Washington was preoccupied this week with the fallout from the sacking of FBI Director James Comey. The move has brought back President Donald Trump’s arbitrary tendencies to mind, after a time in which he appeared to have adapted to the solemnness of the presidential office and the need for a well-choreographed functioning of his administration.
The decision to sack Comey also brought back talk of impeachment. Comparisons were made between this incident and Richard Nixon’s firing of Attorney General Archibald Cox in 1973, and the late president’s subsequent impeachment.
The main concern over Comey’s sacking comes from links between some Trump aides — such as former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — and Russia during the election campaign, and their continuation despite FBI warnings. Suspicions have followed Trump himself that he may have ties with Moscow that could make him vulnerable to blackmail.
The matter not only touches on feelings of anger over Russia’s alleged interference in US presidential elections, but mainly American national security if the allegation is true. A segment of the US public is ready to hold Trump accountable and even put him on trial, and is convinced he is involved up to his ears. Another segment mocks the claims, citing tense the current state of Russian-US relations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Washington on the day Comey was fired. Talking to reporters, he took a jocular tone when he was asked about the affair and links to Russia, as if he was saying he had more important issues to discuss with his counterpart Rex Tillerson and with Trump.
Before going off course with the sacking, the Trump administration was in the process of developing crucial policies. These included reviving direct US intervention against terror with European and Gulf allies, who would provide funds and some boots on the ground for the US-led surge in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
The visit by Trump to Saudi Arabia this month will not just discuss important bilateral ties, but will include an Arab-American-Islamic Summit that will set a precedent on many levels. From the summit in Riyadh, US-Gulf relations and traditional security guarantees will be rejuvenated.
Resetting America’s regional relations to before former President Barack Obama’s engagement with Iran will provide substantial fuel for the talks. But it is important not to over-interpret the Trump administration’s positions to suit wishful thinking, because this could have dangerous implications.
Iran — the elephant in the room — is expected to be absent from the summit hosted by King Salman, with Trump the guest of honor. But it will be present in the conversations, including on security balances in the Gulf, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, as well as on the Palestinian issue and relations between the US and the Middle East.
Anyone who reads Trump’s firm language with Iran as a green light for regime change or military confrontation is wrong. The Trump administration is clear that it is not preparing for war with Iran. It is saying Iran needs to withdraw to its borders, stop its incursions in other countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and end its destabilizing tactics and terrorist instruments.
If not, the US and its allies have means other than war to pressure Tehran. Washington is certain that the rule of the mullahs and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will eventually implode without the need for a US nudge or a war that would be unpopular in America.
An Iranian strategist said it more clearly: “Iran will not win as long as its borders have expanded to Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon.” Controlling mobile borders is not possible, no matter how well Tehran presents its project and how many formidable militias and IRGC troops it deploys.
Following his meeting with Lavrov, Trump called on Moscow to rein in the Syrian regime, Iran and Tehran’s proxies. Several senior figures in his administration have firmly said they intend to prevent Tehran from claiming the victory against Daesh and seizing territories recovered from the group.
This would deny Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, the chance to cement his image as a hero who supposedly protected Iran from, and defeated, Daesh in Iraq and Syria. That task is now being handled by the US-led coalition in Iraq, and a new coalition led by the Trump administration, comprising Arab and Western countries and Syrian factions, much to Iran’s chagrin.
If investigations prove that senior members of Trump’s campaign solicited Russian intervention in the elections, the cards will be reshuffled radically. Then talk of accords or a grand bargain will no longer be realistic because of the specter of impeachment.
On the other hand, there is increasing talk of an Israeli military strike against Hezbollah to destroy its rockets because there is a window of opportunity for this. Those behind this forecast, mainly sources in Kuwait and Lebanon, say Israel intends to devastate Lebanon because the bunkers housing Iranian rockets are deep underground.
But forecasting Israeli strategy is not an exact science, and appears closer to speculation, based on querying several security and political sources. They say the Trump administration is not in favor of an Israeli war in Lebanon. Rather, it wants security guarantees for Israel by preventing a Hezbollah or Iranian presence in the Syrian Golan Heights, in agreement with Russia.
The issue of the containment of Hezbollah and its rockets will be subject to a regional and international sorting of relations, including with Iran. Furthermore, Tehran is not in the process of giving Israel excuses to eliminate its strongest card: Hezbollah. There seems to be a Russian-American, regional and international accord to prevent Lebanon from becoming an arena for a new Israeli war.
The Trump administration has a strong desire to achieve secure and recognized borders for Israel vis-a-vis Arab and Islamic countries. This may well be one of the issues Trump carries to the Riyadh summit before heading to Israel, his next stop in his first foreign tour as president.
Saudi Arabia proposed the Arab Peace Initiative, endorsed by the Arab League, but Israel has yet to accept it even though it calls for normal relations with more than 50 Arab and Muslim nations. So perhaps the Riyadh summit will come up with new incentives to assist Trump’s quest for a breakthrough in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Trump last week met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington, and may meet him again with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he visits Israel and Palestine after Saudi Arabia, and before he flies to meet the pope in the Vatican.
The Saudi reception being prepared for Trump will no doubt stir some envy in Moscow. On Victory Day, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared isolated, with no heads of state from the West, China or even former Soviet republics showing up. Putin is desperate for Russia to be taken as seriously as the US, but Europe is hindering him and Syria has not brought him this privilege yet. The putative deal with Trump tempts him, but not without limit.
Putin is tense, despite important visits from Germany’s chancellor and Turkey’s president, and despite the US re-joining the Astana process for a cease-fire and de-escalation in Syria. Putin wants a bilateral summit with Trump, not just a quick meeting on the sidelines of a G20 Summit. He must be furious that he has yet to be invited to Washington, which has already been visited by several other world leaders.
Even if the reason behind this is Trump’s hesitation and concerns over the investigations into suspicious ties with Russia, it is difficult for Putin to swallow Trump’s dithering on a summit that the master of the Kremlin sorely needs in an election year.
Tensions are also fueled by US and European proposals in current bargaining on several issues. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and before her Tillerson, have made clear that Russia must withdraw from the Donbass region in Ukraine and hand over the borders to Kiev as a precondition for the Minsk II agreement.
Moscow believes it can give and take on Donbass (but not on Crimea) after the political component of Minsk II is implemented. This is in relation to Ukraine and the lifting of Western sanctions on Russia.
The even more complicated issue in the context of a grand bargain is that senior members of the Trump administration have made clear to their Russian counterparts that Moscow needs to change its policies in Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan. Senior members of the Trump administration are also keen on Russia ending its interference in Western elections.
If investigations prove that senior members of Trump’s campaign solicited Russian intervention in the elections, or that there were suspicious ties between men in the White House and in the Kremlin, the cards will be reshuffled radically. Then talk of accords or a grand bargain will no longer be realistic because of the specter of impeachment.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the UN. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP — the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.
— Originally published in Al-Hayat.