by Emile Nakhleh
If President Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had planned to deepen chaos and instability, promote war, and hurt American interests in the Middle East, they could not have executed a more effective strategy than abandoning the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action or JCPOA) and moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. By bullying Iran and demanding that it tow the American line, relinquishing its traditional mediator role in local conflicts, abandoning its commitment to human rights, and leaving the peoples and states of the region to fight it out among themselves, the Trump administration is playing with fire in the most volatile part of the world. Washington is now signaling friends and foes alike that America cares little about potential wars in the region—territorial, ethnic, and sectarian—or about creating a power vacuum. In short, Trump and his national security team are throwing the Middle East under the bus.
As long as the so-called regional allies keep buying American arms and services, investing in projects dear to Trump and his family businesses, and adhering to Trump’s foreign policy doctrine, however flimsy, Washington will not hold them accountable for their massive human rights violations, unbridled autocracy, continued settlement expansion in the occupied territories, and the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen.
In his speech at the Heritage Foundation on Monday, Secretary Pompeo said, “The United States stands with those longing for a country of economic opportunity, government transparency, fairness, and greater liberty.” He of course directed that statement at Iran, but would he extend the same demands to America’s autocratic allies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE?
Selectivity in the application of good governance principles begets hypocrisy and insincerity. At least, the Iranian people elected President Hassan Rouhani in relatively free elections. Will Secretary Pompeo push America’s Arab allies to hold similar elections and give their people a chance at “greater liberty”? Now that the electoral bloc of the traditionally anti-American Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has won the elections in Iraq, will Trump and Pompeo begin to hint at regime change in Iraq? Isn’t it ironic that the two Shia blocs in Iraq and Lebanon won in their elections while not one of the Sunni Arab allies of the United States in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and elsewhere has held fair elections? In imposing harsh conditions on Iran, Secretary Pompeo has forgotten the inconvenient truth that his Arab allies are dictatorships, monarchies, and tribal potentates of strongmen that are primarily interested in staying in power at the expense of their peoples.
After enumerating 12 “very basic requirements,” demanding, among other things, that Iran relinquish its sovereign right to enrich, Pompeo asked the Iranian people rhetorically in his speech, “What has the Iranian Revolution given to the Iranian people?” Why does he think that these demands and his condescending question would persuade the Iranian people to once again relinquish their sovereignty and yield to America’s demands? The American-engineered Mosaddeqh coup in 1953 might be ancient history for most Americans, but it’s still a living, vivid memory in Iran.
Instead of threats, which Iran is not expected to accept, Secretary Pompeo should have taken a rational diplomatic course of action with an eye toward rejiggering the deal rather than trashing it. European allies would have listened and even participated in the process. Instead of isolating Iran, the secretary of state has succeeded in isolating the United States from its European allies. The immediate impact of Pompeo’s speech has been to empower the radicals in Iran, who opposed the deal in the first place.
On the Israeli-Palestinian front, moving the embassy to Jerusalem signals the death of all hopes for settling the conflict. Radical Israeli settlers also feel empowered to expand their settlements on Palestinian lands, to codify the occupation, and to resist any attempts at settling the conflict. It also means continued discrimination against Palestinians and draconian control of their livelihood and freedom of movement—a condition akin to apartheid. On the Palestinian side, radicals also feel empowered because they have always claimed that America’s role as an “honest broker” was a charade. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem vindicates this claim. In one single, misguided policy move, the Trump administration has reduced the mantra of the “peace process” and the “two-state” solution to dust.
The juxtaposition of the jovial speech given by Jared Kushner at the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem with pictures on the split TV screen showing the Israeli military killing dozens of Palestinians on the border with Gaza was nothing short of grotesque. So much so that even America’s closest allies, the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council, at a special meeting denounced the Israeli use of force in Gaza and warned of the consequences of moving the embassy to Jerusalem.
Regardless of how shortsighted and ill-informed this strategy is, its repercussions will outlive Trump’s term in office and will marginalize America’s role for years to come. Internal popular upheavals will destabilize many of the region’s countries, tensions between Israel and the Palestinians will spread beyond Gaza’s borders, sectarianism will rear its ugly head, and a war against Iran will not be far away. If Israel and its newfound Gulf Sunni allies declare war on Iran, the United States will end up getting involved despite Trump’s decision to abandon the region. This time it will do so not as a neutral interlocutor but as a party to the conflict on the side of Israel against the Palestinians and on the side of the Sunni Arab autocratic Gulf rulers against Iran.
Analysis of what has transpired regarding Iran and Jerusalem leads to the inevitable conclusion that the Middle East is heading into a period of increased instability, internal upheavals, rising sectarianism, tribal feuds and regional wars, and more misery for the people of the region. Environmental degradation and shortages of clean water and food will mean more poverty, heightened alienation, and anger. Regimes will respond to their peoples’ demands for a decent life viciously and mercilessly, all the while using American weapons and sophisticated technologies for crowd control. Future historians will judge these developments as the embodiment of the Trump-Pompeo-Bolton doctrine and will not be charitable in their judgment.