One of the most discussed issues in Washington, D.C. nowadays is the Iran strategy of the Trump administration. There are too many questions and concerns about the U.S. policy toward Iran following the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the announcement of the new “strategy” in regards to Iran by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Earlier in this column both of these issues were discussed in regards to their implication to the U.S. foreign policy in the region as well as the impact of them to the overall balance of power in the region. Last Wednesday at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) in Washington, D.C., eminent experts on U.S. policy on Iran discussed the potential outcomes.
The lively debate generated more question marks than answers for U.S. policy, however there were several arguments that most of the panelists agreed on. First of all, as it was stated in this column before, there is not a belief among experts that the U.S. had a coherent and comprehensive strategy on Iran. As Barbara Slavin mentioned, it sounds like an attitude instead of a policy. The “strategy” that was presented by Pompeo seems to not be perceived as a strategy but a wish list. Although some of these demands seem potentially negotiable, most of them were considered unfeasible requests by the Iranian regime at this point.
Sanctions, economic measures and trade embargoes seem to be the potential tools that will be used by the U.S. administration against Iran.
Thus, there is a consistent criticism from the U.S. administration in regards to the destabilizing activities of Iran.However there is no sign of a policy or a plan of action to stop this. The panelists agree that the U.S. will not bring boots to the ground to deal with the proxies of the Iranian government in the Middle East. But there are no projections, other than increasing sanctions. The fact that all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members endorsed the sanctions against Hezbollah was considered a sign of this new era. It is also not clear at this point how realistic it is stopping the influence of Iran in the region. Regardless of how much the U.S. tries, many argue that some form of Iranian influence will continue in the region.
Randa Slim argued that in some countries, such as Lebanon and Syria, the U.S. has very limited leverage to curb the Iranian influence. In Iraq there is only a possibility of curtailing the Iranian influence if there are smart steps to do that. Only in Yemen, through direct negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, they can find some form of a solution to stop the violence. There is a general consensus that the withdrawal of the U.S. from the JCPOA will hurt the U.S. attempts to mediate disputes or negotiate for the resolution of conflicts. The fallout in transatlantic relations following the U.S. decision and potential deterioration of relations in case of the adoption of secondary sanctions by the U.S. is considered the biggest geopolitical outcome of the American JCPOA decision.
If the attempts of EU member countries to evade the sanctions fail, a significant question mark will arise about the transatlantic relations. This situation is also expected to provide an opportunity for countries like Russia to fill the void and to be a more significant player in this geopolitical mess. The recent Russian attempt to mediate the issue between Iran and Israel in Syria was specifically mentioned as an example of this process. A significant group of actors in this process is the emerging coalition by countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel against Iran. Hussein Ibish described that these countries are feeling victorious following President Donald Trump’s decision. However the reason for their feeling of victory is not the end of the JCPOA but a potential end for the tendency in U.S. foreign policy to have a major rapprochement with Iran.
Thus it is very clear that Barack Obama’s strategy of generating a geopolitical equilibrium between Sunni and Shiite countries in the Middle East did not resonate well with the Gulf countries. Of course for Israel, the decision was very much welcomed and it has been feeling that it is an active contributor to this process. In May, Israel did not only win the Eurovision song contest and the U.S. Embassy opening in Jerusalem, but it also experienced the U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA. Though, of course experts consider the pact among the UAE, Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a potential strategic alliance against Iran. However, there is also potential fallout because of the Palestinian question. The panel demonstrated that there is no optimism about an opening toward Iran, just like what happened with North Korea – this is due to many different reasons, including the lack of a single leader that determines policy in Iran. But due to the lack of willingness to deal with it on the ground, there is less possibility of an escalation that will go toward the use of force. However sanctions, economic measures and trade embargoes seem to be the potential tools that will be used by the U.S. administration against Iran.
This article was first published by Daily Sabah on June 14, 2018.