by Robert E. Hunter
By withdrawing the United States from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), President Trump struck a blow that may yet prove fatal to the most important strategic achievement in the Middle East since the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Most ignominious is the likelihood that Trump acted as he did to continue his efforts to scrap anything achieved by President Barack Obama. Whatever his motives, Trump has injured both the United States and its friends and allies in the Middle East and in Europe.
In his maiden speech as the nation’s seventieth secretary of state, Pompeo had a chance to present an honest, credible, and compelling rationale for his boss’ actions and to chart a sensible course for the United States in the Middle East. He did neither.
It is not just that the secretary of state continued to tell the whoppers that Trump has so often uttered, such as “the JCPOA put the world at risk because of its fatal flaws.” Every unbiased observer throughout the globe says just the reverse. It is not just that Pompeo had earlier said in Saudi Arabia that Iran is “the greatest sponsor of terrorism in the world,” whereas that title unimpeachably belongs to his Saudi hosts. It is not just that the Trump administration has bizarrely represented Iran as the only source of mischief in the region now that the Islamic State is militarily on the ropes. It is not just that Trump and Pompeo refuse to acknowledge, like the Obama administration before them, that the United States failed fully to implement the lifting of sanctions required by the JCPOA, which failure helped ensure that there’d be no positive political or diplomatic benefit from the nuclear agreement. And it is not just that Pompeo can construct the fiction that Iran has had “carte blanche to dominate the Middle East.”
It is hard to imagine that a US secretary of state can honestly believe this litany.
Politicians engage in hyperbole, especially when they are advancing policies that don’t hold water or are counting on the credulity of a considerable portion of the American public, as the George W. Bush administration did when it lied the nation into invading Iraq in 2003, with devastating consequences. Notably, one of the architects of that supreme folly, John Bolton, is now at Trump’s right hand, pushing policies that are equally damned to fail and damage U.S. standing in the world.
Also remarkable are Pompeo’s 12-point “basic requirements” for Iran’s becoming acceptable to the United States and to avoid further punishments: the “strongest sanctions in history,” and perhaps even war, launched by the United States and/or Israel. Some of the 12 requirements are reasonable and potentially useful. Taken together, however, especially given that Iran is under active military and other threats from several countries, they amount to Iran’s capitulation. Whether or not that would be desirable, no country would ever accept such a diktat, unless it were backed by force of arms, including invasion. Pompeo’s demands will thus leave the United States with dangerous choices and perhaps even more wreckage in the Middle East than already exists.
The Speech’s Implications
Pompeo gave his speech at the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation, thus forfeiting the chance of forging a bipartisan policy, as all successful US foreign policies must be.
The following points emerge from Pompeo’s speech:
By putting US interests back of the queue, the United States has now ceded primacy in determining its Middle East policies to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. It is hard if not impossible to find a precedent in history of a great power so willfully losing control over calculations of its own national interests.
US policy in the Middle East will be further militarized, with little or no space for diplomacy. The military hawks who now dominate administration thinking, notably the secretary of state (West Point graduate and military veteran) and secretary of defense, whose obsession with Iran was made clear well before he took office, are limited in their ability to view US regional interests as a whole and in a geopolitical framework.
By withdrawing from the JCPOA, Trump ignored the combined weight of America’s key allies in Europe. After a series of Trump administration actions damaging to US-European relations, comity across the Atlantic has now reached its nadir since at least Iraq-2003 if not since before NATO was created in 1949. Leaders of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany made clear their concerns about Trump’s decision on the JCPOA. German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel added that US withdrawal “damages trust in the international order.” In the end, the Europeans may cave in to the Trump-Pompeo demands, rightly fearing US secondary sanctions against European companies and banks doing business in Iran. But this intensifies resentment and weakens transatlantic bonds.
The only two countries certain to gain from Trump’s policy on Iran are Russia and China. The former has nothing to lose from a further deterioration of relations with the United States, while it meanwhile firms up its position in the Middle East made possible by Obama administration miscues. Russia also gains from strife in US-European relations. China, by contrast, will not want openly to complicate its current delicate diplomacy with the United States over North Korea and economic/trade relations, but it will reap benefits down the road from economic ties to Iran and already has indirect means of circumventing the US boycott of the Islamic Republic. These include China’s new petro-yuan, which ends its need to rely on petro-dollars.
Both Moscow and Beijing are crying crocodile tears over U.S. blindness to its true national interests regarding the Middle East, which also distracts it from focusing on more important business in the world.
In addition, there is no inkling in the Pompeo speech that the administration understands the need to work toward some form of regional security framework or, at least, to assess how the different parts of the region fit together. In terms of “what next” with Iran and the region, even if Teheran accepted all 12 of Pompeo’s basic requirements, there is no “there, there,” no course offered that can meet US interests and keep America from continuing to be riveted to the region militarily for the foreseeable future. “Getting out” or even “doing less” is no longer an option.
The security of Israel and Saudi Arabia will not likely be increased by Trump’s actions and Pompeo’s speech, assuming they understand that, at least initially, Iran will just dig in its heels. That can include increased Iranian use of asymmetrical warfare. Further, Saudi Arabia may be emboldened to intensify its military campaign in Yemen, which rivals Syria for its brutality and civilian casualties. It is only secondarily about Iran’s involvement as opposed to Riyadh’s longstanding ambitions. Meanwhile, Israel welcomes what the US is doing to Iran, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with other hawks, will likely see America’s acceding to Israeli’s desires on Iran as a useful deflection from the increasingly critical need to rethink policies toward the Palestinians following the recent slaughter in Gaza.
Given the feebleness of Iran’s economy and its second-rate military, the Trump-Saudi-Israeli policy should weaken Iran further and might constrain some of its actions abroad—assuming it does not now lash out. But producing “regime change” is, by all historical precedent, made less likely by punitive actions. In any event, as happened with Iraq 15 years ago, there will be costs. They will be widely shared, including by many of America’s friends and allies and by the Western alliance. Certainly, North Korea takes note that America under Trump cannot be certain of honoring any commitment and that makes a deal less likely.
Both Trump and Pompeo are thus failing the nation, not least by providing no directions that can meet America’s needs across the Middle East. Not since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which undercut America’s interests more than any other event in modern times, has there been such risk of major damage to the nation abroad in such a short period of time.