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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

America's paper tiger puts too much faith in Putin

The current tug-of-war taking place between the two sides of the Atlantic over the Iranian nuclear deal is about the nature and effectiveness of sanctions, writes Raghida Dergham

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will both be raising the Iran nuclear deal with US President Donald Trump when they visit Washington this month. Geert Vanden Wijngaert / AP
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will both be raising the Iran nuclear deal with US President Donald Trump when they visit Washington this month. Geert Vanden Wijngaert / AP

Both the White House and the Kremlin have decided to move on from the diplomatic and military escalation in Syria last week while stressing there would not be any direct confrontation between the two countries despite all the belligerent rhetoric. Yet this decision is not the product of any new thinking.

Indeed, the White House faction that has the president’s ear believes Russia is a necessary partner in any long-term containment of China and more immediately, of Iran and Turkey. However, the mistrust between the US and Russia is still there, even as US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have decided to rein in the tensions that peaked with the drama in Syria, at least on the surface.

The question now is whether the two men are ready for and interested in a serious bargain on bilateral and geopolitical issues or whether they are content for now with the implicit accords between them for de-escalation, which serves both their domestic, personal and strategic interests.

After the limited US-led strikes in Syria, Mr Trump appeared a paper tiger. He had drowned the world with a Twitter storm of threats of smart, decisive and crippling action in response to the alleged deployment of chemical weapons in Douma, accusing Russia and Iran of enabling Bashar Al Assad to use these prohibited tactics.

However, Trump immediately backed down after the one-off strike. Mr Trump can no longer deride his predecessor Barack Obama for backtracking from his Syrian "red line" as he has done little more. The result will be that Russia, Iran, the Syrian regime and their allies will conclude they have nothing to fear from the American paper tiger.

Perhaps the Europeans had something to do with diluting the US strikes, as the coalition of the willing suggested European hesitation had slowed down US resolve.

And indeed, what is happening now in the context of American-European deliberations on reconfiguring the nuclear deal with Iran indicates Europe’s capitals have sensed Mr Trump’s weakness and decided to stake their bets on him backing down from the full range of his threats – just as he did in Syria – letting Iran off the hook.

The European troika, which includes Germany, Britain, and France, wants to fortify the nuclear deal with Iran. But Washington is pressuring them to agree to new sanctions on Iran ahead of the May 12 deadline set by Mr Trump to review the US sanctions on Iran suspended since the deal was signed.

Robert Wood, the US permanent representative to the conference on disarmament, said the US was specifically concerned about the deal’s failure to include Iran’s ballistic missile programme, Iran’s behaviour in the Middle East and its clauses freeing Iran from restrictions on its nuclear programme after 10 years from the date it was signed.

This is where the Syrian issue enters American-European deliberations, with one view insisting Mr Trump is waiting for the May deadline to teach Tehran a lesson regarding its role in the Syrian chemical atrocities.

However, others discount any relationship between the two issues and predict Mr Trump’s enthusiasm for pulling out from the deal will wane. The most the White House will get, this view says, is additional sanctions that the Europeans would agree to as a way of containing the US thrust to abolish the deal with Tehran.

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Read more from Raghida Dergham:

The art of the deal needs Russia to succeed

What Trump's Syria withdrawal tells us about the future of US foreign policy

The militarisation of US foreign policy with the appointment of John Bolton

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The current tug-of-war taking place between the two sides of the Atlantic is therefore about the nature and effectiveness of those sanctions. In the meantime, European governments are resisting any linkage between the nuclear deal and Iran’s role in the Middle East.

Hundreds of parliamentarians from Britain, Germany and France have signed a joint letter to Congress asking it to intervene to stop Mr Trump from ripping up the deal and causing lasting damage. They hinted that doing so could push Europe closer to China and Russia as an alternative to the alliance with the US to protect the nuclear deal. What these parliamentarians with no conscience have omitted is the fact that it was the nuclear deal that allowed Iran to export weapons and fighters to fight alongside Mr Al Assad in Syria and enable his massacres and chemical atrocities.

Some in the White House understand such European positions to mean that any hope that Europe could be part of the efforts to curb Iran in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon is a losing one. To them, the most effective way to rein in Iran’s ambitions is to cut a deal with Mr Putin.

The division within the Trump administration is still there. Not everyone in the White House adopts the view that a US-Russian partnership is the way to contain Iran, Turkey, and China. Another faction believes force is the only language that Mr Putin understands and that Russia would never abandon Iran and Mr Al Assad. In their view, all the apparent de-escalation by Mr Putin is the result of US sanctions imposed earlier this month, which have caused the Russian ruble to tumble down to its lowest levels in four years and the stock market to dip in Russia.

Mr Putin has relented before signing a bill proposed by the Duma to impose retaliatory sanctions, which is expected to be passed in mid-May. He is fully aware of the damage caused by western sanctions on Russia’s economy since annexing Crimea in 2014 and is ready to make compromises because Russia will not be able to weather an economic war with the West under sanctions.

Mr Trump must have felt Mr Putin’s pain and contradicting his envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, signalled he does not intend to impose new sanctions on Russia. In Syria, Mr Trump was keen to give Mr Putin plenty of opportunity not only to protect his assets from US missiles but also Mr Al Assad and Iran to relocate their forces away from the targeted sites.

Only last week, the two men were at their most bellicose. Now they put their narcissism on the shelf, dancing around each other without fully embracing. It is difficult to trust these two leaders as their personal traits lead us to expect difficult times ahead before any grand bargain between them matures.

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