What America’s Middle East allies want from Pompeo

What America’s Middle East allies want from Pompeo

The United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Saudi Arabia on Saturday, his first stop in the Middle East since being confirmed by the US Senate last Thursday. That he has made the Middle East and Saudi Arabia his first foray in foreign affairs after confirmation bodes well for the region. US leadership is indispensable in dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, defeating Daesh, and countering Iran’s malign activities.

The short tenure of Rex Tillerson was among the poorest episodes in recent US diplomacy in this region and Pompeo’s appointment is expected to repair the damage done during those 15 months, which witnessed an escalation of violence in the region, significant erosion of US influence, and a rise in the influence of Iran and Russia.

The robust US strategy toward Iran was warmly welcomed when announced by the White House, but there was little in terms of implementation by the State Department during Tillerson’s term, which was marked by near paralysis toward this region. The White House, the Pentagon and other government agencies tried to fill the gap, but the traditional leadership played by the secretary of state was nowhere to be found.

Pompeo starts with clear advantages: He is a politician, a former member of Congress, is close to President Donald Trump, and is familiar with the region through his tenure at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is decisive and bold and keenly aware of the dangers facing the Middle East. 

His muscular diplomacy in dealing with the Korean crisis has already borne fruit with the historical summit on Friday between the two Korean leaders, which has paved the way for a meeting in the near future with Trump. That spectacular diplomatic success has created a momentum for the new secretary of state in addressing the problems of this region.

Pompeo has already called for concerted international action to punish Iran for its missile programs. He arrived in Riyadh shortly after Houthi militias in Yemen had fired missiles at Saudi Arabia in yet another bold escalation by Iran’s proxies. That the Iran-backed Houthis have fired at least 125 ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia during the past three years, plus several thousand shorter-range missiles, highlights the need to rein in Iran’s own missile program and underscores the growing threat emanating from Tehran.

In Syria, dictator Bashar Assad could not last a day in office without Iran’s support. In Lebanon, Iran’s proxy Hezbollah calls the shots. In Palestine, Iran has steadfastly supported infighting, making it difficult for the Palestinian Authority to govern and advance the cause of peace. In Iraq, Iranian-supported factions are attempting to return the country to the divisive, sectarian policies of the past.

Pompeo summed up the problem when he said in Riyadh that “Iran destabilizes this entire region.” 

At the most recent GCC Summit held in Kuwait in December 2017, the bloc’s leadership endorsed the policy of the Trump administration against Iran and its desire to improve the terms of the nuclear agreement. While differences exist over its dealing with the Palestine question, especially the US decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem, the GCC and the US have expressed their determination to work together on the region’s problems.

The GCC and the US established the Strategic Cooperation Forum in March 2012 as a platform to address those issues. The forum was quite active during the tenures of previous secretaries of state, but was rarely utilized by Tillerson. Similarly, the GCC and the US established a strategic partnership in May 2015, announced at the conclusion of the first GCC-US Summit at Camp David. That partnership was reemphasized during the second summit in Riyadh in April 2016, and given a great shot in the arm during the third, which was attended by Trump in Riyadh in May 2017.

Pompeo's spectacular diplomatic success in Korea has created momentum for addressing Iran's meddling in the Middle East.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

The Strategic Cooperation Forum and the three summits relied on a robust system of engagement, especially in security and political areas, with a focus on countering terrorism and Iran’s malign activities. Scores of meetings at different levels have been held since the establishment of the forum in 2012. However, those meetings have become less frequent over the past 15 months and Pompeo needs to change that.

Pompeo could utilize those structures to generate support on how to impose tougher sanctions against the Iranian individuals, businesses and government agencies involved in missile development and supporting terrorism. 

In Syria, the last 15 months have seen the US move from a leading position in resolving the crisis to the back seat, and to threats of leaving Syria altogether. A more coherent and sustainable policy is needed. 

In Yemen, while there is significant security engagement between the US and its allies in the region, there is a need for more coordination to push the political process forward, as well as to stabilize the areas that have come under government control.

The US plan to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem in mid-May, if true, would play into the hands of Iran and its proxies and could contribute to destabilizing the West Bank. Gaza has already erupted in violent clashes, in part out of despair for a political solution and the anticipated embassy move.

The US is undermining its own strategy on countering Iran and terrorism when it moves its embassy to Jerusalem or talks about withdrawal from Syria. There is nothing Iran would like more than to see the US out of Syria, because that would help its ambitions of establishing a permanent proxy there. The Jerusalem embassy move would also provide Iran with fresh ammunition to embolden its proxies and recruit terrorists in the name of the Palestinian cause.

  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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