Russian diplomacy seemed well reassured now that all players have acknowledged it is the anchor of Syria’s future, distributing spheres of influence and geographical slices as it sees fit. More importantly, Russian-American accords are pressing ahead behind the scenes, in Syria but also soon in Ukraine, despite the public disagreements. While this does not mean that the grand bargain is around the corner, it suggests that the two big players are engaged in a different kind of conversation relative to others.
Contentious issues abound between Washington and Moscow, from North Korea to Iran, and the two sides must adapt at times or pull the strings at others. When it comes to North Korea, the EU is not that important, but with regards to the fate of the nuclear deal with Iran, the Europeans are key because Tehran relies on the EU in the confrontation with Washington, now that Donald Trump has made it clear that he has decided to depart from the principles of his predecessor Barack Obama on Iran, from the nuclear issue to the legitimacy of the regime there as well as its expansion in the Arab world.
Iran is pushing back, but it is anxious. The Gulf countries concerned are reassured by Hurricane Trump at the UN, though questions remain in international circles regarding whether Trump’s announcements at the UN podium represent long-term US policy, or just lip service and verbal escalation by Trump designed to secure compromises. Trump’s description of Iran as a rogue state using its resources to finance the dictatorship of Bashar Assad and Hezbollah and terror groups is one thing, but taking measures to force Iran out of Syria is another. At present, there are many question marks amid the din in America and the silence in Russia, which are both intriguing and suspicious.
One view holds that Trump is escalating to cut the best possible deal. On North Korea, Trump’s threat of total destruction could be a message to China to pressure it to be more serious on the Korean crisis, given the instruments it has in its possession to pressure the North Korean regime. Trump was also keen to slight the communist regime in Beijing in his UN speech, as though launching a round of negotiations with deliberate escalation.
On Iran, Trump has informed all those concerned that the nuclear deal signed by the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany is no longer sacrosanct as it was under Obama, though he did not say he would tear the agreement apart, and raised the possibility of including Iran’s ballistic missile program in a re-negotiated accord. This was categorically rejected by the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who said either the agreement stands as is or does not. Rouhani also made it clear that the EU is extremely central to the fate of the agreement, not just China and Russia. He did not say what his country would do if Trump discarded the agreement. He hid his anxiety and spoke defiantly.
What Trump raised was not just the nuclear aspect of Obama’s pledges, that is, Tehran’s three achievements. Indeed, Barack Obama caved to a fundamental Iranian condition during the nuclear negotiations, namely, to separate its regional role from the nuclear issue. In other words, Obama rubberstamped Iran’s expansionist schemes in the Arab region, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, in the name of safeguarding the deal. Europe did the same. Thus they all sat idly by during the Syrian massacre, silent about Iran’s role there in support of Bashar Assad, and later accepted the bid to reduce the Syrian issue into one of counter-terrorism.
In his speech at the UN, Donald Trump, at least verbally, pledged to discontinue Obama’s approach that had exempted Iran from accountability for its regional violations. That policy had empowered Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to double down on their adventures in Syria, Iraq and Yemen with help from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, rewarding instead of punishing Iran. Donald Trump is saying today that he has decided to reverse this second major achievement by the Islamic Republic, claiming that he will confront Tehran and deny it the trophy of consolidating its presence in Syria and Iraq.
The third Iranian condition that Obama had fulfilled, and now Trump is trying to absolve the US of, is recognizing the legitimacy of the regime in Tehran and pledging not to support its opponents. He said: “The day will come when the Iranian people will face a choice. Will they continue down the path of poverty, bloodshed and terror? Or will the Iranian people return to the nation’s proud roots as a center of civilization, culture, and wealth where their people can be happy and prosperous once again?” Trump spoke at length about the domestic situation in Iran, saying the Iranian government “masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy.”
The US president’s rhetoric in New York has not been matched with concrete action, but it encouraged the Gulf states, for whom Iran remains the priority.
This is a new language in US post-Obama policy, and is close to inciting regime change in Iran. But are these just empty words by Trump, or a radical change to be followed by measures on the ground? There is no clear answer to this, at least for now.
The Gulf countries directly concerned by the crisis with Iran are reassured by Trump’s speech, especially his messages to Iran. One Gulf official said: “We can coexist with Trump withdrawing from Obama’s deal and the nuclear deal. If the ballistic missile program were to be included in the nuclear deal, and Iran’s ambitions and interferences in the region are curbed, then the deal becomes a good deal. Otherwise, the previous years have proven that Obama’s wishes for the deal to become a turning point for Iran, regionally and domestically, were not fulfilled. Neither are the moderates ruling in Tehran, not did Iran roll back its expansionist policies.”
Gulf diplomats admit that the positions of the Trump administration on Iran, beginning with its promises at the Riyadh summit and not ending with Trump’s UN speech, have not been coupled with pressure on the ground on Iran. To date, Iran continues apace with its military, political and economic arrangements in Syria and Iraq without being challenged, except verbally.
What is new perhaps is the introduction of its ballistic missile program to the fray surrounding the nuclear deal, amid a push for a political process in Syria that may lead to curbing Iran’s dominance there, from the US and Gulf perspective.
These countries are currently supporting Russian proposals on Syria, despite the ambiguity surrounding Russia’s deals with Turkey and Iran, and the major Russian role in ensuring the survival of Bashar Assad in alliance with Iran.
They however reject a recent French attempt to bring Iran into the political process in Syria, which would legitimize its role there. France had proposed establishing a contact group comprised of the five permanent members of the Security Council and several concerned countries including Iran. The French president Emmanuel Macron’s initiative is aimed at legitimizing Iran’s role in the political process after the Astana talks involving the three so-called guarantors — Russia, Turkey, and Iran — in coordination with Russia, in support of the efforts of the UN Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura.
France assigns no priority or importance to Iran’s withdrawal from Syria, and remains committed to the priority of safeguarding the nuclear deal at the expense of Arab territory. The threat looming over the fate of the nuclear deal enhances the French and European willingness to continue to turn a blind eye to Iran’s regional ambitions.
The big contradiction in the positions of President Macron lie in his insistence on describing Bashar Assad as a war criminal who must not escape punishment, while insisting on allowing him to remain in power and refusing a specific timetable for his departure. Macron has said repeatedly his enemy is Daesh, not Assad.
What is the Gulf strategy on all this? First to reject Macron’s proposal, although it is a Russian idea, at a time when the Gulf is cooperating with the Russian leadership on a solution in Syria. Second, the Gulf countries will work to unify the Syrian opposition to present themselves as a civil secular voice, as one Gulf figure put it, and engage frankly with Russia. However, this does not mean that Moscow will be convinced of the Gulf view regarding the legitimization of Iran’s role and other issues.
The Gulf priority is to push back against Iran, not just in Syria but also in Iraq, according to the Gulf source, who insists Iraq is the key to confronting Iran. For one thing, challenging Iran in Syria means challenging Hezbollah, which could lead to a regional war. In Iraq, however, the Gulf has a bigger ability to influence. In addition, Iraq has a border with Iran. This does not mean abandoning the priority to remove Iran and its militias from Syria as soon as possible, because failing to do so would lead to the institutionalization of Iranian presence and influence in this Arab nation.
Is there a plan to make this actionable? Is there a serious conversation taking place with the Russians in this regard? No, the Gulf official says. These are mere wishes, a wager that it would become a serious American policy and that the Russians could get on board.
• 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 Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. Twitter: @RaghidaDergham