PATRICK LAWRENCE: At UN, European Allies & Trump Clip Pompeo’s Hawk Wings

PATRICK LAWRENCE: At UN, European Allies & Trump Clip Pompeo’s Hawk Wings

After the recent strikes on Saudi oil facilities, E-3 leaders offered a sop to the secretary of state but resisted key elements of his “maximum hostility” campaign towards Iran while  Trump also distanced himself. 

This week’s General Assembly at the United Nations was supposed to be the hawkish Mike Pompeo’s big moment in his determined campaign against Iran. Having blamed the Islamic Republic with unseemly haste (and no evidence) after the mid–September attacks on two Saudi oil production sites, the secretary of state had hoped the 74th GA would leave Iran decisively isolated, facing still more punishing sanctions, and at risk of a U.S.–led military action.

It has not worked out this way. Netting out a week of frenetic activity among the world leaders assembled in New York, two truths are now clear.

First, President Donald Trump has effectively sidelined Pompeo’s weeks-long effort to generate support for a military response to the attacks in Saudi Arabia. To his credit, Trump remains convinced that the Iran crisis will be resolved — however long this takes — at the mahogany table. This marks a significant turn. From here on out, the hawks still hovering in the Trump White House stand to isolate only themselves if they continue their attempts to scuttle diplomatic dialogue (as they surely will).

Second, a level assessment of swift, back-to-back developments in New York this week suggests it is no longer feasible to isolate Iran as Pompeo and other Trump administration hawks advocate. The Europeans are simply not buying into Pompeo’s “act of war” rhetoric. The Dealmaker, with a re-election campaign in the offing, is eager to hit the hustings with a major foreign-policy success notched onto his holster. He is wrong to think he can coerce Tehran back to the bargaining table, but he is right to want them there. There is no military solution to the Iran crisis. 

Of greatest importance, Iran’s status in the global community, notably but not only among non–Western nations such as China and Russia, gradually leaves it immune when faced with U.S. efforts to sanction it out of existence. Yes, the sanctions regime imposed since Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord hurts. It also leaks. Given that the vast majority of nations disapproves of Washington’s coarse use of human suffering as leverage over Tehran, these leaks are likely to weaken the sanctions regime significantly over time.

Strategic Ambiguity Abounds   

It was all “strategic ambiguity” at the UN this week. On Monday the European signatories to the pact governing Iran’s nuclear programs — Britain, France and Germany; the E–3 — issued a joint statement blaming Iran for the Sept. 14 drone and missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities. But in acquiescing to Pompeo’s version of who was responsible in Saudi Arabia, the Europeans made no mention of imposing new sanctions on Iran or participating in joint patrols of the Persian Gulf, as Pompeo and other administration hawks have urged. The best reading of the E–3’s statement is the simplest: It was a sop of no consequence intended to mollify hawkish factions in the Trump administration.

Pompeo saw this year’s GA as his moment to pull the E–3 back to Washington’s side on Iran, using the Saudi attacks as the occasion they would join what amounts to his “maximum hostility” campaign. The secretary’s failure now lies beyond dispute. As of this week it is clear that the Saudi events in mid–September will not stand as the definitive turning point Pompeo plainly hoped they would be. The Europeans have instead used this GA session to redouble support for a diplomatic solution to the Iran crisis, this time by urging talks between Trump and Hassan Rouhani, his Iranian counterpart, with the purpose of producing a renegotiated accord.

President Donald Trump in bilateral meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at UN headquarters, Sept. 24, 2019. (White House/ Shealah Craighead)

In effect, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron have assumed the mediating role the latter has sought in other contexts recently. Johnson called for new talks between Washington and Tehran as soon as he arrived in New York.  “There’s one guy who can do a better deal,” he said Monday. “I hope there will be a Trump deal.” Irib News, a unit of Iran’s state broadcaster, subsequently carried a video clip of Macron and Johnson as they urged Rouhani to meet Trump on the GA’s sidelines.

Mr. Mixed Signals

Per usual, Trump was Mr. Mixed Signals in New York this week. On Wednesday afternoon the administration announced new sanctions against China for its continuing purchases of Iranian oil. Shortly afterward, the White House said it will bar senior Iranian officials from entering the U.S. When he addressed the GA Tuesday, Trump accused the Iranians of “bloodlust.”

All very good for the headlines. But once again, it is important to read these developments for what they are; gestures consistent with the pre-negotiation tactics Trump has repeatedly deployed with foreign leaders since taking office. None of these moves is likely to prove of any consequence. How many senior Iranian officials are showing up in the U.S. these days? As to the sanctions against China, they will probably serve as a bargaining chip when Sino–U.S. trade talks resume next month.

The Dealmaker’s true intent at the UN was evident in a move one must count imaginative regardless of what one may otherwise think of Trump. In a one-to-one meeting with Imran Khan, he authorized the Pakistani prime minister to mediate in his behalf with Rouhani. Khan, an outspoken critic of Islamophobia in the West, subsequently met the Iranian leader on the GA’s sidelines to discuss an “an amicable solution to the US–Iran standoff,” as Khan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, put it in an official statement.

Rouhani’s Own Multiple Messages

Irib News clip of French President Emmanuel Macron, at left, and U.K. Prime Minster Boris Johnson with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, in center.

Rouhani also proved adept at sending multiple messages. “Our response to talks under pressure is no,” he said when he addressed the GA Wednesday. He then unfurled Tehran’s standing position: No talks on the nuclear pact unless the U.S. rejoins it as it is and lifts all sanctions. More or less simultaneously, Iranian officials made it clear there was no chance of a Trump–Rouhani handshake in New York this week, as had been anticipated.

But Rouhani stated more clearly than at any time previously that Iran is willing to reopen the nuclear deal. “This is the message of the Iranian nation,” he said at the conclusion of his speech. “Let’s invest in hope toward a better future rather than in war and violence. Let’s return to justice, to peace … and finally to the negotiating table.” The New York Times reported Friday that Rouhani later acknowledged that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear agreement is formally known, could be broadened to cover questions beyond Iran’s the nuclear program. “We can go beyond the JCPOA,” Rouhani said prior to his departure Thursday.

Where might “beyond” be? There are at least three questions on which Washington and Tehran can find common ground.

The nuclear question should not be a heavy lift. Trump has said many times that his No. 1 priority is making sure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. Tehran has signaled many more times over many more years that it is ideologically opposed to nuclear weapons; it would not otherwise have signed the nuclear agreement. Iran’s overriding concern lies in adequate defenses. A new accord can nickel-plate its commitment to nonproliferation without much ado.

Iran’s missile programs are more complicated but nonetheless resolvable. Cautiously so as not to rile hardline factions in Tehran, Rouhani and his gifted foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have also hinted that they are willing to negotiate on limits to missile development. But agreement on this question will require the U.S. to accept that Tehran’s desire to develop defensive missile systems is legitimate given the Islamic Republic’s hostile neighbors — Israel and Saudi Arabia chief among them. Washington has so far ignored this reality.

A third candidate for negotiation is Iran’s call for a regional security mechanism through which conflicts can be resolved without resort to military conflict, armed proxies, Western interventions and the like. Rouhani was expected to outline this concept in his GA speech but stopped short of doing so. Zarif, however, has advanced this proposal on numerous occasions.

The danger of war in the Persian Gulf region has just receded significantly. Trump has managed to push aside his belligerent secretary of state. These are the take-homes from the UN this week. And they are well worth taking home.