Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 September 2019

Tehran's strategic recklessness, China trade and Erdogan's intransigence – it's going to be a tricky G20 for the Trump administration

The summit is set to be held in Osaka later this month, at an increasingly complex time for international relations

US President Donald Trump will face challenges at the upcoming G20 meeting. EPA
US President Donald Trump will face challenges at the upcoming G20 meeting. EPA

There are no signs yet that Iran’s policy of strategic recklessness is being abandoned. In Tehran’s calculations, escalation is preferable to continued US-led economic strangulation, which has dealt a heavy blow to its economy and is threatening the survival of the regime and its regional projects.

All mediation offers, by anyone from Japan to Russia, Germany and Iraq, have been met with rejection by Iran’s hardliners. For his part, President Trump is resisting being lured into a military confrontation, unless Iran directly attacks US interests.

According to sources quoting high-level officials, such a military confrontation would force the US president to withdraw from the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28. In that case, all the key issues expected to be raised there by world leaders will have to be postponed. There has been talk about a possible meeting between the US and Iranian presidents at the summit, yet how that would be achieved remains to be seen.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of G20 member Turkey intends to request a meeting with Mr Trump to discuss US threats over Mr Erdogan’s refusal to cancel the S-400 missile deal with Russia. Informed sources say Mr Erdogan will receive a firm response from Mr Trump, who will insist that Nato interests override any issue that could represent a threat to the alliance’s security.

Meanwhile, the meeting with Mr Trump that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin wants to be an extensive “workshop” with a clear agenda, will likely end up being carried out “over a cup of tea”, as one source put it. Given the wide chasm between the two powers’ positions on many issues, the US is said to be considering further sanctions against Moscow.

For his part, Chinese President Xi Jinping finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place, with Mr Trump’s trade war on the one hand and the Chinese party and military establishment, which wants him to remain resolute, on the other. In turn, he may have to miss the Osaka summit instead of venturing into an unpredictable confrontation.

What we can expect either way at the summit is further manoeuvring and attempts to impose new givens, such as the military provocations taking place in the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz.

Two weeks ago, I mentioned in this column that the US intends to impose new measures against Turkey coupled with an ultimatum to Mr Erdogan, if he continues to dig in his heels over the S-400 deal, and suggested a possible role for the Turkish military in reasserting the nation’s Nato membership.

This week, the US Congress unanimously approved a resolution demanding that Turkey cancel the deal with the Russians. Washington suspended the training of Turkish pilots in the F-35 programme, while Patrick Shanahan, acting defence secretary, told his Turkish counterparts the pilots may remain in the US until the end of July, which represents a two-month ultimatum. The Trump administration is considering sanctions against Turkey, which would further batter the country’s economy, while the US military could signal to its Turkish counterpart that the future of Turkey’s Nato memberships is in the hands of its generals.

In a televised speech, Mr Erdogan said on Wednesday that he was hoping to convince Washington not to suspend Turkey’s participation in the F-35 programme. Feigning incredulity, he said he would seek answers about why Turkey had been pushed out without “legitimate” or “logical” reasons. But this approach will do little to help his cause in Congress, where everyone is determined to suppress any threat of Russian infiltration of Nato.

Concerning Iran, accusations against Mr Trump of warmongering have receded, after the president made it clear that his endgame is negotiations with Iran and that he was willing to meet with President Hassan Rouhani. Mr Trump also lent support to the mediation initiative launched by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who made an unprecedented visit to Tehran this week, where he held talks with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Concerning Iran, accusations against Mr Trump of warmongering have receded

In truth, Mr Trump’s strategy has proceeded on two parallel tracks: intensifying sanctions while opening the door to negotiation. But Iran continues to refuse to deal with Mr Trump, until he freezes further sanctions and rolls back existing ones.

Ayatollah Khamenei told Mr Abe that he had no response to a message from Mr Trump. This snub is a clear indication of the current Iranian policy. Mr Abe also met with President Rouhani, carrying an invitation to Tehran to “play a constructive role in the Middle East”. Mr Abe said no one wanted war in the region, and hoped his country would be able to play a leading role in de-escalating tensions in the Gulf between the US and Iran. Mr Rouhani said that once the US economic war on Iran stops, “we would see a very positive development in the region and the world”.

There has talk about a potential meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in September in New York, and about a possible earlier meeting in Osaka this month. Some sources say these efforts may succeed, especially since the US president seems adamant about avoiding military confrontation with Iran. Others say the meetings will prove impossible because of recent events and the difficulty of making practical arrangements for the meeting at the G20 summit.

Mr Abe would not be able to give Mr Rouhani a front-row seat, as these are usually exclusive to member states. Mr Abe may have considered organising a special session that Mr Rouhani would address in order to facilitate a meeting, but the attack on an oil tanker bound for Japan blamed by the US on Iran has poured cold water on Tokyo’s push to mediate between the US and Iran.

The attack on the Japan-bound oil tanker, which coincided with Mr Abe’s visit, carries its own implications and political messages. The civilian wing of the Iranian regime, represented by the president and foreign minister, denounced accusations of Iranian responsibility made by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo. However, nations such as the US suspect that is the military wing of the regime, represented by the supreme leader and the hardliners in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is responsible. It is precisely that wing that is now resisting calls by the US president to negotiate. One reason is that they see the purpose of such talks as being an attempt to contain the project of the regime inside and outside Iran, which poses a threat to its raison d’etre. In this context, a message was issued to Japan, its gist being a rejection of its mediation efforts.

Last month, I described Iran’s decision to adopt “strategic recklessness”. The strategy is based on attacking oil interests and other Gulf assets to bring about a US military response.

I put forward the theory that Iran is wagering that Mr Trump would either be forced to abandon his economic strangulation plan because he is loath to engage in a military confrontation, or be forced to respond militarily and thus rally the Iranian people around the regime. In that case, the next step for the Iranian regime would be to claim victory, then engage in secret bilateral negotiations with Washington, focusing on the nuclear issue, while again removing Iran’s regional projects from the table.

Unclaimed attacks were made against four ships in the Strait of Hormuz, near Fujairah, three weeks ago, followed by the recent attacks in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday. Houthi rebels in Yemen have also attacked a number of Saudi oil installations and airports.

The US secretary of state Mike Pompeo officially accused Iran of responsibility for Thursday’s attacks. However, no threats have been issued against Iran that are comparable to those of a “swift and decisive US response” made by Mr Pompeo in May.

For now, Mr Trump seems to have halted any bid to respond militarily to Iranian provocations, and instead wants to nudge Iran into a deal. Yet, Iran refuses to talk unless its conditions are met. On the surface, there isn’t enough common ground between the two positions to facilitate a deal, and there are no signs either side is willing to back down. For this reason, the prospect of military confrontation remains wide open.

Updated: June 15, 2019 07:43 PM

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