Days after threatening Iran with “consequences the likes of which the world has never seen” in the aftermath of Iran’s President Rouhani claiming that any US war on Iran would be “the mother of all wars”, Donald Trump has indicated that he is willing to strike a new deal to replace the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal.
While Donald Trump’s willingness to negotiate a new deal with Iran days after threatening the country with this year’s version of the “fire and fury” which in 2017 in threatened the DPRK with might seem contradictory, today’s statement regarding a new “real deal” is in fact consistent with Trump’s style of brinkmanship as was witnessed in the tense run up to the Korean peace process which Trump and the wider world continue to endorse.
Minutes ago, Trump was quoted as saying,
“We’ll see what happens, but we’re ready to make a real deal, not the deal that was done by the previous administration, which was a disaster”.
This itself is in fact consistent with the fact that in September of 2017, Iranian officials claim that Trump and his team requested a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani no fewer than eight times while they were both in New York attended the opening of a new session of the UN General Assembly. Yesterday I described the pattern that appears to be emerging in Trump’s indirect engagement with Iran in the following way:
“The remarks exchanged more recently between Hassan Rouhani and Donald Trump follow an incredibly similar pattern. Throughout 2017 when the US and DPRK experienced a period of heightened tensions, officials in Pyongyang including Kim Jong-un threatened that if the US does anything to compromise its security, it would be met with a fierce nuclear response. Now that America’s always tense relations with Iran are entering a new period of hostility due to Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal), Iran has been issuing increasingly assertive statements including a threat to bloc all oil shipments from the Persian Gulf when the US re-imposes pre-JCPOA sanctions in November.
While the pattern of US sanctions and further threats which is then met by further regional and military threats from the nation targeted by the US is almost identical in respect of the US and Iran this year and the US and DPRK last year, the vexing question is whether the situation with Iran will result in the historic de-escalation that transpired between the US and DPRK when Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump held the first meeting between a sitting US and DPRK head of state in history?
Conventional wisdom would dictate that Iran is in a far more difficult position vis-a-vis the DPRK for the following reasons”.
I continued, offering a possible outcome of the current Rouhani/Trump war of words that differs from the received wisdom which would indicate that a DPRK style peace deal with Iran isn’t possible:
“While the aforementioned realities tend to point to a conclusion wherein Iran is far more vulnerable to US provocations than the DPRK was in 2017, there is an alternative view that bears further exploration. Last week Iranian officials reported that during the September 2017 opening of the UN General Assembly, Donald Trump had requested a meeting with Hassan Rouhani eight times. While this story has neither been confirmed nor denied by the White House, the fact that Iranian officials spoke of this with pride indicates two things.
First of all, it demonstrates that even prior to there being any whispers of a would-be Trump-Kim meeting, Trump was willing to sit down with the Iranian president inside the UN and discuss the future of the JCPOA and other matters of bilateral relations. Thus, for a Trump White House which in the autumn of 2017 was threatening to “destroy” the DPRK, dialogue with Iran was still possible.
Secondly, as the Rouhani/Trump war of words kicked off only days after the story broke of Iran rejecting Trump’s request for a meeting, it could be surmised that Trump’s fiery and furious response to the Iranian President’s statement is related to the fact that Trump might feel insulted that the Iranians are proclaiming that they rejected a would-be Rouhani/Trump meeting form a position of what Trump might consider moral smugness.
As Trump is well known for conducting geopolitics on a very personal basis, Iran’s promoting of the 2017 rejection of dialogue with Trump could well have irked Trump to the point that he is now planning on increasing the dramatic rhetoric of brinkmanship with Iran more so than ever before”.
While it remains to be seen what kind of new “real deal” Trump plans, the fact that Trump pursued a similar pattern of brinkmanship with the DPRK before ultimately engaging in an historic meeting with Kim Jong-un, means that it is not impossible that Trump might be pursing a similar strategy with Iran.
There are several reasons for this ranging from the objectively serious to the seemingly frivolous but equally important:
Helsinki and Tel Aviv
The Helsinki summit was historic primarily because it demonstrated that in the 21st century, while Russia and the United States continue to disagree on much, they both agree on the need to “preserve Israel’s security” as largely defined by Tel Aviv’s own notions of what constitutes security. This itself has led to a de-facto agreement whereby the US President endorsed the Russo-Israeli agreement wherein Russia would act as a guarantor over the withdrawal of Iranian, Hezbollah and Popular Mobilisation Units fighters from Syria’s frontier with the occupied Golan Heights and eventually the rest of Syria.
This deal has self-evidently led to the withdrawal of anti-Damascus White Helmet western proxies from Syria in an operation coordinated by Israel at the request of the US and its western allies, as both the US and Russia are working together to quietly, gradually and asymmetrically remove various foreign forces from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.
When taken in totality, based on the willingness of Israel to foster cooperation between the rival US and Russian superpowers over Syria, it is now highly conceivable that in this atmosphere, Trump might be willing to strike a deal directly with Iran that incorporates the elements of the aforementioned Russo-Israeli agreement where Iran is concerned, with the added element of an updated version of the original JCPOA.
Such an agreement would allow Trump to play the role of peacemaker which he clearly cherishes as the DPRK deal has signified. At the same time, Trump will have satisfied Israel in respect of Iran’s presence in Syria and while furthermore working to establish an atmosphere of further trust with Russia during a time when Trump seems keen to do so against the wishes of many in his own country.
The Nikki Haley Factor
At today’s meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the situation in Gaza and occupied Palestine more widely, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley who is famous for her anti-Russian diatribes, stated that ultimately, Palestine is neither an American nor a Russia issue but an Arab one. Specifically she said
“Palestinian needs are not an American problem anymore than a Russian problem or a French problem and they are certainly not more of an American problem than an Egyptian, Saudi, Emirati or Turkish problem”.
This remark itself is an indication that even among neocon hawks in the Trump Administration like Haley, there is an admission (however grudging) that Russia has played a constructive role in the Israel-Palestine conflict in which both the US and Russia – the inference being that while Russia and the US are both “trying their best”, the Arab countries of the region are themselves doing too little for Palestine. The statement is also unusual and thus significant as Haley elevated Russia’s position to that which is on par with that of the US itself and long time US ally France, all the while condemning America’s closest Arab allies, as well as Turkey – nations which are also incidentally all important partners of both Russia and China in the 21st century. In this sense, Russia’s modern partnerships with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey have somewhat perversely led to the US becoming more critical of their positions on regional issues all the while on the issue of Israel and Palestine, Nikki Haley has either intentionally or un-intentionally elevated the status of Russia in a major way.
The fact that Haley lumped her own nation in with Russia, a country which she has constantly criticised, is significant as it shows how Russia’s strong partnership with Israel is gradually convincing arch-Zionists like Haley that Russia is playing a positive or at minimum a neutral role in Palestine. Notably, Russia’s envoy who spoke immediately after Haley reiterated his country’s offer to host joint Israeli-Palestinian talks in pursuit of the so-called two state solution.
Hence, by subtly courting Russia, a country which remains committed to the existing JCPOA, the US could in fact be aiming to convince Russia to endorse a JCPOA 2.0 as part of a wider reconciliation deal with Washington.
The Obama factor
It cannot be overemphasised that based on Donald Trump’s highly personal approach to geopolitical affairs, one of the things that irked him most regarding the JCPOA was the fact that it is considered a triumph of Barack Obama’s otherwise lacklustre foreign policy achievements.
Because of this, just as Trump has vowed to both repeal and replace Obama’s domestic health legislation (the so-called Obamacare) so too has Trump repealed the US position on the JCPOA while now indicating that he intends to attempt and replace it with a new deal.
While Trump’s close relationship with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu clearly had a role in persuading Trump to dump the JCPOA, according to Netanyahu himself, just as there was little Tel Aviv could do in 2015 to stop Obama’s original JCPOA, there is little Tel Aviv could do to stop a JCPOA 2.0, especially if it is forged in the context of pursuing the terms of the Russo-Israeli agreement regarding Iran’s presence in Syria that was given a seal of approval by the US at the Helsinki summit.
While Donald Trump is full of rhetorical surprises, his approach to foreign relations is becoming increasingly consistent. The pattern of threat–open door to dialogue–more threats–another open door–a slammed door with more threats and finally attempts at genuine dialogue has in fact emerged with some measure of clarity.
Today’s statement is another insight into the likely emerging reality that a new JCPOA on slightly different terms may in fact be on the horizon. If things continue at such a pace, it may be that the US itself might convince Israel to embrace a peace conference for Palestine in Moscow. Stranger things have already happened in the last six months alone.