Middle East Ticker

Tillerson Firing Places Iran Deal in Jeopardy

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, March 20, 2018, 10:00 AM

Mohammed bin Salman Arrives in the United States

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who arrived in the United States yesterday, started off his glitzy, cross-country tour with an interview with 60 Minutes that aired on Sunday night. In the interview, MBS emphasized the progress that Saudi Arabia has made on social reforms—especially plans to integrate women into public spaces and and the workforce—and downplayed human rights abuses and allegations of torture during the country’s crackdown on corruption. While the overdue progressive reforms are a positive sign, not everyone accepts the crown prince’s spin—including some officials in the U.S. government. NBC News reported last week that “there is one Saudi woman whom U.S. officials say has not benefited from the prince's rise: his own mother.” According to 14 current and former U.S. officials, MBS has prevented his mother, Princess Fahda bint Falah Al Hathleen, from meeting with King Salman for more than two years, at times inventing excuses, including that she was traveling for medical treatment, to conceal from the king that she was being held under house arrest. According to the officials, MBS is concerned that his mother would try to intercede and prevent his succession to the throne.

The report is shocking, but fits with what we know of MBS: Though a dedicated social reformer, the crown prince is first and foremost an autocrat, and he has been ruthless in his efforts to grow and consolidate his power. Over the past year, he has cleared the field of other powerful princes, amassed more and more responsibilities into his own portfolio, and in a dramatic purge last November, arrested, tortured, and shook down any potential rivals with the means to challenge him. He may also be in over his head; recent articles by experts tied to the crown prince’s big trip have characterized him as “a bumbling hothead” and a dilettante who “isn’t wonky enough” to guide the Saudi ship of state through a dramatic economic restructuring.

As he has consolidated his power at home, he has driven an aggressive new foreign policy—including the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and a renewed emphasis on confrontation with Iran. In the 60 Minutes interview, MBS claimed the devastation of the Yemen war was spin by Houthi rebels. “It is truly very painful, and I hope that this militia ceases using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community. They block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis,” MBS told CBS’ Norah O’Donnell, omitting Riyadh’s role in blockading ports and preventing aid from entering the country. Daniel Larison, writing for The American Conservative, argues that this is a shameless mischaracterization. “It is not surprising that Mohammed bin Salman is trying to shift the blame for the humanitarian crisis to everyone except his government and their allies,” he writes. “The coalition has been strangling Yemen for three years. They have been delaying and diverting ships that were already inspected and found to have no weapons on board. It is the blockade that is primarily responsible for driving more than eight million people to the brink of famine and millions more to suffer from severe malnutrition.” Kristine Beckerle of Human Rights Watch writes that she hopes the crown prince’s visit will place new pressure on Saudi Arabia for its conduct of the Yemen war. “Each time I’ve visited Yemen, I am struck by how little the parties to the conflict have done to mitigate the suffering they are responsible for, and how their allies, including the U.S., ignore the relentless abuses exacerbating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Houthis, too, deserve their share of blame, but it is the Saudi crown prince the United States is welcoming,” she writes. David Miliband and Jan Egeland have also argued that “President Trump must prioritize holding him [MBS] accountable for his country's conduct on the world stage, starting with Yemen.”

Much of the concern regarding MBS’ foreign policy follows directly from the way he perceives the region. He traces much of the problems in the Middle East to the events of 1979—the Iranian Revolution that installed a revisionist government in Tehran and the siege of the Grand Mosque by Sunni extremists that pressured the monarchy to enforce Salafism as the state religion. MBS is eager to shift to a more moderate form of Islam in the kingdom, but consistently elides Saudi Arabia’s role in propagating Sunni extremism even as he characterizes Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei as a “new Hitler.” Nowhere is this more clear than in Yemen. “The Iranian ideology penetrated some parts of Yemen. During that time, this militia was conducting military maneuvers right next to our borders and positioning missiles at our borders,” MBS told 60 Minutes, explaining why Riyadh was compelled to intervene. That’s a facile answer that avoids grappling with the fact that the Houthis only emerged as a reactionary movement to oppose the spread of Saudi-sponsored Sunni schools in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s precisely this legacy of promoting an extreme interpretation of Islam that should prompt concern about the Trump administration’s appeal to the Saudis to fund and implement a $4-billion plan for reconstruction in Syria. Unless MBS can grapple with Saudi Arabia’s role in promoting Sunni extremism abroad, his policies toward Iran will only address half the problem Riyadh faces.

 

Iran Deal in Jeopardy after Tillerson Firing

One of the subjects likely on the agenda during MBS’ visit to Washington this week will be the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which the Gulf states have quietly opposed. President Donald Trump’s firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this past week and selection of CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a noted Iran hawk, make U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal more likely; Tillerson was a reluctant supporter of the agreement and has worked with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster to preserve U.S. participation, but couldn’t prevent the administration from “decertifying” the deal last fall. That decision punted responsibility for revising the multilateral agreement to Congress, with the promise that if Congress didn’t act promptly, the United States would pull out of the agreement entirely. On Sunday, Sen. Bob Corker told CBS that, with Pompeo headed to Foggy Bottom and McMaster appearing sidelined, the Trump administration will likely “move away” from the agreement in May.

Tillerson’s firing prompted celebration in the editorial pages of papers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where he was perceived as a supporter of the Iran deal and an ally of Qatar amid the Gulf campaign to isolate Doha. “History will remember that a Gulf state had a role in expelling the foreign minister of a superpower and that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati professor of political science, wrote.

European foreign ministers party to the JCPOA met last week to discuss how to preserve the agreement, but “[t]he odds of them coming up with a thoughtful compromise by May just got a lot longer,” former Obama administration official Richard Nephew told Reuters. The agreement still has the support of some U.S. officials, including CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph Votel. “The JCPOA addresses one of the principle threats that we deal with from Iran, so if the JCPOA goes away, then we will have to have another way to deal with their nuclear weapons program,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has also expressed mild support for preserving the JCPOA. But that view is becoming less common in the Trump administration, and with Trump feeling empowered to act on his own instincts, U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal is looking increasingly like a certainty.

 

Afrin Falls to Turkish-backed Fighters, Rebels in Eastern Ghouta Near Collapse

Over the weekend, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels entered the center of Afrin, a city near the Turkey-Syria border previously held by Kurdish forces. Turkish and Syrian rebel forces launched their offensive against Kurdish forces in the area two months ago as part of a broader effort to secure the border. Some Kurdish fighters have promised to fight on in the city using guerrilla tactics. “Our forces are present all over Afrin's geography. These forces will strike the positions of the Turkish enemy and its mercenaries at every opportunity,” a representative of the Kurdish forces said in a televised statement on Sunday.

The conflict in Afrin has drawn Kurdish troops away from counter-Islamic State operations in eastern Syria—to the concern of U.S. defense planners. One Free Syrian Army fighter told the New York Times that the Turkish-backed offensive will continue and that he will keep fighting east towards Manbij, the western limit of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. It’s a threat that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made consistently over the past couple months, and which he reiterated just last week, saying the operations would continue even as far east as northern Iraq “until this terror corridor is fully eliminated.”

The U.S. State Department has been engaged in talks with Turkish officials to try to prevent the conflict creeping east to Manbij, and have discussed the possibility of the United States overseeing the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from Manbij. However, Tillerson’s abrupt firing last week could delay an agreement being reached, Reuters reports. Turkish officials announced after Tillerson’s departure that Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu would postpone a planned trip to Washington to finalize the terms of an agreement. Though no plan has been discussed publicly, Turkish officials said they expect the United States to keep its “promises” despite the absence of a formal arrangement and that the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from Manbij would be only a “first step.”

Near Damascus, pro-regime forces also appear to be nearing an end to their recent operations in eastern Ghouta. They now control 80 percent of the embattled neighborhood and have split the remaining rebel-held areas into three parts. Rebel groups are reportedly discussing ceasefire terms with the government through U.N. mediators, but additional evacuations of civilians are not being considered, according to Reuters. Despite continuing violence, a confident President Bashar al-Assad visited regime forces in the area on Sunday and told them that they have “changed the political map of the world.” More than 1,250 people have been killed in the regime’s latest offensive.