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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

The view from New York is bleak for Iran

The Trump adminsitration has put on a strong and united front against Tehran at the United Nations General Assembly

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid

From New York this week, the Trump administration has given an overview of the measures it intends to put in place against Iran, warning European countries against any attempt to circumvent the strict sanctions to be imposed on the regime. US President Donald Trump has also dispelled any ambiguity surrounding his administration’s position by reviving the alliance with Saudi Arabia, reversing his predecessor’s attempt to prioritize Iran in the Middle East’s balance of power. As Mr Trump addressed this policy at the General Assembly and the Security Council, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton were laying out the details of the measures against Iran, vowing to respond to any attempts by Iran to shut down waterways or attack US interests in the region.

Meanwhile, many speeches at the UN this year for the first time explicitly referred to Iran’s role in supplying Houthi rebels with missiles, which they have fired at Saudi Arabia, as meetings were held to revive proposals for a political solution, which all sides agree is the only way to end the war in Yemen.

A group of Arab and European states, alongside the US, also launched efforts to support the political process in Syria – the Arab nations particularly focusing on maintaining influence in the Syrian issue, which has recently been monopolised by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. They expressed support for the UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura in his efforts to draft a new Syrian constitution and to clarify presidential powers as part of the political process. Here, the issue of the reconstruction of Syria has become part of the efforts to pre-empt any vindictive intentions by the Syrian president, whether in Syria or in Lebanon; and to nudge him towards gradually separating from Iranian hegemony.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has further escalated his rhetoric against Iran, this time accusing Tehran of storing banned nuclear material, hinting at measures against Iran and Hezbollah. Mr Netanyahu warned against growing Iranian military capability, in Lebanon as in Syria. At the Palestinian level, Mr Netanyahu clung on to his traditional policy, namely, to kill off the two-state solution. However, President Trump unexpectedly expressed his support for the two-state solution again at the UN.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hinted at taking action regarding his security commitments to Israel – perhaps by dissolving the Palestinian Authority and forcing Israel to assume its responsibility as an occupation power. However, Mr Abbas reaffirmed his rejection of armed Palestinian resistance, which would cost Palestinians dearly.

In summation, there were no breakthrough or breath-taking initiatives during the UN General Assembly week. Yet the messages coming out of the meeting of world leaders carry useful indications that can help forecast upcoming US policies in the world.

On Iran, Israel echoed the US in warning the leaders in Tehran and hinting at action inside and outside Iran. Mr Netanyahu complemented the US administration’s rhetoric, describing Iranian leaders as tyrants and extremists who support terrorism. As the Trump administration spoke of punitive measures against Iran, the Israeli prime minister spoke of possible preemptive action against alleged nuclear stockpiles in Iran and positions in Beirut he claimed are housing Hezbollah missiles.

American sources confirm that the Trump administration is categorically opposed to continued Iranian military presence in Syria. Other sources indicate that the administration has given Israel the freedom to take the appropriate decisions against Iran – in Syria and Lebanon. In other words, Hezbollah is not protected under what was previously considered a red line concerning Lebanon’s stability. Should the commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard judge that strengthening Hezbollah in Lebanon with increased missile capabilities is their first line of defence, Washington would not stop Israel from bombing those assets even if they were inside Beirut. Mr Netanyahu produced images before the General Assembly of three positions in the vicinity of Beirut’s international airport that he alleged belonged to Hezbollah, warning the powerful Lebanese militant group that Israel “knows what you're doing, Israel knows where you're doing it, and Israel will not let you get away”.

It is however unclear whether the Trump administration has preapproved Israeli operations against Hezbollah in the Lebanese capital. What is clear is that it has no qualms with any operations against Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal and Iranian capabilities deployed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to expand its influence in the Arab region. Officials in the Trump administration have accused Hezbollah of interfering and meddling in Arab countries, working together with the Popular Mobilization militia in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the Assad regime in Syria. Hezbollah is considered one of the most important assets of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its regional project.

What happens next depends on what action will be taken by Iran. Should Tehran decide to escalate matters, for example through the Popular Mobilization against US soldiers in Iraq, Washington will respond militarily and mightily. If Iran decides to use Lebanon as an arena to make its challenge, Washington will not mind if Israel moves to contain Hezbollah’s capabilities. The dilemma is that this could lead to a full-blown war that Lebanon would pay the price for, given the history of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

Not long ago, as US experts attest, there was a kind of implicit truce between Israel and Hezbollah whereby both sides avoid a war. But Mr Netanyahu’s remarks in New York this week suggest this agreement has been shaken. This has coincided with a sharp escalation against Iran by Trump administration officials, as new sanctions are set to come into effect on November 4, auguring further economic collapse for Iran – all amid growing popular resentment in Iran and demands for the government to end its adventures in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon.

The first two weeks of November will be closely watched in Iran, as the US midterm elections will indicate the strength of Mr Trump’s presidency. If his party loses control of both the House and the Senate, Tehran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will be celebrating and starting to anticipate the return of the Democrats to power with their signature policy of stalling and patience. If the outcome favors the Republican Party, it will be important to see how Tehran reacts – towards reform and de-escalation, or suicide by military escalation.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, said he did not want war with the United States. The US president does not want war either, but a deal that would address the flaws of the original nuclear deal, and an end to Iranian encroachments into Arab countries. For its part, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps wants to press ahead with its expansionist project and refuses reforms, as this would eliminate its raison d’etre.

Clearly, President Trump is serious about Iran. John Bolton may want his boss to be more of a hawk, and Mr Pompeo may have reservations about a hasty deal, but this does not mean there is division in the administration. Sources in the administration stress that the Iran strategy is clear and that everyone is on the same page. Mr Pompeo in particular has formed teams of serious professionals to focus on Iran and Syria in the State Department.

The Trump administration moved collectively at the UN this week to elaborate what would happen if Tehran refuses a deal. Some European countries are attempting to circumvent the US sanctions, by encouraging firms to resist US pressures to withdraw from Iran. However, European firms are more fluent in the language of their business interests, and have so far made it clear to their governments that their sympathy with the rulers in Tehran is not a realistic approach.

Indeed, the Trump administration has resolved to chase down Iran wherever its tentacles extend, in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen – not to mention the increased suspicion of Iranian support for terrorism in Europe and elsewhere through its proxies. The US assessment is that it is time to focus on the source of the problem – in Yemen on Iran’s direct role, in Lebanon on Hezbollah, and in Iraq on the Quds Force.

Talk of regional accords has faltered recently, and the rhetoric between Saudi Arabia and Iran has escalated. Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir, during a meeting with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said Iran has lost in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and finds itself isolated everywhere. Mr Al Jubeir downplayed talk of Iranian pushback, saying Iran had no role in the Arab world except to leave it. If anything, this tone reflects confidence in the US administration’s upcoming measures against Iran, its expansionist policies and capabilities, and the home front.