US push to isolate Iran in region faces challenges, uncertainties

“I think Pompeo’s visit is clearly more about helping get Netanyahu re-elected [than countering Iran]," said Hugh Lovatt, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Sunday 24/03/2019
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) attends a news conference with Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah in Kuwait City, March 20. (AFP)
Addressing threats. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) attends a news conference with Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah in Kuwait City, March 20. (AFP)

LONDON - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Kuwait, Israel and Lebanon to counter Iranian influence in the region but Washington’s move to pressure Tehran faces many challenges.

In Kuwait, Pompeo called for an end to the rift between Arab Gulf countries so they could forge a united front against threats of the region.

“We all have the same set of threats, the threats from al-Qaeda and from [the Islamic State], the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said Pompeo at a news conference with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah.

Gulf divide 

Three Gulf countries — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — and Egypt accuse Qatar of supporting extremist groups and fostering close ties with Iran, an allegation dismissed by Doha as untrue and politically motivated.

The four Arab countries have boycotted Qatar since June 2017 and, despite mediation efforts by Kuwait and US pressure, the rift continues. It remains unclear how Pompeo’s effort change the situation.

In Israel, Pompeo met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a vocal critic of Tehran, but some aspects of the visit were considered by observers to be counterproductive in the anti-Iran efforts.

Dead deal

The visit came during campaigning for Israel’s April 9 elections, which gave implicit US support to Netanyahu in the race.

“I think Pompeo’s visit is clearly more about helping get Netanyahu re-elected [than countering Iran],” Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Arab Weekly.

Despite a shared concern by Arab countries and Israel towards Iranian policies in the region, the same Arab states are not fully on board with the Mideast peace plan to be proposed by US President Donald Trump. The plan is broadly expected in the region as likely to favour Israel at the expense of Palestinians, which makes its success unlikely.

“Regarding the ‘Deal of the Century,’ whatever is said in public, few actors believe that it will be anything but dead on arrival,” Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, told The Arab Weekly. 

'Incoherent' US policies

Pompeo’s tour coincided with a surprise announcement by Trump on Twitter that the United States would “fully recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” a Syrian territory under Israeli occupation since 1967.

Trump’s remarks drew condemnation from the European Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who said the move “comes outside the international legitimacy and no country, no matter how important it is, can make such a decision.”

Coming just ahead of the March 31 Arab summit, Trump’s move could fuel anti-US stands in the region and does not help the containment of Iranian policies.

“Regional actors, even those opposed to Tehran, generally view the US anti-Iran policy as being incoherent and ineffective. Recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Syrian Golan won’t help in this regard,” Lovatt said.

Incoherence in US policies towards Iran and its proxies appears to be also present within the Trump administration.

Attempts by the White House and US State Department to designate influential Iran-backed Iraqi militias as foreign terrorist organisations are being met with objection from the Pentagon and the CIA, the New York Times reported. US military and intelligence officials fear additional pressure on Iraq over Iran risks a backlash against the 5,200 US troops stationed there, the paper explained.

Iranian influence continues 

Doyle said that, while US diplomacy is lacking in consistency, “Iran has increased its influence not least in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, as have other powers as well.”

Military chiefs of Syria, Iraq and Iran conveyed March 18 in Damascus for a rare meeting during which they discussed “ways to combat terrorism” but the move was seen as highlighting Iranian military influence in the two Arab countries.

In Lebanon, Pompeo met with President Michel Aoun and parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, both close allies of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah hazard

“[Pompeo] highlighted US concerns about Hezbollah’s destabilising activities in Lebanon and the region and the risks posed to Lebanon’s security, stability and prosperity,” said State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Palladino. Berri told Pompeo that US sanctions against Hezbollah have a “negative impact on Lebanon and the Lebanese.” 

Ibrahim Halawi, a teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, the University of London, said Pompeo’s visit aims to reaffirm US support for Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri but no political side can sideline Hezbollah.

“The Lebanese government might try to ‘compensate’ for that on the Syrian front — by reassuring Pompeo that relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad won’t be (publicly) normalised, despite the government’s desperate plea for refugee repatriation,” Halawi told The Arab Weekly.

Ghassan Ibrahim, a London-based political analyst, said the United States is unlikely to achieve results by going after Iran’s proxies alone. “It should focus its efforts on punishing Tehran so that it won’t be able to continue to fund these proxies,” he told The Arab Weekly. 

“For all its rhetoric against Hezbollah, the US is supporting the Lebanese Army, which is infiltrated by Hezbollah. So you can say the US is indirectly aiding Hezbollah.”