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The US develops plans to confront Iran

US President Donald Trump got everything he ever dreamed of at the Riyadh summits, from the royal reception, pledges to invest huge sums of money in the US economy, establishment of a new front against terror, putative enlistment of 34,000 reservists from Muslim and Arab countries in the fight against terror in Syria and Iraq, and an Arab and Islamic proposal to normalize ties with Israel in return for peace with the Palestinians, all under US auspices.

This is all valuable ammunition for Trump, who met leaders from more than 55 Arab and Islamic countries in one place, before heading to Israel and Palestine in a successful visit, and then the Vatican and Brussels for a NATO Summit with European allies. Trump has been met with relief for merely choosing dialogue and cooperation instead of confrontation and intransigence, which he had shown as a candidate, especially vis-a-vis NATO.

Trump appeared presidential, and was taken seriously and as someone who is here to stay, even as bad news continued from home, with accusations against him of obstructing justice and covering up suspicious ties with Russia.

There is no other choice for the world but to deal with Trump regardless of his situation at home, because waiting for the conclusion of local political battles or even impeachment is a gamble. But there is a difference between realism and practicality in how to deal with the Trump presidency, and excessively investing in him and pinning too many hopes on him or on the US.

Nothing is permanent in US relations with Arab countries, particularly since permanent American interests in the region do not cover these countries like they do Israel, for example, which has become part of domestic US policy.

Iran is not a fixture of US strategic calculations, and for this reason the current phase of US-Iranian-Arab relations deserves profound analysis, particularly in light of the elections that kept the reformist Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president, and dealt a heavy blow to hard-liners. The needle of the compass in these trilateral relations has yet to settle.

Strong positions were taken and strongly worded statements issued at the Riyadh summits, demanding that Iran stop its incursions into Arab territories and end its support for militias and terror groups.

The joint US-Saudi statement issued at the bilateral summit reaffirmed their determination to work jointly to contain Iranian threats to the region and the world, and Tehran’s interventions in other countries, its ignition of sectarian strife, its support for terrorism and its destabilizing actions in the region.

The statement affirmed the determination to stand up to Iran-backed militias. The two sides also expressed support for the Lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah and make the army the only legitimate armed force.

The holes in these pledges lie primarily in the obstacles to their implementation. Indeed, direct military confrontation is not part of the US strategy vis-a-vis Iran. But the Trump administration has delivered a message that its threats are credible, as the president proved when he bombed Syria and Afghanistan. For this reason, Tehran has to read between the lines of the statement and understand that the threat is real.

If Tehran insists on its crescent project and refuses to submit to accords or escalations, it will find that US generals have made plans to push back against its regional influence in multiple locations.

Raghida Dergham

The men who succeeded so far in shaping foreign policy, despite opposition from neocons in the White House, are the top brass in the so-called Axis of Adults. Their strategic policy on Iran is based on ideas inspired by the surge principle, to regain momentum on the ground as a basis for future accords.

As a starting point, the Trump administration’s main policy on Iran, according to sources close to decision-making circles, will rely on rhetorical, political and economic escalation to isolate it as a state sponsor of terror and of non-state actors intervening in other countries.

The US strategy does not involve military escalation on Iranian soil, but includes facilitating measures against Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, and even Hezbollah in Lebanon, unless accords are reached with Tehran.

The strategy relies on a carrot-and-stick approach. If Tehran understands that Washington is serious about isolating and punishing Iran for its continued regional expansion and changes course, it will find the Trump administration willing to work with it based on progress made on the ground, rather than on floating promises.

In other words, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxies must withdraw from Syria and Iraq and abandon the project for a Persian crescent. In return, Iran would obtain a US promise not to return to the policy of isolation and containment, and to gradually lift sanctions.

But if Tehran decides on escalation and confrontation, it will find Washington ready to draw lines everywhere, according to one informed source who said the US has many options in the framework of its coalitions. “Leave by your own volition, or we will force you to leave,” the source added, summing up the Trump administration’s policy on Iran’s expansionism in Syria and Iraq.

He explained that the US strategy prefers to convince Russia to abandon Iran and Syrian President Bashar Assad, but if that fails then all sides will be made to understand that there will be no coexistence with Iranian expansionism in the region. The official was not talking about American boots on the ground, but about advanced US capabilities providing cover for non-American troops.

Non-US sources expect that the priority for Rouhani, now with a mandate against the hard-liners, will be to avoid confrontation with the US in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran itself. Tehran will not fire the opening shot in any confrontation, but what would Iran do if the US decides to drive out its forces from Syria and Iraq, and to contain its precious Hezbollah in Lebanon?

The answer may lie in the fate of US-Russian relations. If they reach a deal that compels Iran to withdraw from Syria and Iraq, while allowing it to keep its Hezbollah card in Lebanon but with guarantees to neutralize its rocket arsenal, this could be the best possible option in the balance of accords.

But if Tehran insists on its crescent project and refuses to submit to accords or escalations, it will find that US generals have made plans to push back against its regional influence in multiple locations.

Perhaps Tehran will decide to stall and maneuver, hoping Trump’s domestic woes will lead to his impeachment. Trump is the antithesis of his predecessor Barack Obama, who fell in love with Iran and was bent on appeasing it. Perhaps Tehran will judge that its interests lie in waiting until the dust settles in the US battles between the White House, various departments, hawkish neocons and generals of the Axis of Adults, hoping the latter will lose out.

Everything is possible in the US, but logically speaking, even if the investigations establish Trump’s involvement in suspicious ties with Russia and this leads to his impeachment, his policy will be pursued by the vice president. Furthermore, impeachment is a long and complicated process, and is only justifiable if US national security is under threat.

Trump has antagonized the intelligence community and the media. This puts him in danger because he is his own worst enemy. He is arrogant, and refuses to adapt and admit to mistakes. The US since Obama has been deeply divided, and is even more divided now, but Americans do not want their country to collapse. This is why many nations are keen to continue dealing with the Trump administration with professionalism and seriousness.

The Riyadh summits astounded Trump and were truly historic in many ways. Restoring US-Saudi relations is the cornerstone of Saudi national security and ensuring the country’s prosperity.

• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of the Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.

— Originally published in Al-Hayat.