On Tuesday, a report by UPI reiterated the widespread expectations of a shift in American foreign policy following the unceremonious ouster of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In announcing Tillerson’s firing, US President Donald Trump cited apparent differences of strategy over the Iran nuclear deal as a major rationale. Tillerson’s prospective replacement, current CIA Director Mike Pompeo is a noted Iran hawk who has echoed the president’s preference for scrapping the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and has also spoken in favor of regime change in Iran.
Early signs of a policy shift as it relates to Iran may become evident in the next few days as American leaders meet with the crown prince of Iran’s chief Middle Eastern adversary, Saudi Arabia. Prince Mohammad bin Salman arrived in Washington on Tuesday for a three-day visit, which was expected to focus primarily on strategies to confront Iran and its regional meddling, according to Al Arabiya.
An editorial published by CNBC characterized the trip in more critical terms, calling it a “shopping trip for war” and part of an effort by Saudi Arabia to acquire buy-in from its American allies as Salman pursues further escalation with a country that is already on the opposing side of a series of proxy wars in the region. The editorial notes that as part of that escalation, Salman has “brazenly announced his ambition to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran acquired them,” but if this has any impact on the Trump White House it will likely be the further entrenchment of its commitment to tightening restrictions on Iran at the expense of the JCPOA.
Trump has personally signaled substantial interest in expanding relations with the Saudis, having arranged a more than 100 billion dollar weapons sale last year, as well as setting the stage in recent weeks for the sale of American nuclear energy technology to the Sunni kingdom. Assuming that the White House’s policy is indeed shifting toward more assertiveness regarding Iran, it seems likely that the results of Salman’s visit to Washington will entail more of the same.
Naturally, not all commentators are as critical of that prospective outcome as the author of the CNBC editorial. On Monday, Haaretz greeted the news of Salman’s trip by quoting one senior American official as calling it, a “tremendous opportunity to make progress on a range of issues.” In addition to discussing Iran’s regional role, the Saudi prince and his hosts at the White House were expected to explore ways to “make Russia pay a price” for its support of the Assad regime’s atrocities in Syria, as well as examining the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But these broader ambitions do little to diminish concerns about the worsening of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or about the potential American role in this trend. Both nations’ rhetoric has at times turned bellicose, with each explicitly signaling readiness for war. Iran has variously taken the same stance toward the United States and has blamed both the US and Saudi Arabia for domestic unrest such as the mass protests that spanned all major Iranian municipalities in December and January.
Iranian state media has broadcast animations depicting the defeat of American naval forces by smaller Iranian flotillas, and a similar propaganda tactic may have been employed against Iran by the Saudis. The New York Times published a report on Tuesday regarding just such an animation, one that depicted a much more advanced and highly equipped Saudi military invading the Islamic Republic of Iran under the direction of Mohammad bin Salman. The animation has reportedly been viewed more than 1.2 million times online since its release in December, but it is not clear whether it originated with the Saudi government or independent supporters thereof.
The Times piece even quoted Princeton University Professor Bernard Haykel as saying the Iranians may have created the animation themselves, “to make the Saudis look silly.” This would by no means be out of keeping with the familiar practices of Iranian propagandists. The recent attempts to blame domestic unrest on foreign infiltrators is indicative of Tehran’s preoccupation with justifying its military expenditures and regional interventions by portraying the Islamic Republic as being under constant threat of invasion or other forms of attack. This same tactic has been on display in various state media broadcasts defaming dual nationals who have been arrested in Iran or boasting about close encounters with allegedly hostile Western naval forces.
Still, the Times suggests that the supposedly pro-Saudi animation might be “a glimpse of a crown prince’s dream” regarding the victorious end of ongoing tensions between the two countries. On the other hand, various analysts have recently observed that while neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is likely to back down from their proxy wars in the near future, neither side is keen to pay the cost of direct confrontation. Consequently, the focus of escalating tensions and of the Saudi crown prince’s visit to Washington appears to be on assigning blame to the opposing side for the ongoing crises in the region.
Accordingly, Iranian.com reported on Monday that Salman’s visit was to coincide with the Saudi presentation of new evidence supporting the conclusion that Iran is arming the Houthi rebels who are fighting for control of Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor, Yemen. That conclusion has already been fully accepted by the White House, whose ambassador to the UN presented evidence of the Iranian manufacture of Houthi missiles in a press conference late last year.
The United Nations has somewhat more tentatively accepted the same conclusions, issuing its own report that acknowledge the Iranian origin of relevant weapons components but allowed for the possibility that Tehran simply failed to prevent the weapons from falling into Houthi hands, as opposed to actively delivering them.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported upon Saudi efforts to blame the Iranian regime for broader problems of global terrorism. Specifically, the Saudis accused Tehran of harboring Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza and setting the stage for him to become the new leader of the notorious Sunni terrorist organization al Qaeda. Salman personally made these allegations in an interview with American television, during which he also accused Iran of recruiting some of the Saudi hijackers responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. The aim of this recruited, he said, was to create a “schism between the Middle East and the West, between Saudi Arabia and the United States of America.”
Tehran predictably denied all these allegations, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi insisting that al Qaeda fighters who crossed into Iran following the US invasion of Afghanistan were all arrested and deported. However, Reuters noted that intelligence veterans have long recognized that Iran gave shelter to some factions of al Qaeda, allowing its operatives to plan and execute missions from there, on the understanding that they would only target mutual enemies of the Sunni terrorist group and the Shiite theocracy. Aspects of this collaboration were confirmed by documents recovered from the compound in which Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is widely recognized as the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism. By emphasizing this status and the specific evidence for it, the Saudis may hope to inspire more assertiveness regarding Iran, not only from the US but also from the nations of Europe. Although the European Union has been distinctly more wary of sabotaging the 2015 nuclear agreement and prospective expansions in trade relations, the tone of its member states has apparently been trending closer to that of the Trump White House, perhaps as a result of ongoing public emphasis on Tehran’s misdeeds.
On Monday, JTA reported that the Europeans had proposed new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program and its regional role. And on Tuesday, Reuters focused on the specific push for these sanctions by the government of France. Both sources described the efforts as part of a bid to keep the US as a party to the JCPOA by addressing President Trump’s concerns over flaws and omissions in an agreement he has described as the “worst deal ever.” But Reuters said that there was also substantial push-back against this initiative, and that the discussion of sanctions failed to dominate a debate among foreign ministers on Monday over the future of the deal.
Additionally, Fars News Agency, an Iranian outlet that is close to the Revolutionary Guards, reported that EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini had denied that any additional sanctions were proposed by the international body. Many European policymakers remain fixated on the prospect of rebuilding economic ties to the Islamic Republic, regardless of perceived flaws in the JCPOA or in Western policies toward Iranian destabilization of the Middle East.
The persistent lack of agreement among EU member states is putting the JCPOA in ever greater danger. On Monday, the Independent Journal Review quoted Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker as predicting that President Trump would most likely pull out of the agreement, unless European allies “really come together on a framework” for addressing his concerns.
In January, Trump renewed the waivers for sanctions that were suspended under the JCPOA, but he warned that unless the agreement was fixed he would not do so again when the waivers next come due in mid-May. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was credited with previously convincing the president to waive sanctions and to initially even certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. His ouster and the corresponding shift in foreign policy makes it more likely that Trump will follow through on his threats, especially in the wake of cooperative discussions with Iran’s leading adversaries.