IN THE Trump multiplex, three shows are on simultaneously. First, the stages between the announcement of withdrawal from the deal and real withdrawal — how signatories respond at each step. That is one play. Without the United States to lean on, will Britain ever countenance a grouping of which Germany is the most muscular member? Riveting stuff.
Second, consequences on West Asia. And finally, sauce for Iranian goose is not sauce for the North Korean gander. Nail biting suspense for the audience because no one will know what turn the three narratives will take.
Those smacking their lips at the prospect of Europe drifting away from the United States, into another lap, would do well to delay celebrations. True, Donald Trump has just handed them money for jam by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, but as I have said above, between announcement and actual withdrawal, there is time for a slip.
Almost on cue, Israel has provocatively sought to escalate the Syrian conflict by attacking what it says are Iranian assets. Israel must have been very peeved at Iran protégé Hezbullah’s Hasan Nasrallah administer an electoral one-two on the chins of Tel Aviv and Riyadh. After this week’s elections in Lebanon, he is indomitable in the country’s politics. He fulfils one of the laws of nature: he whom Washington opposes must win.
The other big reversal for the US-led alliance is Syria itself. Iran was beginning to loom menacingly over Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Does Washington’s withdrawal from the deal bring Iran down a few notches? Or quite the opposite happens? Iran looks dignified. Trump it is who has bartered away American trust. He is replacing measured policy with caprice and impulse.
President Barack Obama and secretary of state John Kerry sought to address the West Asian scene differently. Their world view was at a variance from Trump’s ‘non-world view’.
The Obama-Kerry approach to the Iran deal was conditioned by serious nuclear concerns, of course. But it was also a function of re prioritizing US role in world affairs in the context of China’s rise. The ‘pivot to Asia’, in their conception, required a more ‘hands-on’, focused attention to the Asia-Pacific region. They placed the Korean Peninsula in that framework. Diplomacy would advance US interests but without risking strategic alliances.
Having inadvertently enhanced Iranian stature by dismantling Taliban in Afghanistan (with Iranian help, let us remember) and Saddam Hussain in Iraq, the nuclear deal was one of the ways to manage Iranian power.
The deal had conferred legitimacy on the power structure in Tehran. A new balance of power in West Asia had become feasible. Tehran, Tel Aviv, Ankara, Riyadh, Cairo, would be part of this pentagonal balance of power.
The Palestinian peace process, Syria’s civil war, Yemen, money spinner for arms merchants but a diplomatic disaster — all demanded American attention on a daily basis. This stalled the crucial ‘pivot’.
Obama and Kerry sought to place Tel Aviv, Riyadh and others in the same tent as Iran. This was anathema to Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammad bin Salman. There was a frenetic stamping of feet at this prospect.
They were encouraged from the ‘new cons’ lobby parked in Washington think-tanks, campuses, media and sundry Zionist groups, that Israeli-Palestinian was no longer the West Asia’s core conflict. It had been superseded by the Shia Sunni schism. This was now the basic faultline conditioning West Asian affairs. ‘No one talks of the Palestinian issue these days’ remarked a very old but alert Henry Kissinger during a talk at the Nobel Academy in Oslo two years ago.
The issue which underpinned Arab unity until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990–91 was Palestine. Thereafter, Iran remained a thorn in the sides of regimes where the street was sensitive to the Palestinian tragedy — Egypt, Jordan, for instance. How did Iran aggravate the situation? Sustained focus on the Palestinian issue during Friday prayer sermons by the supreme leader in Tehran were routine. The agitation in the Arab street, and the basement, in response to these sermons gathered further strength in direct proportion to disturbing news from Gaza or the West Bank. It was continuous crisis management.
Swollen ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood would cause Hosni Mubarak to go running to the Saudi King, who opened his coffers for mosques and radio stations in Egypt which propagated exactly the political Islam which Saudi investments were supposed to quell.
Cairo’s discomfiture was a source of anxiety to Tel Aviv too: the Egyptian regime, under the American yoke, was well disposed towards Israel. But the Muslim Brotherhood’s growing links with Gaza were disturbing.
For the international community to remain consistently focused on the Shia-Sunni divide, the Palestinian issue must be placed under a haze. With their combined clout, Tel Aviv and Riyadh succeeded in shifting focus to Shia perfidy against Israel and Saudi Arabia. Remember, how livid Netanyahu was with Obama? Totally ignoring the US President, he sailed above his head to address the US Congress.
There was an ironical twist to the tale. Excessive focus on the Shia Sunni divide, quite unintentionally brought anachronistic Wahabism under global searchlights. This is one of the reasons for the Saudi Crown Prince’s impatient and risky gallop towards modernization.
If the Israeli-Saudi duet considers Trump a Godsend, the partners better investigate such qualities as Trump’s attention span, his intellectual stamina. Can he stand by impulsive decisions until they acquire the outlines of policy? He announced he was leaving Afghanistan, then ordered a military surge in that country. High appointees have been in and out of Trump’s rotating door with such rapidity that it is something of a world record. What becomes of the CIA director-to-be Gina Haspal, celebrated torture expert, will be watched with interest. His chilling endorsement of Haspel is in words that no American President, no ‘leader of the free world’ would have uttered in his wildest nightmare. He made one’s hair stand: ‘Torture works’ he repeated with cold deliberation ‘Torture does work’.
Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
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