US President Donald Trump, left, walks next to new national security adviser Robert O'Brien on September 18, 2019 at Los Angeles Airport. Photo: Nicholas Kamm / AFP

With news that President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif received US visas to attend the UN General Assembly, a possible way for the United States and Iran to circle back and de-escalate the Middle Eastern crisis can be visualized.

To the extent Iran was involved in the attack on Saudi oil facilities, whether directly or through Yemeni Houthis, what we were seeing most likely was the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps plotting to keep Macron’s “little gestures” initiative on the sideline of the G7 summit in Biarritz from bearing fruit.

The Revolutionary Guards’ commander, Major General Hossein Salami, said on Thursday the country is “so powerful” that it is “falsely” accused of being behind any regional incident, Fars news agency reported.

When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday denounced the strikes as an “act of war,” comments seen as raising the risk of a wider conflict in the Gulf region, it may have appeared the Iranian hawks had succeeded. Zarif himself was into the spirit of the rhetorical contest, warning that any US or Saudi military strike on Iran could cause “all-out war.”

But it seems clear that Trump – whose determination to remove the US from long and useless wars in the Middle East and South Asia had been a central plank in his 2016 election campaign – reminded himself that bellicosity isn’t such a good idea.

After all, he had fired John Bolton as national security adviser because Bolton didn’t understand what Trump and Pompeo recognize, even if they don’t say so explicitly – that military options really don’t exist.

Oil facilities are highly vulnerable, as we saw last Saturday. A key factor speaking against a US military strike is that oil would stop flowing. Period. We can assume someone told Trump that. We can also not merely assume, but know that top US military leaders warned the US President that no good military options were available.

UN General Assembly

Thus, circling back to the Rouhani-Trump meeting idea makes sense for Trump, especially if he can broaden it to involve the UN in a Gulf War-style coalition.

You could hear the change of heart in Trump’s words. “If it was up to me I’d let them come,” the president said when reporters asked if Rouhani should be admitted to the US. “I’ve always felt the United Nations is very important.”

And Trump essentially told his bosom pal, the hawkish Senator Lindsey Graham, to go to hell. Graham, of South Carolina, had suggested the Iranians had felt they could get away with drone and cruise missile attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia because Trump had not responded forcefully when the Iranians brought down an unmanned US drone in June.

“I actually think it’s a sign of strength,” Trump retorted. “Ask Lindsey, ‘How did going into the Middle East, how did that work out? And how did going into Iraq work out?’”

That’s the context for this news: “Foreign Minister, @JZarif is leaving for New York early on Friday morning to attend the 74th session of UNGA,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi wrote in a tweet on Thursday.

“The minister usually departs a day or two before the President,” he added, seemingly confirming that both were traveling to the United States.

As the host government, the United States is generally obliged to issue visas to diplomats who serve at UN headquarters. But as Iran’s top diplomat, Zarif was sanctioned by the US on July 31 – ahead of the UN General Assembly debate due to begin on Tuesday.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world body had been in contact with the US “to solve all outstanding visa problems in relation to delegations.”

Before the Saudi oil attacks intervened and sent tensions spiraling, French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been seeking to defuse the standoff over the Iranian nuclear program, had won an assurance from Trump at last month’s G7 summit in Biarritz that he was ready to meet Rouhani.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters before leaving Abu Dhabi on Sept 19. US special representative on Iran Brian Hook is on his left. Photo: Mandel Ngan/ pool / AFP

Desire for a coalition

Pompeo on Thursday, speaking to the traveling press in Abu Dhabi en route back to Washington after talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, placed considerable emphasis on the administration’s desire to build a coalition.

Asked whether, in view of Zarif’s comment about an act of “all-out war,” there’s an opportunity for some sort of peaceful resolution, he replied: “Certainly that’s what President Trump – it’s what America, always – wants. We’d like a peaceful resolution, indeed. I think we’ve demonstrated that. They’ve taken down American UAVs, now conducted the largest attack on the globe’s energy in an awfully long time, and we are still striving to build out a coalition.

“I was here in an act of diplomacy. While the foreign minister of Iran is threatening all-out war and to fight to the last American, we’re here to build out a coalition aimed at achieving peace and a peaceful resolution to this. That’s my mission set, what President Trump certainly wants me to work to achieve, and I hope that the Islamic Republic of Iran sees it the same way. There’s no evidence of that from his statement, but I hope that that’s the case.”

First Gulf War

The coalition talk was reminiscent of the first Gulf War.

On November 29, 1990, the UN Security Council authorized the use of “all necessary means” of force against Iraq if it did not withdraw from Kuwait by the following January 15. By January, the coalition forces prepared to face off against Iraq numbered some 750,000, including 540,000 US personnel and smaller forces from Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among other nations.

Early on the morning of January 17, 1991, a massive US-led air offensive known as Operation Desert Storm hit Iraq’s air defenses, moving swiftly on to its communications networks, weapons plants, oil refineries and more.

It appears that rather than going it alone in defense of Saudi Arabia – not a US treaty ally and seeking which would run into massive US Congressional and popular opposition – the Trump administration has decided to assemble as broad a coalition as possible, perhaps within the UN framework, to exert pressure on Iran and to act as a deterrent.

Asked by a reporter if there would be more sanctions, Pompeo replied: “There will be. There will be more sanctions. We have set about a course of action to deny Iran the capacity and the wealth so that they can conduct their terrorist – to prevent them from conducting their terror campaigns. And you can see from the events of last week there’s still more work to do. We’re going to continue to drive towards that end.

“You cannot fail to see the failed policy of giving money to this regime by what happened in Saudi Arabia, right.  The previous administration chose to give $150 billion. There are still those today who think, boy, if we just give Iran just a little bit more money, they’ll become a peaceful nation. We can see that that does not work. And so the President’s direction to us, to continue to prevent them having the capacity to underwrite Hezbollah, Shia militias in Iraq, their own missile program, all the things that they have done to pose a threat to the world, that’s the mission set with our economic sanctions.”

Iran and the United States have been at loggerheads since May last year when Trump abandoned a 2015 nuclear deal and began reimposing sanctions in its campaign of “maximum pressure.”

Iran responded by scaling back its commitments under the landmark accord, which gave it the promise of sanctions relief in return for limiting the scope of its nuclear program.

The latest escalation had the US blaming Iran not only for last Saturday’s attacks on two Saudi oil installations but also for a string of recent assaults on shipping in sensitive Gulf waters, all denied by Iran.

The UN General Assembly debate is due to begin on Tuesday.

 – With reporting by AFP –

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