Middle East Ticker

The Conditions for Trump’s 'No Preconditions' Offer to Iran

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, July 31, 2018, 10:10 AM

U.S. Resumes Military Aid to Egypt Despite Dismal Human Rights Record

After a year-long hold on military aid, the State Department announced last week that it would release $195 million that was blocked in August 2017. Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the State Department had not been able to confirm Egypt’s compliance with congressional human rights conditions for the aid, but Egypt’s human rights record has only worsened over the past year. A State Department official told the New York Times that Egypt had implemented policies to address U.S. concerns, but did not specify what they were.

Over the past year, Egypt has cracked down even harder on political dissent, taking advantage of sweeping powers granted under the country’s 2015 counterterrorism law. As Human Rights Watch noted recently, activists are being charged with spreading fake news or participation in a terrorist group and referred to a special court for trial. Among those arrested in recent weeks was Wael Abbas, a respected journalist who now stands accused of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The crackdown has even caught up foreigners, like Mona el-Mazbouh, a Lebanese tourist who was sentenced to eight years in prison for posting an angry video online after being sexually harassed while on vacation. Shortly after the State Department announced it was releasing the military aid, an Egyptian court handed down 75 death sentences in a mass trial of more than 700 people accused of fomenting violence in support of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, at a demonstration in 2013; that sit-in at Rabaa Square ended when state security forces killed as many as 1,000 people.

It was a surprise that the aid was held up at all, though, given the Trump administration’s lack of concern for human rights. As the Washington Post noted in an editorial criticizing President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s further curtailment of political freedoms, the Egyptian leadership “is well aware that President Trump has little interest in human rights.” Sisi was one of the few foreign leaders that Trump met with during the 2016 campaign, and their conversation led Trump to call him a “fantastic guy” who “really took control.” When the State Department announced the hold last August, Trump clarified his support for the strongman. “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President el-Sisi,” he told reporters. “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.” The release of aid this past week seems to have been a return to form for the Trump administration, rather than a rectification of Egypt’s policies. “It’s highly debatable whether Egypt has fully met any one of those conditions,” the Project on Middle East Democracy’s Andrew Miller told the Times. “But the Egyptians will present this decision as an American blessing of their policies.”

 

Trump Says Willing to Talk with Iran, Pompeo Offers Conditions

President Trump said yesterday that he would be willing to meet with the Iranian leadership “any time they want to” and with “no preconditions.” The comments were an abrupt shift from the hostile rhetoric of the week before, in which Trump sent an all-caps tweet threatening “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.” Since that tweet, Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, responded by saying that Iran has secret forces deployed “where you can’t even imagine” and goading Trump to start a war that will “will destroy all that you possess.”

But Trump’s comments on Monday are not a drastic departure from his position just earlier this month, when he touted the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions at the NATO summit. “At a certain point they're going to call me. They're going to say, 'Let's make a deal.' They're feeling a lot of pain right now,” he said on July 12. As Laura Rozen noted on Twitter, the Trump administration had actually tried to arrange a meeting with Rouhani last September, so Tehran is aware of Trump’s willingness to talk. What was new in Trump’s remarks on Monday was the promise of “no preconditions”-exactly the offer that a decade ago was considered the epitome of diplomatic naivete.

Within hours of Trump’s offer, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was backpedaling. In an interview with CNBC, Pompeo returned to parts of a list of demands at the core of the administration’s Iran policy, which he rolled out last May. “If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior, can agree that it's worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he's prepared to sit down and have the conversation with them," Pompeo said yesterday afternoon. The Trump administration’s conditions have been so demanding that they are unlikely to be met without regime change in Tehran, but Pompeo’s framing yesterday was less concrete and left more wiggle room for a diplomatic opening.

That might not happen any time soon, though. On Monday morning, before Trump’s comments, an Iranian government spokesman said that Iran would not meet with the United States to de-escalate tensions. “The U.S. has proved to be untrustworthy and a non-reliable partner for any job,” he told reporters at a press conference.

Some diplomacy might be happening quietly, behind the scenes, though. The foreign minister of Oman, which has been an intermediary between Iran and its adversaries, met with Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis last week. Though readouts of those meetings focus on the conflict in Yemen, Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi also discussed “freedom of navigation” with Mattis, according to a Pentagon statement-a reference to Iran’s recent threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. With commercial interests in Iran and uncomfortable proximity the Persian Gulf and the proxy war in Yemen, Oman is eager to deescalate the situation.

 

Turkey’s Trial of American Pastor Strain Ties with Washington

The Trump administration has tried to paper over its differences with Turkey in recent months, but the functional relationship faltered last week when President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence threatened Turkey with sanctions for allegedly backing out of an agreement for the release of a U.S. citizen. Andrew Brunson, a pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for 23 years, was arrested after Turkey’s 2016 coup attempt and accused of collaborating with Gulenist coup plotters and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party; he is not the only U.S. citizen caught up in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s purges-NASA scientist Serkan Golge is also being held on similarly weak evidence-but he is the one that fits the administration’s religious freedom agenda. Trump thought he had reached an agreement with Erdogan earlier this month at the NATO summit: Brunson would be allowed to leave Turkey in exchange for Trump convincing Israel to release Ebru Ozkan, a Turkish citizen arrested in Israel on suspicion of working with Hamas. The two leaders were notably chummy during the conference, and at one point Trump turned to Erdogan while venting about European countries’ defense spending to praise Turkey’s investments. “Except for Erdogan over here. He does things the right way,” Trump reportedly said before fist bumping the Turkish president.

Ozkan was released earlier this month, but Turkish officials denied that it was on account of U.S. diplomacy and a Turkish court set a new trial date in October for Brunson, who is being held under house arrest. One Trump adviser told the Washington Post that Turkey had “upped the ante,” and an administration official said that Ankara had “missed a real opportunity.” Last Thursday, in a speech on religious freedom and in a follow-up tweet, Vice President Pence threatened the imposition of sanctions if Brunson was not released promptly. Congress had previously considered sanctions but had backed off at the administration’s request.

It is unclear if Turkey is trying to leverage Brunson for other U.S. concessions. There is no shortage of issues Turkey would like to see the United States act on: Congress is weighing legislation to block Turkey’s acquisition of F-35s and is concerned about Turkey’s interest in purchasing Russian S-400 air-defense systems (the United States has proposed selling Turkey Patriot missile batteries instead). Turkey is also worried about an embarrassing U.S. court case against officials from HalkBank for circumventing Iran sanctions and still seeking the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the reclusive, Pennsylvania-based cleric who Erdogan blames for the 2016 coup attempt.

Erdogan struck a defiant tone in response to Pence’s comments, noting Iran’s resilience in the face of U.S. sanctions. “If the [United States] does not change this attitude, they should not forget they will lose a sincere and strong partner like Turkey,” he told press last week. Erdogan is riding high on his recent consolidation of presidential power-the Turkish parliament just granted him powers previously allowed only under emergency law-and he has demonstrated a clear willingness to act unilaterally. Last Friday, Turkish security forces apparently aborted an attempt to extralegally rendition Veysel Akcay, a Turkish educator who runs a Gulenist school in Mongolia, after it was detected by Mongolian officials; other operations have been more successful.