Middle East Ticker

Trump May Kick Iran Deal Debate to Senate, the Islamic State’s Bastion Pinched on Two Fronts, the Gulf Crisis Gets Even More Petty

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, September 12, 2017, 12:00 PM

Trump Administration May Make the Iran Deal the Senate’s Problem

The Trump administration continued laying the groundwork for decertifying Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last week. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on the nuclear agreement and broader U.S. policy toward Iran. Though she stressed that she was “not making the case for decertifying”—instead she said she was arguing that “should [Trump] decide to decertify, he has grounds to stand on”—it was hard to read Haley’s comments as any anything else.

Haley’s speech was mostly a rehash of criticisms leveled against the JCPOA at the time of its proposal in 2015. Like previous critics, Haley expressed frustration that the agreement deals with Iran’s nuclear weapons program in isolation from Iran’s other aggressive actions in the Middle East, raised concerns about inspectors’ ability to detect potential clandestine enrichment sites, and cited Iran’s record of sponsoring terrorism as a check against its credibility. None of this is new, and the counterarguments have been made well for years. But as President Barack Obama pointed out at the time, “You don’t make deals like this with your friends.” The agreement addressed the foremost U.S. security interest with regard to Iran: the rapid expansion of its uranium enrichment that could be used to make a nuclear weapon. Haley’s speech didn’t articulate an alternative for containing Iran’s nuclear program.

The JCPOA was an international agreement only made possible by the participation of a coalition that included Russia and China; that Washington, Moscow, and Beijing could all agree to the terms is still an incredible diplomatic achievement by itself. But those international partners to the agreement got short shrift in Haley’s speech, only coming up in the question and answer portion. “This is about U.S. national security. This is not about European security. This is not about anyone else,” she said, which the New York Times reports left “several European diplomats in the audience fuming.” Haley claimed that the U.S. role is to ask tough questions of its partners. “No one [in Europe] wants to get out of the deal out of holding out hope that the Iranians will do the right thing,” she said. “I think we have to be honest enough to say, ‘But what if they’re not? What if they’re not doing the right thing?’” Haley then suggested that Iran would have a nuclear weapon and start a war as soon as the JCPOA’s limitations begin to expire. “What if we just gave them 10 years and all the money they wanted to do whatever they want to prepare for when that tenth year hits and they start nuclear war?” she asked.

[I]n a bit of trademark Trumpian buck-passing, the decision to reimpose sanctions will be kicked to the U.S. Senate, which will determine whether the United States will break the terms of the agreement.

This isn’t Haley just asking questions. This is a condescending disservice to U.S. partners in Europe and at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and it betrays a striking unfamiliarity with the agreement Haley was cavalierly dismissing. As mentioned in the Ticker last week, those European partners are looking to work with the United States to address concerns about what happens when the provisions of the agreement begin to be phased out. Instead, the Trump administration is alienating them. Nevermind the fact that the agreement is being rigorously implemented and continues to work. Even without Haley’s recent trip to Vienna to meet with IAEA officials, the IAEA is carrying out the most thorough negotiated inspections regime in its history to monitor Iran’s compliance with the agreement. According to the IAEA’s latest report, that has included more than 400 site inspections so far, including 25 snap inspections. On Monday, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano once again reaffirmed Iran’s compliance with the agreement. “The nuclear-related commitments undertaken by Iran under the JCPOA are being implemented,” he said in remarks at the meeting of the IAEA’s Board of Governors. “Evaluations regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran remain ongoing.”

Haley’s speech included a new wrinkle in the discussion of potential U.S. decertification. According to Haley, if the Trump administration decertifies Iranian compliance, it doesn’t necessarily mean the United States will leave the agreement. Instead, in a bit of trademark Trumpian buck-passing, the decision to reimpose sanctions will be kicked to the U.S. Senate, which will determine whether the United States will break the terms of the agreement. Some senators—like Sens. Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, David Perdue, and Marco Rubio, who have advocated decertification—will likely be eager to end the agreement; others will be annoyed to see it come back. Sen. Bob Corker, a skeptic of the deal who helped broker the compromise that led to the Senate’s oversight role in the deal, will likely be in the latter camp. As he told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius in July, “You can only tear the agreement up one time… We gave up all our leverage already, so wait until you have your allies aligned with you. Radically enforce it… You want the break-up of this deal to be about Iran. You don’t want it to be about the United States.” Even with a Republican majority that tends to be hawkish on Iran, there may still be enough senators willing to vote against sanctions in an effort to protect U.S. credibility in its international agreements. Maybe.

Islamic State Facing Two Fronts in Eastern Bastion

The Islamic State had planned on Deir Ezzor being its last bastion—a remote, economically secure position to which it could fall back as pressure mounted on Raqqa and Mosul. But with the battle for Raqqa still ongoing, the Islamic State is now being pinched deeper in its territory as well. Last week, Hezbollah and Assad regime forces broke through to a regime garrison in Deir Ezzor that had been besieged for three years, and Hezbollah now claims that they control the highway entering the city and are forcing the Islamic State out. The regime offensive coincides with a push towards the city from the east by the U.S.-backed coalition. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced their plan on Saturday and have reached the industrial district on the city’s eastern outskirts. As of Sunday, just 10 miles and the Euphrates River separated regime and SDF forces, with Islamic State-occupied Deir Ezzor in between.

The outcome of the dash for Deir Ezzor will determine the post-Islamic State balance of power in Syria’s oil-rich east. But forcing out the terrorist group presents new problems. The regime and SDF are lurching toward a potential confrontation. Al-Masdar, a regime-friendly media outlet, reports that the Syrian government forces are planning to cross the Euphrates and continue past Deir Ezzor to Albukamal and the Iraqi border. The river marks the de-confliction line that the United States and Russian military officials have used to separate their airstrikes and protect their respective proxies. Coalition spokesperson Col. Ryan Dillon said last week that the U.S. military could extend the line, but would not shift it. “[W]e'll continue to draw that line farther on down the Middle Euphrates River Valley, if necessary," he told reporters at a press conference at the Pentagon. Both the United States and Russia have benefitted from the arrangement—communications have been tense at times, but last week it facilitated the withdrawal of U.S. aerial surveillance of the stranded Islamic State convoy—but, as the Middle East Institute’s Ahmad Majidyar told Al-Monitor, it’s not clear if Iran, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime are as willing to abide by it as Russia.

The outcome of the dash for Deir Ezzor will determine the post-Islamic State balance of power in Syria’s oil-rich east.

The regime’s eastern offensive has been enabled by the Russian-backed de-escalation zones in the west that have allowed pro-government troops to concentrate on the Islamic State. But this hasn’t halted all fighting in the west. Clashes in recent days near the Jordanian border between regime and rebel forces forced thousands of refugees at the Hadalat camp farther west to Rukban. Jordanian and Russian officials said over the weekend that they’re working on instituting a new de-escalation zone that would cover much of western Syria, including territory adjacent to Israel. Hezbollah’s presence in Quneitra presence has been a recurring concern for Israeli officials, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly raised the issue in his meeting with President Vladimir Putin last month. A new report from the Institute for National Security Studies, Israel’s top security think tank, notes that Israel’s approach to Syria is two-pronged: jockeying with Iran for influence on Russian policy and taking matters into its own hands. “[T]he United States, Israel's central ally, will not do the job for it,” the authors write. This conclusion is more a restatement of Israeli policy than a recommendation. Israel has intervened in Syria in a series of targeted, decisive strikes dating back to almost the start of the conflict, and these continue today. Last week, Israeli jets bombed a Syrian government facility believed to be connected to the regime’s chemical weapons program. They’ll continue to be the best guarantor of their interests.

Trump Offers to Mediate Gulf Crisis

After a visit to the White House last week by Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, President Donald Trump is finally getting serious about the Gulf crisis. At least serious enough to call the leaders of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and encourage them to make amends—a marked departure from his undercutting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to resolve the spat quickly over the summer. (Trump actually spoke to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman twice last week, prompting new rumors that the Saudi monarch may have been informing U.S. officials of plans to abdicate and pass the throne to his son, Mohammed bin Salman; the possibility has been the subject of speculation for months, but no news came out of the calls.) At a press conference with the emir last Thursday, Trump said he would be willing to act as a mediator. “I think it's something that's going to get solved fairly easily,” he said of the feud, now in its fourth month.

Trump’s belated foray into the Gulf crisis has not produced any hint of a resolution, and instead has only further demonstrated what a quagmire of petty politics it has become. There was a brief hopeful sign on Friday evening: Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spoke by phone about the crisis. The restored dialogue lasted just hours, though, until Qatari media claimed that Saudi Arabia had initiated the call. Saudi officials denied the report and scuttled the possibility of further talks. "The contact was at the request of Qatar and its request for dialogue," Saudi Arabia’s state news agency reported. "Qatar is not serious in dialogue and continues its previous policies. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia declares that any dialogue with Qatar shall be suspended until a clear statement explaining its position is made in public."

Trump’s belated foray into the Gulf crisis has not produced any hint of a resolution, and instead has only further demonstrated what a quagmire of petty politics it has become.

The feud is being fought on multiple fronts, and public relations war being waged in the West continues to get stranger with each passing week. Brian Whitaker, who has been tracking the weirdness closely, has noted the efforts of the “London Centre for Public Affairs,” a mysterious pro-Qatar organization that lists a fake address and phone number, to lobby the British government and discredit an upcoming conference critical of Doha. That conference, the “London Centre” complains, is being supported by the United Arab Emirates and “organised by a Zionist propaganda company.” The conference itself is also bizarre, Whitaker notes. Despite being scheduled for Thursday, the attendees and location have yet to be announced. The conference website lists one publication, a very skewed report that argues there are three potential outcomes of the crisis: Qatar can compromise, undergo a “bloodless coup,” or be subject to a “foreign intervention.” The sniping in London is only marginally more strange than a months-long ad campaign in Washington, DC, that has blanketed cable news channels and Twitter.

The spat has been clumsily handled by both sides since the initial hacking scandal in May, so the latest controversy shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. But it's still strange to watch the Gulf states spend so much money to embarrass themselves in the capitals of partner states.