Middle East Ticker

Trump to Decertify Iran Deal, U.S. and Turkey Cut Off Travel Visas, Saudi Arabia Scores Arms Deals with Russia and United States

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, October 10, 2017, 12:15 PM

Trump Expected to Send Iran Deal Debate Back to Congress

After weeks of playing coy about his decision regarding the Iran nuclear agreement, the Washington Post reported last week that President Trump plans to decertify the deal this week. Though Iran is in technical compliance with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Trump will reportedly announce that he has concluded the deal is not in the national security interests of the United States, taking advantage of a clause in the congressional legislation that made U.S. participation in the agreement subject to periodic review. Trump is also expected to present plans for a more aggressive U.S. policy pressuring Iran this week.

The “adults in the room,” though, have now lost out to a confluence of Bannonites and foreign-policy hawks pushing for decertification from both within the administration and without.

Trump reportedly made his decision last month, though he declined to share his plans to decertify the deal with British Prime Minister Theresa May at the U.N. General Assembly. That hasn’t stopped the ongoing debate within the administration and among Trump’s allies about whether decertification is a wise move. Just last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis contradicted the president’s pending announcement and told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he considers the deal to be in the U.S. national security interest; he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have consistently argued in favor of remaining in the agreement, according to reports. The “adults in the room,” though, have now lost out to a confluence of Bannonites and foreign-policy hawks pushing for decertification from both within the administration and without. Among those who are said to have been influential in Trump’s decision are Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who presented the administration’s gameplan for decertification at AEI in September (while oddly stressing that she was not making the case for decertification), and Sen. Tom Cotton, who told Politico’s Susan Glasser that he has been discussing Iran with the president and that the Islamic Republic “is on the president’s mind right now, probably more than anything.” Cotton said that he thinks “the most sensible course of action” would be not to withdraw outright, but to use the threat of withdrawal to rally partners to the agreement to renegotiate the deal. He has pushed for decertification for months and, in a recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, hinted strongly at a U.S. policy of regime change in Tehran, which he has advocated in the past.

After decertification, the future of the agreement will rest with the Senate, which will have to decide whether or not to reimpose sanctions on Iran in violation of the agreement. It’s an opportunity that Cotton has been waiting for since the deal entered force, but (as noted previously on the Ticker) many of his colleagues are less excited about the prospect of revisiting a difficult debate. Sen. Bob Corker, a skeptic of the agreement in 2015, has expressed concerns about the administration’s approach. Though Corker helped broker the compromise that introduced the national security interest clause Trump will use to decertify the deal, Trump lashed out at Corker over the weekend, tweeting that he was “largely responsible for the horrendous Iran Deal!” The growing public vitriol between Trump and moderate Republicans in the Senate won’t make it any easier for the administration to push through its strategy.

 

With Friends Like Turkey...

Turkey and the United States imposed travel restrictions on one another over the weekend as part of a rapidly escalating crisis set off by the arrest of a Turkish employee at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul last Wednesday. The Turkish government has accused the man arrested, Metin Topuz, of espionage and associations with Gulenist conspirators involved in the country’s July 2016 coup attempt. The U.S. ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, rejected the charges in strong terms on Friday. “There is a big difference between pursuing justice and pursuing vengeance in terms of the rule of law and the democratic norms that this country, and my country, have committed themselves to,” he said. Topuz was one of dozens of new arrests amid more than 100 new arrest warrants issued last week last week in what is now a more than year-long campaign by the Turkish government targeting accused Gulenists.

On Sunday, the United States announced that it would suspend processing of nonimmigrant visas in Turkey, citing concerns about “the commitment of the Government of Turkey to the security of U.S. Mission facilities and personnel.” Turkey quickly retaliated by doing the same, and on Monday, Turkish authorities reportedly detained a second U.S. consulate employee’s family on Gulen-related charges and summoned the employee for questioning.

Turkey may be a NATO member state and critical part of the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State, but right now Ankara’s domestic policies and Erdogan’s authoritarian impulses are driving a split with Washington.

The Trump administration has maintained warm ties with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’ government -- during the campaign last year, Trump argued that the United States shouldn’t judge the Turkish government’s purges of suspected Gulenists and in New York last month he claimed that the U.S.-Turkish relationship has never been closer. But tensions just below the surface have dogged U.S.-Turkish ties since the coup attempt. Turkey is still chafing at the U.S. refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric Erdogan accuses of plotting his overthrow; Turkish officials no doubt hoped to have Gulen in custody by now after Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, lobbied for his extradition. The United States is also moving ahead with the trial of Zafer Caglayan, a former economic minister for Turkey, on charges of conspiring to violate sanctions on Iran. A spokesman for the Turkish government called the trial, currently scheduled to start in late November, a “coup attempt … through the American judiciary” last month. Turkey may be a NATO member state and critical part of the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State, but right now Ankara’s domestic policies and Erdogan’s authoritarian impulses are driving a split with Washington.

 

King Salman Travels to Moscow, Secures Arms Deals

King Salman of Saudi Arabia, accompanied by an entourage of 1,500 people, traveled to Moscow last week for meetings with President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials. Discussions about oil prices in advance of an OPEC summit next month topped the agenda, but officials also planned to hold talks about various conflicts in the Middle East. The Saudi monarchy and Russian kleptocracy’s shared love of pomp and opulence were on full display as Moscow feted the kingdom’s delegation and tried to pursue deeper ties. As a retired Russian diplomat told Al-Monitor, “The Saudis have the money, which the Russians need. But the Saudis need the Russians to stop what they see as a strengthening Iran, and Russians just can’t deliver it—at least not to the extent the Saudis would want it.”

Saudi Arabia is clearly exploring its options for diversifying its potential weapons suppliers. It is not walking away from the United States, but Riyadh recognizes that the relationship is fraught.

The clearest sign of Saudi-Russian cooperation was a preliminary arms deal reached on Thursday, in which Saudi Arabia would purchase anti-tank missiles and Russia’s S-400 air-defense system. (Russia has deployed the surface-to-air missiles to Syria, and Turkey has also expressed interest in also buying the system.) Saudi Arabia is double dipping on defensive weapons systems. Last week, while Salman was still in Moscow, the U.S. State Department gave the greenlight for the sale of $15 billion in THAAD missile interceptors.

Saudi Arabia is clearly exploring its options for diversifying its potential weapons suppliers. It is not walking away from the United States, but Riyadh recognizes that the relationship is fraught. The Qatar crisis hasn’t helped, and the Trump administration’s response has been difficult to decipher. U.S. defense planners said last Friday that U.S. troops would be scaling back their involvement in joint military exercises with the Gulf states over concerns about tensions on the peninsula. "We are opting out of some military exercises out of respect for the concept of inclusiveness and shared regional interests,” a spokesman for Central Command told the Associated Press. The Gulf states made clear for months that they wanted to shore up ties with the United States after disagreements with the Obama administration strained ties, and things looked positive during Trump’s visit to the Gulf in May, but this probably isn’t what they had in mind.