The New Strategy and Attempts to Contain Iran

Donald Trump is notorious in the business world for stiffing other companies when it’s time to pay the bill — offering partial settlement of what he owes and proposing to negotiate the rest. Trump did a version of that Friday when he announced he will stay in the Iran nuclear deal for now, but quit if he can’t get better terms.

Trump’s speech tossed a verbal grenade into a turbulent Middle East. This may have been the goal of a president who styles himself as “the great disrupter.” But it fuels regional feuds that Trump can’t control and provokes disputes with both allies and adversaries that may frustrate America’s interest in curbing Iran’s bad behavior.

The volatility of the region was demonstrated anew Friday, as Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Iraqi government troops massed near Kirkuk, Iraq, threatening Kurdish forces there that have been crucial to US allies against ISIS.

That’s the maddening challenge for US policy in the Middle East, now as always: The United States may seek to squeeze Iranian proxies, but Tehran is positioned to strike back — in ways that could endanger US partners, such as the Kurds, and even American troops.

On the nuclear deal, Trump’s speech was heading in two directions at once. For the near term, he waffled, saying Iran was “not living up to the spirit of the deal,” but tossing the issue of imposing tougher terms in Iran to Congress. But the speech included this harsh warning: “In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated.”

European reaction was swift, and unhappy. About an hour after Trump had finished speaking, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement urging Congress not to enact new sanctions that would “undermine” the deal and stressing that their three nations, which helped negotiate the deal, “stand committed” to its implementation.

The European statement is important for two reasons. It shows that Trump’s hope of gaining allied support for reopening negotiations (he wants to extend the term of the agreement and provide tougher enforcement) are almost certainly misplaced. Perhaps more important, Iranian contacts have told me that if Europe reaffirms its compliance with the deal (as the three leaders just did), and Congress (as expected) doesn’t legislate new sanctions, then Iran is likely to remain in compliance, too. So the European statement may help keep the deal in limbo, for now.

Trump’s top foreign-policy advisers had been pitching the Iran speech as part of a broad effort to control Tehran’s aggressive behavior in the region. A White House fact sheet issued before the speech spent four pages on Iran’s mischievous behavior and added only a brief section saying the nuclear deal “must be strictly enforced” and the International Atomic Energy Agency “must fully utilize its inspection authorities.”

This same theme of a broad campaign against Iranian behavior was voiced in a telephone interview Friday morning by a senior administration official who’s helping to implement the strategy. He talked about moves to counter Iran in Yemen, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. And he asserted that European allies “are already working with us” to curb the Iranians. Several hours later, the three European leaders issued their critical statement.

The new confrontation between Iraqi forces and Kurds is an example of how complicated the regional terrain is, and how vulnerable US interests are to local feuds.

The Iraqi government, still fuming about the Kurdish independence referendum last month, has reportedly massed troops and artillery near the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk. According to a Kurdish source, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has given the Kurds a list of six demands, including turning over control of Kirkuk’s airport, oil fields and military checkpoints to the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi military.

A top Kurdish official asserted in an email: “It’s important that the world knows Qassem Suleimani [the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] is running this campaign.” That claim couldn’t be verified, but it illustrates regional anxieties.

Facing so many flashpoints in trying to contain Iran, Trump has chosen to put the nuclear issue center stage, once again. Rather than focusing on Iranian behavior, Congress and foreign allies will instead be preoccupied anew with Trump’s threatening statements about the future of the nuclear agreement. It will be about Trump, more than Iran. But maybe that’s the way he wants it.

The Washington Post