Shifts likely in US policies on Iran, Gulf after US diplomacy’s reset

Given the record of the secretary of state nominee, Iran is preparing for a possible US exit from the JCPOA.
Sunday 18/03/2018
Heads of the US intelligence agencies, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo (C), testifiy before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington, last May. (AFP)
Out of the shadows. Heads of the US intelligence agencies, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo (C), testifiy before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington, last May. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Friends and foes of the United States in the Middle East are preparing for a tilt in Washington’s approach to issues ranging from Iran to Syria and the Qatar crisis as US President Donald Trump is proposing to put a pair of hawks sharing much of his mindset into key positions following the unceremonious ouster of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Tillerson, a former oil company executive with accommodationist views, is expected to be replaced by Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director and a supporter of tough measures against Iran as well as a follower of Trump’s populist agenda. Pompeo’s designated successor at the CIA is Gina Haspel, a career intelligence official.

Pompeo and Haspel could face opposition during confirmation hearings in the US Senate. At least one Republican senator, Rand Paul, said he would oppose both candidates, a worrying sign for the administration because Trump’s party has a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate.

Human rights groups said they would call on senators to sink Haspel’s nomination. She is accused of having run a secret CIA prison in Thailand in 2002, where torture was allegedly practised against detainees.

If confirmed, Pompeo, a former conservative member of Congress from Kansas who is very close to Trump as the official delivering the daily intelligence reports to the president, is likely to reduce friction between the White House and the State Department. Conflicting messages from Washington sowed confusion and eroded trust in US policies in the Middle East under Tillerson’s tenure. Now that he is leaving, an increased alignment behind Trump’s positions is likely.

Allies and adversaries of the United States in the region can expect a change in tone after the ouster of the low-key Tillerson. “Pompeo’s style, like Trump’s, is based on confrontation rather than dialogue,” the New Yorker magazine said in a profile of the designated diplomat.

Trump praised the “very good chemistry” between Pompeo and him and pointed out major differences with Tillerson. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was OK,” Trump said. “I wanted to either break it or do something and he felt a little bit differently.”

The president is unlikely to experience that kind of problem with Pompeo, who, like Trump, regards the Iran nuclear treaty as a disaster. Pompeo has also called for regime change in Tehran.

Trump will have to decide by May whether to take the United States out of the international accord, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or not.

Given the record of the secretary of state nominee, Iran is preparing for a possible US exit from the JCPOA. “The United States is determined to leave the nuclear deal and changes at the State Department were made with that goal in mind — or at least it was one of the reasons,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said.

Streamlining positions between the president and the secretary of state could clarify the US stance on the row between Qatar and a Saudi-led bloc of Arab countries. While Trump took Saudi Arabia’s side, Tillerson sought to accommodate the Qataris and tried his hand at mediation in the Gulf region. As Pompeo takes over, Washington could move clearly into the Saudi corner and unsettle Doha’s US strategy.

Pompeo’s nomination was predictably welcome news for US allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz is expected in Washington for talks in the coming days.

Turkey has formally expressed its wish to work with Pompeo but Turkish newspapers reminded their readers that Pompeo had called their country a “totalitarian Islamist dictatorship” after a failed coup in 2016.

A push for a more robust position could also be imminent in US policies towards Syria. “Mike Pompeo’s appointment as secretary of state is likely to embolden those within the Trump administration who seek to further amplify a more assertive posture within the Syrian crisis,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, wrote in an analysis.

Pompeo has called Syrian President Bashar Assad a “puppet of the Iranians.” The same view could apply to Iran’s encroachment in Iraq.

Pompeo’s influence on Washington’s role in the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians is unclear because that issue has been the realm of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. However, some observers expect the State Department to play a more active role under Pompeo because he is a member of Trump’s inner circle, which Tillerson never was.

“No one has a stronger relationship with President Trump than Mike Pompeo,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said in a statement.

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