A few days ago, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embarked on a journey to the Middle East. His tour to the region came following the US decision of withdrawing its troops from Syria. However, he had to cut short his visit owing to the death in his family. Mr. Pompeo’s visit had the emphasis on appeasing its allies over America’s decision on withdrawing troops from Syria and curtailing Iranian influence in the Middle East.
However, the particular rationale behind his visit was focused on countering Iran. The US has strained relations with Iran for almost the last four decades. The Obama administration endeavored to break the ice between the two by signing the JCPOA which was hailed by the world. But Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and reinstated sanctions on Iran in November 2018. However, these sanctions failed in subduing the Iranian rage over the US, which is the bitter pill for the latter to swallow. On the other hand, relations between countries in the Middle East are complex and multidimensional. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the UAE share a fraught history of relations with Iran. In the same vein, Iran harbors anti-Israeli sentiments and remains at loggerheads with Israel. Israel, the closest ally of the US, serves the latter’s interests in the Middle East. Likewise, the KSA and Israel share evenhanded terms and also Riyadh is a close ally of the US. Amidst these conditions, the US deems Iran as a threat to its interests. Now withstanding the whole scenario Mike Pompeo’s visit to the Middle East brings an appeal to counter Iranian role. As he stated in Cairo: “The need to counter the greatest threat of all in the Middle East, the Iranian regime and its campaigns of terrorism and destruction.” Mike Pompeo during his trip also stressed on GCC cooperation and to get rid of the Gulf Crisis. He urged Arab Military alliance to counter threats from Iran, thereby garnering support from Arab states against Iran. Here ambiguity rears that whether the US effort to bring Arab countries on one stance against isolating Iran will bear fruit or not?
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) comprises the KSA, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar. However, the GCC is divided over Saudi-Qatar conflict. In 2017, Qatar faced impasse in diplomatic and trade ties from the sides of the KSA, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt collectively. Qatar was accused of sponsoring terrorism in the region by harboring and supporting terrorists and extremists. Mike Pompeo said that an ongoing boycott of Qatar by four US allies in the Middle East has “dragged on too long.” Qatar also left OPEC in December 2018, the first Middle East country to abandon OPEC. Qatar also enjoys good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Trade between Qatar and Iran also witnessed growth when Iran traded 530,432 tons of non-oil commodities worth $104.43 million with Qatar last year. In 2018, Defense Minister of Qatar stated that Qatar wouldn’t be any part of military action against Iran. Oman, another member country from GCC too shares somewhat friendly relations with Iran. Oman and Iran have also signed the gas pipeline project of worth $1.2 billion.
Amidst these circumstances, with existing rifts within GCC countries, it is unlikely that Washington may earn full support from GCC members in isolating Iran. By some means, if the US becomes successful in bringing Arab countries together against Iran, this would plunge the Middle East into further crisis. The US approach to counter Iran with the alliance of Arab countries lack the saner approach. Donald Trump must rethink his move of torpedoing the JCPOA when Iran has been sticking to it. Even the rest of the signatories of the JCPOA opposed the unilateral move of Donald Trump. Right now, under the Trump administration, the US seems to lose grip on diplomatic engagements.
Being the World Power, the US ought to engage countries with soft front and through dialogues. Imposing sanctions on Iran when it was linear in its terms, Mr. Trump manifested undiplomatic stance over this move. And now the visit of Mike Pompeo to the Arab states in order to form an alliance against Iran is likely to escalate tensions in the Middle East. The US must remember that Iran has always supported Washington’s opposing side despite sanctions or economic hardship. In Syria, Iran supports Bashar al-Assad’s government, the opposite side of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Likewise in Yemen, Iran has opted to support Houthi rebels, which are anathema for the US ally Saudi-led coalition. In Lebanon, Iran has chosen Hezbollah for its support, which is accused of fighting against the US ally Israel.
With such an immense influence in the Middle East, and also on somewhat good terms with the GCC countries like Qatar and Oman, how can one think to isolate Iran? The Middle East is already smoldering owing to the clash of regional powers (Iran and KSA). It’s time for the US to rethink its policies regarding the Middle East, particularly for Iran. When it comes to Syria, the US should bear in mind that Iran earns the support of Russia, which can pose threat to the US interests if Iran is sidestepped. Isolating countries as well as claiming them rouge and dangerous for the region will never work out; instead, it will urge them to turn rouge. The US should invite Iran to a negotiating table if the former aspires to bring stability to the Middle East.
Image: The White House from Washington, DC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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The author is an Electronic Engineer, graduated from Islamia University Bahawalpur.