an audience and scolded Washington for making a “serious mistake” in Syria. In so doing, Pompeo has now assured Middle East allies that U.S. policy will remain business as usual. That policy contains three key elements: protecting U.S. allies and their interests including the free flow of oil, fighting Islamic State terrorists, and confronting Iran. The other agenda—the Middle East peace process—has been put on the back burner to make sure it does not inconvenience the expansionist Israeli government.
With respect to Iran, however, the administration’s report card so far is mixed at best. It has delivered significant blows to Iran’s economy through the unilateral sanctions, yet it has failed to achieve any tangible success in bringing Iran to the table and or rolling back Iran’s missile program and Iran’s proactive regional policy. The international community has reacted negatively to Trump’s unilateral exit from the Iran deal, and the International Court of Justice has also ruled in Iran’s favor in an interim ruling on U.S. sanctions on Iran. Not only that, Tehran has gained legitimacy as a result of “rogue” U.S. behavior, with most nationalistic Iranians blaming Washington for Iran’s economic woes.
In other words, Trump’s hostile Iran policy has actually strengthened the Islamic Republic politically, which has compared the “unjust U.S. sanctions” to the “imposed” Iran-Iraq war. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in a policy speech on January 8, promised “unprecedented defeat” for US sanctions on Iran—another reminder that Trump’s White House deludes itself into thinking that Iran will buckle any time soon. Instead, under mounting economic pressures and the prospects of further dwindling oil exports, Iran may increasingly rely on its hard power assets in the region in 2019 to raise the costs of U.S. bellicosity.
Fact-Checking Pompeo’s Claims
Contrary to Pompeo’s claim, the regional picture tells a different story quite at odds with his sanguine depiction of a growing regional alliance against Iran. Thanks to its pan-regionalist approach— encompassing the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Northwest Asia—Iran has good relations with the majority of its neighbors and “near neighbors.” Even in the Persian Gulf, there is no unity of purpose among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states—Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, and Qatar.
Qatar has opted to move closer to Iran and Turkey in response to the Saudi-led blockade. Kuwait, too, maintains positive relations with Iran and has wisely decided not to antagonize Iran by echoing Riyadh’s assertion that Iran is the source of all instabilities in the region. “We consider Iran as our neighbor and we are interested in developing our beneficial cooperation with Tehran,” the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad, has said. Oman, another GCC state, is uniquely close to Iran as it played a key role in secret US-Iran negotiations and has been largely successful in maintaining a healthy balance in relations with Riyadh and Tehran. Oman and Iran are planning a gas pipeline that would cement their diplomatic closeness with economic interdependence.
The UAE, although aligned with Riyadh on regional affairs, has its own set of economic and security calculations in light of trade with Iran totaling more than $17 billion in 2017, compared to the paltry Iran-Saudi trade. In the past, Dubai was the regional hub exports, often relying on boats ferrying goods only 150 kilometers away to Iran. In the previous round of sanctions, Dubai’s trade with Iran actually grew since it served as a venue for global companies to deal with Iran. Despite official statements assuring the United States of their compliance with the new sanctions, UAE leaders are apt to let history repeat itself and reap the economic benefits of Iran trade as much as possible without incurring Washington’s wrath.
Tiny Bahrain among the GCC states is closest to the Saudi stance against Iran. Its ruling elite faces a dissident movement among the majority Shiites that draws sympathy from Iran.
As a result of their policy differences and their different threat perceptions, GCC members have not been able to determine any roadmap in the future relations with Iran. Some, like the UAE, have resumed diplomatic relations with Damascus—an indirect victory for Iran. On the other hand, rising tensions between the United States and Iran and the possibility of a showdown in Persian Gulf affecting the flow of oil have moved some of the GCC oil states like Kuwait to seek to defuse the crisis by reaching out to Iran. At the same time, however, they have tried to bolster their own defense by procuring more arms and entering into new military arrangements.
Iraq, meanwhile, is enjoying the benefits of unprecedented bilateral trade with Iran while relying on Iran for gas and electricity, so much so that Pompeo’s State Department had to issue a waiver for Iran-Iraq trade. That waiver is due to expire in April 2019. By all indications, the United States will have to extend it or risk alienating Baghdad and seeing it bust sanctions irrespective of U.S. pressure. Similarly, the waiver extended to seven other nations on oil imports from Iran—China, India, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Italy, and Greece—will likely be extended due to the energy needs of these countries. India also enjoys a waiver on the Chabahar project, which has no timeline, connected to a free-zone project that so far has attracted several hundred foreign companies from 15 countries. Another free-trade zone, established between Iran and (the Russia-led) Eurasian Economic Union, also serves Iran’s regional trade and sanctions-busting purposes.
Turkey, another Iran neighbor, also has good economic and diplomatic ties with Iran. It receives 11 percent of its energy needs from Iran and seeks to boost the Iran-Turkish trade volume to $30 billion a year, per a recent summit between the Iranian and Turkish presidents in Ankara. Angered by Trump’s flip flop on Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made it abundantly clear that he will coordinate his Syria moves with Tehran and Moscow. In other words, Pompeo cannot count on Turkey in an alliance against Iran, just as he cannot count on Iraq and a number of GCC states. For that matter, he can’t rely on Egypt either, for it too has moved closer to Iran in some respects, despite Cairo’s financial dependence on Riyadh. It remains to be seen if Egypt will allow itself to be used as a pawn in a regional chess game or assert itself as an independent player commensurate with its historical weight.
The Arab NATO
This is an important issue because the United States wants to create a Middle East Strategic Alliance—an “Arab NATO”—that fosters security cooperation, including a regional anti-missile defense shield, among the six Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar) plus Egypt and Jordan. Deterring Iran’s aggression forms a central purpose of the new regional alliance. This is an old Saudi proposal that the Trump administration has embraced wholeheartedly as part of giving Riyadh carte blanche to ceate a Saudi-centered security environment in the Persian Gulf and adjacent regions including the Red Sea and Gulf of Oman. The continuing Saudi-Qatar dispute, however, makes such an alliance considerably more difficult to construct.
Some experts have interpreted the Arab NATO initiative as Trump unwisely abandoning Obama’s balancing approach in an attempt to create a “Sunni axis” against Iran. Others see it as a result of “threat inflation” by Washington and Riyadh to make it seem as though Iran has more power and influence, from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and Yemen, than it actually has.
Ironically, the heightened U.S. campaign against Iran comes at a time when the region is beginning to recover from the rampant terrorism of the past few years. The ceasefire in Yemen is still holding, the Syrian conflict is morphing into a post-conflict situation, and there are also signs of progress in dialogue with the Taliban in Afghanistan where the United States has reluctantly admitted that Iran is helping to “calm” the situation. In turn, this points to the deep flaws in the enemy image of Iran propagated by Trump administration, which has sold billions of dollars of sophisticated arms to the region’s conservative states, all of whom have ossified systems that have resisted political modernization. Pompeo has openly stated that “we want to restore democracy” in Iran, but he has no qualms about the lack of democracy in other parts of the Middle East.
Despite Pompeo’s boasts about correcting Obama’s mistakes, it is in fact the Trump administration that has seriously misinterpreted regional realities. It has continued to pursue a deeply flawed Middle East policy based on exaggerating the threat of Iran and underplaying the threat of Saudi adventurism. This approach is bound to escalate tensions. It might even culminate in yet another calamitous war of choice, irrespective of Trump’s own stated antipathy to such a scenario.
Kaveh Afrasiabi has taught at Tehran University and Boston University and is a former consultant to the UN Program on Dialogue Among Civilizations. He is the author of several books on Iran, Islam, and the Middle East, most recently Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (2018) and the co-author of the forthcoming Trump and Iran: Containment to Confrontation.