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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Trump's two nuclear deals involve a carrot-and-stick approach

While North Korea is on the receiving end of his charm offensive, the US president is using a stick approach with Iran – but it won't succeed without co-operation from Europe, Russia, and China, writes Raghida Dergham

An Iranian boy holds a poster of US President Donald Trump during an anti-Israel rally marking Al Quds Day. Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA
An Iranian boy holds a poster of US President Donald Trump during an anti-Israel rally marking Al Quds Day. Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA

The US president is using a carrot approach with North Korea to persuade them to denuclearise, the carrot being the promise of a shift in security and economic ties with the US. Meanwhile, the stick remains on the table if the carrot doesn’t work.

With Iran, Donald Trump is using the stick – sanctions and political isolation – to convince the regime to reform, rein in its appetite for regional expansion and re-negotiate the nuclear deal to address its shortfalls. But that is not to say there is no carrot for Iran. Indeed, Mr Trump has left it to European powers to try to persuade Iran to enter negotiations on its nuclear programme and curtail its incursions via its proxies into Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Either way, the US president has never said anything to rule out a North Korean approach with Iran’s leaders, just as a summit with Kim Jong-un was once in the realm of fantasy.

Today the ball on Iran is in Europe’s court but the Europeans have not yet grasped it. They risk losing a historic opportunity if they do not overcome the myopia that has marked their recent foreign policy, especially on Iran’s role in Syria and Yemen, where they have turned a blind eye to Tehran’s violations.

By comparison, the Russians are more pragmatic on Iran, particularly in their relations with the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The Russians have not commented on the major operation in Hodeidah, which came less than 10 days after Saudi Arabia and the UAE signed a strategy of resolve. Washington also appears to have consented to the offensive, although it has not declared its open support.

In truth, success in Hodeidah will intensify the two states’ bid to confront Iran’s scheming. For the Gulf, Yemen is a priority in this regard, just as Syria is a priority for the US and Israel, which is determined to prevent Iranian expansion on its borders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has had two productive weeks, hosting the opening of the Fifa World Cup in Moscow, during which he received about 40 heads of state and senior officials, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Mr Putin also received a gift from Mr Trump, who humiliated his G7 allies by demanding they welcome Russia back into the club to make it the G8 again. Alongside China, Mr Putin helped facilitate the historic summit between Mr Trump and Mr Kim, which could lead to North Korean denuclearisation. China would gain if North Korea transformed from a source of chaos to a stable neighbour while the process could also end up reducing the US military footprint in the region as relations are normalised with North Korea.

Mr Kim himself appeared elated beside Mr Trump, who made sure to add his personal touch to the summit, showing the North Korean leader “the beast” – his armoured presidential limousine.

Not many are fond of Mr Trump’s unique charms. He has cultivated many enemies at home and abroad and his allies in Canada and Europe are infuriated by his trade policies and political attitudes.

The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got a personal taste of Mr Trump’s wrath while German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not pleased about having to rally her European partners in the face of American stubbornness. The fact that German firms are defying her policies on Iran by choosing instead to comply with US threats of sanctions if they continue operating there is another source of anger.

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Read more from Raghida Dergham:

Iran's main card is one of subversion – but will it play it?

Syria offers an arena for US-Russian cooperation

Russia is more closely aligned with the Gulf and US than Tehran or Damascus

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Ms Merkel is also aware that she is vulnerable if she continues to embrace the Iranians and exempt them from accountability as an aggressor while Tehran's meddling in other countries is executed through the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and proxies, rather than its own armed forces.

It is this incoherent logic that Mr Trump categorically rejects, a logic expressed by the German ambassador to Lebanon, Martin Hoth. Speaking at the American University of Beirut, Mr Hoth said: "Iran is too big to fail, too big to contain and too big to be defeated." The ambassador was participating in a session with former Iranian diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who claimed Mr Trump’s actions were emboldening “resistance” in the region.

Some say Mr Trump’s stick approach to Iran will not succeed without co-operation from Europe, Russia, and China. Others believe it will be effective because European firms will pressure their governments and because Mr Putin and Mr Trump might reach an accord.

Either way, Trump is determined to see through his policy on Iran, from Syria to Lebanon to Yemen.

Regarding Iraq, there is plenty of uncertainty surrounding the recent election outcome and new political alliances. It is not yet clear what Moqtada Al Sadr's alliance with Hadi Al Amiri will mean for the rest of the region as Mr Al Amiri is a former minister, commander of the Popular Mobilisation militia and the Badr organisation and a close associate of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

It appears that the US has dropped Iraq from its bid to confront Iranian expansion. But is it merely part of a practical sorting of priorities or rather a deeper strategy that would allow Iran to have an influence in Iraq in return for scaling back in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon and agreeing to reform the nuclear deal and its own regime? Is there a grand bargaining chip behind this or is this all part of a provisional tactic?

Some believe Iran will not choose any military confrontation with the US or Israel in Syria but will make do with the status quo and the sanctions. By working to contain the fallout, Tehran can wait out the Trump administration, biding its time until another Barack Obama-type figure takes the White House. However, the cost of this strategy is exactly what Mr Trump is betting o, as he sets out to make the costs for Iran so high as to cancel out the gains from "patience".