Impeachment inquiry may embolden Iran to escalate

Impeachment inquiry may embolden Iran to escalate

US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in New York on September 25, 2019, on the sidelines of the UNGA. (AFP)

Despite strenuous efforts by Emmanuel Macron and other European leaders, the chances of a Donald Trump-Hassan Rouhani meeting at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) were always slim because of the tremendous gap between the two sides. There was probably some agreement, as reported by the Europeans, on the desired outcome — a meeting to explore expanding the nuclear deal and discuss Iran’s regional conduct. However, Iran’s precondition of lifting the sanctions first made a meeting impossible.

Another reason that a Rouhani-Trump meeting was unlikely was the fiery verbal attacks made during their speeches in the general debate at the UNGA. On the first day of the debate, Trump warned the world not to “subsidize Iran’s bloodlust,” having European powers and also Russia and China in mind. He also took Iran to task for sponsoring terrorism and promised more sanctions if Iran continued its malignant behavior in the region.

The next day, Rouhani launched an unintelligible tirade against Trump and American aggression, first accusing the US of committing “economic terrorism” and inciting conflict and violence in the region. There was no hint of irony in Rouhani’s self-pity, despite the fact that, just 11 days earlier, he had ordered unprecedented attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations, and that Iran has engaged in destructive behavior throughout the region. In Syria alone, Iran enabled Bashar Assad to massacre 500,000 of his own people and disperse millions more. In Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, it weaponized sectarian differences to ignite civil strife.

To meet so quickly after those public putdowns would have caused the Iranians in particular to lose face. It is true that both Trump and Rouhani ultimately raised the possibility of a meeting, but in each case it appeared to be an afterthought, not enough to paper over the differences or erase the stings of their scorching words.

But perhaps the most important reason was the start of the impeachment inquiry in Washington, which understandably became the main issue at the White House. A meeting with Rouhani would have been a distraction and could have backfired if no positive results came out of it.

More alarmingly for the Gulf conflict, Rouhani may have seen the impeachment process as a sign of American weakness. Despite Iran’s obsession with America, Iranian leaders appear at times to be naive about American politics. The prospect of Trump’s impeachment appears to have hardened Iran’s position and may embolden it to escalate, rather than seek an accommodation. Relying on the headlines, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and the rest of the Iranian leadership betrayed a naivete about the US antipathy toward Iran. Despite some minor differences, longstanding US animosity toward Iran is shared by both political parties and by the public at large. Even Barack Obama, who is considered to be the most dovish president when it came to Iran, used biting sanctions to get Iran to negotiate and was clear-eyed about its malignant and destabilizing activities in the region.

Despite Iran’s obsession with America, Iranian leaders appear at times to be naive about American politics.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

Iranians seem to think that, during the impeachment process, Trump’s hands will be tied and he will be unable to wage war or make peace. However, history shows that American presidents have taken decisive actions up until the end of their terms, despite impeachment or electoral loss. If the current inquiry does not result in the impeachment of Trump, he would be strengthened and his electoral chances may improve. If he is impeached, it is not expected that the Republican-controlled Senate would remove him from office. In either case, Trump could dismiss that the whole affair was a “witch-hunt” by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

Considering the antipathy Americans of all political stripes feel toward Iran, challenging it, militarily or by other means, could further help Trump’s chances of winning the 2020 election. If he does win, a second-term Trump would be less shy about standing up to Iran. Even if Trump loses the election, there will be more than two months of his presidency when anything could happen.

For all these reasons, Iran should not miscalculate and choose escalation in the mistaken belief that the US would not react during the impeachment affair, or that the world would look away if Iran continued its attacks on international shipping and Saudi energy infrastructure. It should have been clear from the opening of the UNGA that Iran has very few friends left and it could even lose them if it continues its destructive path.

The building blocks for a global coalition are being assembled in the Gulf by the US and its allies, which should make further attacks futile. The 30-nation Combined Maritime Forces based in the Gulf is on alert. The International Maritime Security Construct is growing in membership and affiliated countries to safeguard international shipping in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council member states are raising their preparedness levels and closing gaps in their air defenses.

The US and its allies should stay the course to prevent Iran from continuing or escalating its asymmetric warfare in the region, either directly or through its proxies. It is important that the US tightens the sanctions regime to starve the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies of funds. US allies should do the same. Covert activity is also on the table to make it difficult for them to continue spreading mayhem in the region.

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