When Trump’s Iran policy takes an Obama-like turn

It is no longer acceptable for world capitals to weave their deals with Iran without the region having the final say in determining Tehran’s regional role.
Saturday 28/09/2019
A combination photo shows US President Donald Trump (R) and former US President Barack Obama. (AFP)
A combination photo shows US President Donald Trump (R) and former US President Barack Obama. (AFP)

There has been a strange turn in the positions of the world’s capitals regarding the September 14 attack on Saudi Aramco facilities. After the incident, the world appeared to adjust its stances according to an assumption that the misdeed was not only a violation of Saudi Arabia’s security and sovereignty but also a vile attack on the world’s energy market and a violation of international order and norms.

Riyadh, too, via statements by the Saudi monarch and his crown prince, acknowledged that, just as much as the attacks were on its sovereignty, they were an attack on the stability of the world’s energy sources. That called for an equally unequivocal international response.

The shift in international attitudes came mostly from countries that have long been reluctant to involve themselves in the conflict between Iran and the United States since US President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke of a “despicable crime” when referring to the Aramco attacks. Before him, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian questioned the Houthi group’s claim of responsibility for the attacks while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the necessity of a “collective response” to what was committed and against those who committed it.

Saudi Arabia has not officially accused Iran of being behind the attack on its facilities. It did declare that weapons used in the attack were Iranian and expressed strong suspicions about Tehran being behind the missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. Riyadh promised to take a firm position after completing an investigation.

Riyadh has not accused Tehran but Washington did so in the first hours after the attack. Same thing with London, where Johnson had harsh words for Iran, blaming it for the crime, before joining the leaders of France and Germany, representing the troika of European signatories of the nuclear deal with Iran, in issuing a common statement blaming Iran for the attacks.

Riyadh did not accuse Iran but the degree of anger expressed by the international community has suggested that the world is going to end this Iranian absurdity and thus inch closer to the US view in confronting Iran. These encouraging signs, however, did not go beyond their expected outcome.

Out of nowhere, and away from the controversy surrounding the Aramco catastrophe and the threat to the world oil market, Johnson came up with a surreal remedy.

He said with a straight face that it was time for a new nuclear deal with Iran. Trump woke up on Johnson’s spell and supported it. While Iranian President Hassan Rohani reluctantly proclaimed that his country was ready to make limited amendments to that agreement if its conditions were met.

For a moment it appeared as if the world has suddenly colluded with Iran and was playing a rogue tune that had nothing to do with the original debate. What is the connection between Iran’s attack on Saudi Aramco and the whole controversy surrounding the nuclear deal? What connects the “collective response” against the perpetrator of the “despicable crime” to the hasty jurisprudence of the nuclear agreement? How did the problem with Iran become reduced overnight to disagreements about details in the nuclear agreement?

The issue of the nuclear agreement was nothing more than an excuse for Trump and his administration to deal with the Iranian file in a manner radically different from his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump denounced Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal as the “worst agreement in history.” He withdrew from the nuclear deal on May 8, 2018. Two weeks later, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a reading of his country’s new policy on Iran, presenting a list of 12 demands that Iran must meet and commit to implement for Washington to lift sanctions and normalise relations with Tehran.

Amending the old nuclear deal was one of those demands. Others concerned Iran’s ballistic missiles programme, the future of Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the Middle East and other issues related to Iran-sponsored terrorism.

Suddenly, we are witnessing the collapse of “Trumpism” and a return to “Obamaism.”

Trump is monotonously repeating that he would not go to war with Iran. Aided by his buddy Johnson in London, Trump chose to refocus the world’s attention on the nuclear deal and dropped all the other issues about Tehran’s misbehaviour in the Middle East and the world. After his vitriolic rhetoric against the “terrorist state of Iran,” here is “presidential hopeful” Donald Trump strongly hoping for a photo opportunity with Rohani to boost his chances for a second term as president.

Suddenly, and under US leadership, it seems that all the international community wants from Iran is to scrap its nuclear weapons programme. The world is treating Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the Middle East, including its criminal attacks on Saudi Arabia — according to Washington and the European troika’s conclusions — as a debatable issue. The people of the region are simply invited to participate in the debate, even though the attacks on Saudi facilities were virtually a declaration of war by Tehran.

It is no longer acceptable for the world to see Iran only from the nuclear angle that worries Israel before anyone else and to disregard its disruptive behaviour from Yemen all the way to Lebanon by way of Iraq and Syria.

It is no longer acceptable for world capitals to weave their deals with Iran without the region having the final say in determining Iran’s regional role. The position expressed by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan on the need for any agreement with Iran to include the countries of the region appears to be a cornerstone of the region’s approach to its relations with Tehran.

The Obama doctrine outlined by the former US president to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg and published in the Atlantic in the spring of 2016 seemed to be about seeking agreement with Iran alone. And that’s exactly what Trump is doing.