Rex Tillerson sacking signals tougher line on Tehran

The dismissal of Tillerson came after a series of public rifts between the president and his top diplomat over hot-button issues such as North Korea and Russia. (AFP/file photo)
Updated 14 March 2018
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Rex Tillerson sacking signals tougher line on Tehran

NEW YORK: US President Donald Trump’s decision to sack Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may signal hard-line foreign policy shifts on Iran and the Qatar dispute, analysts told Arab News. 
The dismissal of Tillerson, and the appointment of Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, as his successor, came after a series of public rifts between the president and his top diplomat over hot-button issues such as North Korea and Russia — although the president yesterday thanked the outgoing secretary of state for his service.
But it was their disagreement over the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump had pledged to scrap during his election campaign, that the US leader referred to when explaining his decision on Tuesday.
“We got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things,” Trump told White House reporters.
“When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something and he felt a little bit differently, so we were not really thinking the same.” 
Jonathan Cristol, a fellow at the World Policy Institute think tank, said that after Tillerson’s removal, the administration might crack down on Iran and a nuclear deal on which Trump is expected to make his final decision in mid-May.
“This may be the death knell for the Iran deal,” Cristol told Arab News. 
“Tillerson was one of the leading voices in the administration for renegotiating the pact. With him gone, and Pompeo moving things to the right, at the very least we can expect harsher language against Tehran.” 
Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group, echoed this on Twitter, saying: “The writing seems even more clearly on the wall as to the fate of the Iran deal” following the State Department reorganization.
The reshuffle may also signal a shift on US policy on the Qatar crisis. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt cut travel and trade ties with Doha last June, accusing it of supporting terrorism and Iran. Qatar denies the charges.
While Trump accused Doha of funding terrorism at a “very high level,” Tillerson tried to ease tensions by signing an anti-terror financing deal with Qatar the following month and was working on a Camp David rapprochement summit of Gulf leaders in May.
That policy divergence last summer came at the same time that Tillerson was reported to have privately called Trump a “moron” after the US leader suggested a 10-fold increase in the US nuclear arsenal. 
Steven Cook, an analyst at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said Tillerson’s sacking will be welcomed in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which wanted US support to leverage major policy shifts in Qatar.
“I am guessing that the folks in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are pretty happy right now. Tillerson was regarded as pro-Qatar,” Cook said.
Cristol agreed, but said that Tillerson was not a lone voice in the administration seeking to maintain stability in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
“US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will ensure that there are no changes and that the US remains committed to Qatar regardless of what the president tweets,” said Cristol, while attending a conference in Doha.
“It was widely understood that Tillerson did not have good relations with Trump and was on borrowed time, so his actual influence on policy was questionable. While we may see a move to the right, Mattis and the Pentagon may ensure policy is reasonably stable.”
The biggest shakeup of Trump’s Cabinet since he took office more than a year ago was announced on Twitter, and came as the administration prepares for key meetings on North Korea and the Middle East.
A senior White House official said Trump asked Tillerson to step down on Friday, but did not want to make the dismissal public while he was on a trip to Africa. Trump’s announcement came only a few hours after Tillerson landed in Washington when the trip was cut short.
The official said Trump works well with Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, and wanted him in place before planned talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and trade negotiations.
 


Some see signs of hope on North Korea as Trump heads to UN

Updated 29 min 26 sec ago
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Some see signs of hope on North Korea as Trump heads to UN

  • In the year since Trump’s searing, debut UN speech fueled fears of nuclear conflict with North Korea
  • The two leaders have turned from threats to flattery

WASHINGTON:North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is “little rocket man” no more. President Donald Trump isn’t a “mentally deranged US dotard.”
In the year since Trump’s searing, debut UN speech fueled fears of nuclear conflict with North Korea, the two leaders have turned from threats to flattery.
And there’s fresh hope that the US president’s abrupt shift from coercion to negotiation can yield results in getting Kim to halt, if not abandon, his nuclear weapons program.
Trump will address world leaders at the United Nations on Tuesday on the back of an upbeat summit between South and North Korea, where Kim promised to dismantle a major rocket launch site and the North’s main nuclear complex at Nyongbyon if it gets some incentive from Washington.
North Korea remains a long, long way from relinquishing its nuclear arsenal, and the US has been adding to, not easing, sanctions. Yet the past 12 months have seen a remarkable change in atmosphere between the adversaries that has surprised even the former US envoy on North Korea.
“If someone had told me last year that North Korea will stop nuclear tests, will stop missile tests and that they will release the remaining American prisoners and that they would be even considering dismantling Nyongbyon, I would have taken that in a heartbeat,” said Joseph Yun, who resigned in March and has since left the US foreign service.
Since Trump and Kim held the first summit between US and North Korean leaders in Singapore in June, Trump has missed no chance to praise “Chairman Kim,” and Kim has expressed “trust and confidence” in the American president he once branded “senile.”
But progress has been slow toward the vague goal they agreed upon — denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which has eluded US presidents for the past quarter-century. The US wants to achieve that by January 2021, when Trump completes his first term in office.
Although Kim won’t be going to New York next week, meetings there could prove critical in deciding whether a second Trump-Kim summit will take place any time soon.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has invited his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho for a meeting in New York, and Trump will be consulting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, fresh from his third summit with Kim this year. It was at that meeting in Pyongyang that the North Korean leader made his tantalizing offers to close key facilities of his weapons programs that have revived prospects for US-North Korea talks.
Yun, who spoke to reporters Friday at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, said the US goal of achieving denuclearization in just two years is unrealistic, but the offer to close Nyongbyon, where the North has plutonium, uranium and nuclear reprocessing facilities, is significant and offers a way forward.
That’s a far cry from last September. After Trump’s thunderous speech, Yun’s first thought was on the need to avoid a war. The president vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if the US was forced to defend itself or its allies against the North’s nukes. “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime,” the president said.
His blunt talk triggered an extraordinary, almost surreal, exchange of insults. Kim issued a harshly worded statement from Pyongyang, dubbing the thin-skinned Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard.” A day later, the North’s top diplomat warned it could test explode a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean.
Tensions have eased hugely since then, and cracks have emerged in the international consensus on pressuring North Korea economically to get it to disarm.
The US accuses Russia of allowing illicit oil sales to North Korea. Trump has also criticized China, which has fraternal ties with the North and is embroiled in a trade war with the US, for conducting more trade with its old ally. Sanctions could even become a sore point with South Korea. Moon is eager to restart economic cooperation with North Korea to cement improved relations on the divided peninsula.
All that will increase pressure on Washington to compromise with Pyongyang — providing the incentives Kim seeks, even if the weapons capabilities he’s amassed violate international law. He’s likely eying a declaration on formally ending the Korean War as a marker of reduced US “hostility” and sanctions relief.
That could prove politically unpalatable in Washington just as it looks for Kim to follow through on the denuclearization pledge he made in Singapore.
Frank Aum, a former senior Pentagon adviser on North Korea, warned tensions could spike again if the US does not see progress by year’s end, when the US would typically need to start planning large-scale military drills with South Korea that North Korea views as war preparations. Trump decided to cancel drills this summer as a concession to Kim.
“Things can flip pretty quickly,” Aum said. “We’ve seen it going from bad to good and it could fairly quickly go back to the bad again.”