US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh on May 21. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh on May 21. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was inked between Iran and its longtime Western rivals in July 2015, it was not simply a nuclear non-proliferation treaty – it was the invitation for Iran to retake its rightful seat at the table of nations.

Iran, a vast country with a history of empire, invention, culture and trade, would scale down its nuclear ambitions in exchange for engagement, an investment in its educated 80-million-strong population.

It was not only a significant undertaking for the Obama administration, part of a strategic vision of a regional and global adjustment but a risky, sustained step by the government of Hassan Rouhani.

In the months and years that followed, major Western corporations signaled that the future of the Middle East would go through Tehran.

Major oil companies, car manufacturers, and airlines were at the ready. None more so than the French oil giant Total, which in July 2017 led a consortium in signing a US$4.8 billion deal to develop the South Pars gas field – the world’s largest.

Total called it “a major contract which would contribute to the development of relations between Europe and Iran.” It was slated to begin supplying the Iranian domestic market by 2021.

Sanctions were already brewing across the Atlantic.

Natural allies

Iran – veteran negotiator Henry Kissinger has said – is a “natural ally” of the United States. A geographically and economically diverse country with an educated and dynamic middle class and powerful armed forces, it was for decades a pillar of US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Those relations were ruptured with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 when Shah Reza Pahlavi was overthrown and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rose to power.

In 1953, Washington had kneecapped Iran’s democracy with a CIA-orchestrated coup against the secular, elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh. His chief offense was to nationalize Iran’s oil industry and to reject British and American subservience.

When the pendulum swung once again against the West, it was Islamist revolutionaries in the lead.

It took nearly three decades for a US leader to prioritize a total reset with Iran. That was Barack Obama.

In 2007, then-candidate Obama told The New York Times he was ready to sit down with the leadership in Tehran.

“I think it is important for us to send a signal that we are not hellbent on regime change, just for the sake of regime change, but expect changes in behavior. And there are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behavior,” he said.

Addressing the Muslim world from Cairo in June 2009, Obama recognized the role the US had played in the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government half a century before, and called for talks without preconditions.

As a two-term president, Obama would devote significant political capital to securing an accord with Iran – part of a strategic vision for a recalibrated future of the region and America’s relations with it. Secretary of state John Kerry spent hours negotiating with Iran’s top diplomat, Javad Zarif, with a clear air of respect for his counterpart.

Arch-foes Saudi Arabia and Iran would need to learn to “share the neighborhood,” Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic in the wake of the 2015 signing.

During his last meeting with King Salman in April 2016, Obama encouraged the Saudi ruler to engage in diplomacy with the Iranians rather than proxy wars and power struggles. The king’s son, the crown prince known as MBS, could not contain his outrage later in the meeting, according to a top Obama adviser in the room.

The Iran deal, Obama’s detractors maintained, came at the expense of a decades-old alliance with the OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia. And despite a $38 billion aid package to the Israeli armed forces, the deal was viewed as an abandonment of Israel as well.

But by then, the Saudis had already identified a new political brand on the horizon: Donald Trump.

Total to Saudi

In the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign, perhaps no foreign-policy issue served as more of a foil for Trump against Obama than the “bad deal” his rival had struck with Iran.

While the flashy real-estate developer had argued against American meddling in the Middle East, breaking with Republican Party orthodoxy to condemn the George W Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, Iran was another story.

A meeting between President Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in March 2017 was hailed as a “turning point” in Riyadh, whose leadership was finally back in lockstep with the White House over a common desire to stifle Iran’s regional and global ambitions.

With plans to invest $150 billion in natural-gas stakes around the world, the Saudi leadership was looking to sideline Iran and its vast reserves.

In turn, the young prince was floating partial privatization of Saudi Aramco, nearly four decades after his predecessors had bought out Standard Oil, and presented himself as a friend to Israel who could act as an enforcer against the Palestinians. The Trump administration, with Jared Kushner in the lead, was convinced that an investment in the young prince would pay off for the coming century.

Even as Total began breaking ground in southern Iran, Trump was setting the stage for an economic coup.

In May 2018, the United States announced its abandonment of the nuclear pact. One year later, all previous sanctions had snapped back, including the most fatal: the blacklisting of the Iranian petroleum sector.

Unable to secure a waiver from US sanctions, Total pulled out of Iran in August 2018, having spent only $40 million of a promised multibillion-dollar deal.

Two months later, Total inked a $9 billion contract with Aramco to build a petrochemicals plant in Saudi Arabia. The same week, reports emerged that Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

As global outrage mounted over the killing, Total chief executive officer Patrick Pouyanné was boarding a plane for Riyadh to headline the Saudi crown prince’s “Davos in the Desert” investment conference.

“Total has never been in favor of sanctions and isolation,” he was quoted by the Financial Times as saying. For a company among many whose first choice was Iran, the statement can be taken with a heavy dose of irony.

James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s Rajraratnam School and Middle East Institute, argues that the worst-case scenario for Saudi Arabia is an Iranian regime acceptable to the West and unfettered by sanctions. 

Enforce a level playing field? “Iran wins this hands down,” he says.

That is the deal Trump has broken.

Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.

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