An evangelical Pompeo stresses support for Israel, pushes for anti-Iran alliance
WASHINGTON - As US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo finished visits to Kuwait, Israel and Lebanon, full alignment with Israel raised questions about the US strategies in the Middle East, including uncertainties about its ability to mobilise a solid Arab alliance against Iran.
“There are a lot of dynamics at play for this particular trip and this juncture but we’re seeing some incredible precedent-setting here,” said Jason Brodsky, policy director for United Against Nuclear Iran, a Washington think-tank.
It wasn’t by any definition an easy trip: Pompeo worked towards unity among the Arab Gulf countries while emphasising the Trump’s administration’s close ties with Israel and pushing for more sanctions against Iran. This came as the Middle East waited for news of the administration’s “Deal of the Century” plan for Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Pompeo shed a bit of light on the deal March 21, telling the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN): “Evangelicals of the world should know that this is a vision for what might ultimately lead to this resolution of this conflict.
“I think we all want a better life for the Palestinian people. We want a path where the Palestinians and Israelis aren’t in conflict. That would be good for the region, good for Jerusalem, good for the world and I think the plan presents a vision for that but doesn’t sacrifice any of those core principles, frankly, of any of the faiths.”
The US relationship with the Middle East remains especially taut as the administration has fully embraced Israeli actions against the Palestinians and as Israel praises US sanctions against Iran.
“The pressure is working,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said March 20 during a news conference in Jerusalem with Pompeo. “We need to increase it. We need to expand it.”
Pompeo, who called Iran “Israel’s greatest threat,” said: “The ayatollahs have spent four decades spewing hatred, supporting terrorist violence and pursuing nuclear weapons for a war against a neighbour that wishes nothing more than to live in peace. With such threats, a daily reality of Israeli life, we maintain our unparalleled commitment to Israel’s security and firmly support your right to defend yourself.”
The meeting in Jerusalem was particularly symbolic because US President Donald Trump recently moved the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv as recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In response, the Palestinians cut ties with the Trump administration and rejected the “Deal of the Century” without seeing it.
Add to this a US human-rights report removing the word “occupied” from its descriptions of Gaza, Pompeo’s visits just ahead of elections in Israel and an appearance by Netanyahu in the United States in late March and one is left with an impression of a tacit endorsement for him from the Trump administration.
During the CBN interview, Pompeo compared Trump to Persian Queen Esther, citing “the work that our administration’s done to make sure that this democracy in the Middle East, that this Jewish state remains.” That was on Purim, a Jewish holiday celebrating the queen of Persia’s saving the Jewish people from Haman.
“I am confident that the Lord is at work here,” Pompeo said.
When asked if Trump was like Queen Esther, Pompeo said, “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.”
Netanyahu repeated the analogy after Trump posted on Twitter on March 21 that it was “time for the United States to fully recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.”
“We have a miracle of Purim on our hands tonight,” Netanyahu said. “President Trump made history. He recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights at a time when Iran is trying to use the Golan Heights as a platform for the destruction of Israel.”
Pompeo visited the region while Iran entrenched itself further in Syria and Iraq with a meeting March 18 in Damascus that included Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian military leaders.
Brodsky said there is “sensitivity” involved in Pompeo’s visit in Israel because of the elections and because of Netanyahu’s take on the Iranian nuclear deal.
“In term of the optics, the secretary’s visit and [Netanyahu’s] visit to the US… certainly give [Netanyahu] a boost as far as being a world leader on the international stage,” Brodsky said.
Still, he said, the Trump administration needs to be working towards addressing Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians.
“Everyone wants that conflict to be solved,” he said, “but there is an increasing alignment between Israel and the Arab world and that’s an important dynamic for any administration to take advantage of.”
Netanyahu made clear he believes the United States has given him carte blanche to stay in the occupied territories as well as to fight anyone who infringes on Israel’s territory.
“I think it’s time that the international community recognises Israel’s stay in the Golan, the fact that the Golan will always remain part of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said, adding that the United States and Israel have an “unbreakable bond” and “shared interest to fight the enemies of democracy, the enemies of our way of life, the terrorists that plague, that prowl our airspace and prowl our countries.”
The visit came after a trip to Kuwait, where Pompeo was meant to address a rift within the Gulf states.
Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have boycotted Qatar since June 2017 based on a belief that Doha funds extremist groups and works with Iran. Qatar denies funding extremist groups but began to officially work with Iran again after the boycott began.
Kuwait issued a statement with the United States about the third US-Kuwait Strategic Dialogue, stating that they produced “concrete advances in our strategic partnership” in defence and security. Still, it’s impossible to know what’s going on behind the scenes and it may be more hopeful than it appears, said Alireza Nader, founder of New Iran, a Washington think-tank.
“I think we see a broad coalition against Iran or the Islamic Republic,” he said. “Israel and the Gulf states are working together in ways we don’t see. I think this is going to be a positive.”
He cited the February meeting in Warsaw that was meant to promote peace in the Middle East as an example of that.
“We are all working to find a solution,” Pompeo said during a news conference in Kuwait City. “We need the Gulf countries all working together on the complex set of challenges that face each of them.”
Kuwait Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah said: “We focused as well on the peace process in the Middle East and the importance to step up cooperation and coordination between two countries in the [UN] Security Council to solve these issues.”
Pompeo said that Hezbollah has been allowed to grow “almost unchecked,” when explaining his trip to Lebanon.
“This is a nation with a rich, deep tradition and so our mission — the reason I’m going there — is to show them what America is prepared to do to help to push back against the threat from Hezbollah; to tell them that getting anywhere near Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, is of great risk to their nation; and then to work on some of the security aspects of the relationship as well to make sure they understand the threat that Hezbollah’s military power inside of Lebanon poses to that entire country,” Pompeo said March 21.
Pompeo pushed to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation, causing some strife in Trump’s own administration based on the fear that another country could designate military units in the United States as terrorist organisations, the New York Times reported. It could also cause Iraq to limit US troop movements within its borders.
“It would definitely be a precedent-setting move but maximum pressure is maximum pressure,” Brodsky said, referring to the Trump administration’s policy against Iran.
Brodsky said it may be more effective initially to sanction al-Quds Force, an IRGC unit first, saying it may strike a “more careful” balance.
Nader said sanctions against Hezbollah and Al-Hashed al-Shaabi, the Iran-funded militias in Iraq, are part of the “broader US push against Iran” and that the sanctions were working.
Proof of this comes in Nasrallah’s recent request for donations or “financial jihad,” Nader said, adding that Nasrallah has said Hezbollah gets most of its funding from Iran.
The United States has also called for the state-sponsored militias in Iraq and Al-Hashed to be disbanded. Iraq officials have said they won’t participate in the sanctions against Iran but Nader said they’re feeling pressure and are coming up with alternative energy plans.
“It’s pretty amazing how sanctions affect even trade between Iran and Iraq,” Nader said. “I don’t think their allies can help them bypass sanctions.”
Not everyone agrees that maximum pressure is the best policy.
“The hysterical anti-Iran propaganda issuing from the Trump administration matches or exceeds anything from the Bush [administration] in the lead up to the Iraq war,” said US Senator Bernie Sander’s foreign policy adviser, Matt Duss, on social media. He said Sanders is interested in rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.
Julian Castro, a member of former US President Barack Obama’s cabinet and an announced presidential candidate, said he would also re-enter an agreement.
“The Iran nuclear agreement was a landmark achievement that prevented a nuclear-armed Iran for more than three years,” he said on social media March 20. “If Iran continues to comply with the terms of the agreement as determined by the intelligence community, I will re-enter the US into the JCPOA as president.”
JCPOA is the acronym for Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the official name of the Iran nuclear deal.
Democratic senators and presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have also said they would re-enter the agreement if elected president.