An Iranian woman walks past a mural on the wall of the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran. Photo: AFP / ATTA KENARE
An Iranian woman walks past a mural on the wall of the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran. Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

The statement by the US National Security Advisor Michael Flynn on Wednesday, against the backdrop of Iran’s missile test on Sunday, is the first major policy pronouncement on the Middle East strategies of the Donald Trump administration.

So far, all we knew were three things about the Trump administration. One, the defeat of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups will be its “highest priority” and to that end the US will pursue “aggressive joint and military actions when necessary.” Trump has issued an executive order with a 30-day timeline to the Pentagon “to devise a comprehensive strategy and plans” for the defeat of the IS.

Two, the Kremlin claims that President Vladimir Putin and Trump during their recent phone conversation “spoke out for establishing real coordination of action” between the two countries directed against IS and other terrorist groups in Syria. (The White House neither confirmed nor denied Moscow’s claim.)

Three, Trump singled out Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for exchanges with their leaderships regarding the Middle East situation. The pecking order has been deliberate, because Trump is yet to consult his Turkish counterpart President Recep Erdogan whose bright idea the ‘safe zones’ in northern Syria was in the first instance. Again, Trump left it to Vice-President Mike Pence to receive King Abdullah of Jordan on Monday.

The impression becomes unavoidable that Trump’s compass needle is pointing toward the Gulf region – precisely put, at Iran. The US just held a 3-day naval exercise off Iranian waters through February 2, which simulated attacks on Iranian combat jets, ships and coastal launching facilities.

Interestingly, before issuing the statement on Wednesday, Flynn consulted Defense Secretary James Mattis (formerly chief of US Central Command headquartered in Doha), who in turn promptly put a call through to the Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman (whose visceral antipathy toward Iran is all too well-known.)

It doesn’t need much ingenuity to figure out from the fast flow of events these past 3 days that Trump is looking for an early face-off with resurgent Iran with a view to reset the ground rules of what is, arguably, the single most sensitive template of the US’ Middle East strategies, which is indeed invested with a tortuous history.

Clearly, Flynn did not care to wait for the report from the United Nations Secretary-General on the actual nature of the Iranian missile test but has judged that the test is “in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (which calls upon Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”)

In effect, Flynn has lifted the topic of Iran out of the purview of the UN Security Council, which implies in operational terms that the US reserves the right to act unilaterally.

Second, Flynn has listed alongside the missile test the range of Iranian activities in the region. He attributed to Tehran the responsibility for the attacks in recent months by the Houthis of Yemen against Emirati and Saudi naval vessels and the threats to US and allied vessels transiting the Red Sea. Flynn said, “In these and other similar activities, Iran continues to threaten US friends and allies in the region.”

Flynn accuses the Barack Obama administration for failing “to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions” and, most ominously, recalls Trump’s trenchant rejection of the Iran nuclear deal.

All in all, therefore, Flynn’s statement goes far beyond the topic of Iran’s missile tests. He passes judgment on the regional policies of the Iranian regime, which, he says, “undermine security, prosperity, and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East and place American lives at risk.”

So, what does the Trump administration propose to do? Flynn concludes: “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”

The Trump administration appears to be spoiling for a showdown with Iran. Flynn’s statement is a litany of unsubstantiated allegations – especially, regarding the nature of the war in Yemen – and its only rationale will be that these allegations can be an alibi to justify military action against Iran.

A parallel can be drawn with the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964 in the Vietnam War, which led to the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by the US Congress and the commencement of open warfare against North Vietnam. In the present case too, Congress will act on Flynn’s statement and pass a thundering resolution against Iran. Further US sanctions against Iran is a certainty.

Flynn brought in the Iran nuclear deal and invoked Trump’s rejection of the deal. In effect, he just stops short of hinting at the option to abandon the deal. The game plan could be to provoke Tehran to take precipitate steps.

A ‘bipartisan consensus’ is building up behind the Trump administration’s tough stance on Iran. In political terms, the rallying by Republicans will eminently suit Trump. Simply put, Iran bogey can become a great unifier of opinion in the Congress. Trump’s Muslim ban is already a forgotten issue.

However, there are imponderables. If Flynn’s statement is the real stuff and not an act of shadow-boxing, Russia will find itself in a quandary. Just when Moscow took out the champagne bottle after Trump’s call. It is hoping to advance the Astana talks  – even drafting a constitution for Syria – while also forming a trilateral mechanism of Russia, Iran and Turkey (which Russian analysts call an ‘alliance’) to supervise the ceasefire and downstream peace-making in Syria – and just then, lo and behold, the ground is shifting beneath Putin’s feet.

The sudden eruption of US-Iran tensions also coincides with reports that Trump administration is executing a decision by Obama to supply weapons to ‘moderate’ Sunni Syrian groups (and the Syrian Kurdish militia) and is determined to establish safe zones with Saudi backing despite Russia’s misgivings. Has the Trump administration hoodwinked the Kremlin? Or, is Trump merely playing to the political gallery on the Hill by raising the Iran bogey as he prepares to consolidate power?

Without Iran’s cooperation, the US cannot hope to defeat the IS, leave alone bring stability to Syria. But then, that is predicated on the assumption that a strong, independent, secure, unified Syria is what the Trump administration desires. What if that isn’t the case?

Flynn’s statement suggests that Trump prioritizes the exit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Hezbollah from the Syrian theatre above anything else. There is little doubt that a storm is gathering. It could well be that Trump would prefer tough negotiations with Iran over a standoff. Or, it could be worse. Trump’s trump card is his unpredictability.

Russia faces the same predicament as China’s. It took Beijing a while to realize that making nice with Trump is a waste of time. His erratic negotiating style poses a wild card for Putin, too. But then, Beijing has more cards to play than Moscow.

Beijing’s leaders may seek to wait out Trump until he becomes amenable, hoping he softens, or his regime implodes. Whereas, the Kremlin is prone to making gratuitous assumptions.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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