In the summer of 2018, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff reported that over the course of that year, Donald Trump’s US administration reached out to Tehran eight times in the hope of establishing a line of correspondence that would have led to a Trump-Rouhani meeting. It was further reported that even when Trump was willing to meet face-to-face with Rouhani at the United Nations when both leaders were in New York during September of 2018, the Iranian side refused the private invitation.
At the time, I wrote about the Iranian side’s refusal to meet with Trump in the following way:
“The Iranian side’s refusal to facilitate a meeting between Rouhani and Trump – one that the US leader apparently wanted very much, indicates that Iran made a strategic error both in terms of foresight and hindsight. The aforementioned examples of dialogue taking place in presently or historically difficult situations proves that even in the worst of times, communication and face to face meetings are preferable to long distance tensions and an atmosphere of volatile impersonal rhetoric.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that while Trump offered wildly anti-DPRK rhetoric during his speech at last year’s General Assembly, his current open relationship with Kim Jong-un has undoubtedly been good for the wider world and for both Korean states in particular.
Because it has long been known that Trump likes to build up tensions in order to then play the role of ‘hero’ by engaging in historic dialogue with an American ‘rival’, it is all the more bizarre that Iran is now touting the refusal of its President and his staff to meet with Trump when the opportunity arose, as if to imply that somehow Iran’s political leadership is more principled than that of the DPRK, Russia and China.
While it is true that Israel’s particular loathing of Iran when combined with America’s close relationship with Tel Aviv has made the issue of any breakthrough in Iran-US relations more difficult even than the present thaw in DPRK-US relations, it still seems awkward that Iran did not take the opportunity to engage in dialogue even in the faintest of hopes that some sort of partial breakthrough could be made. After all, it was this pragmatic but hopeful attitude that is pervasive when the Chinese President meets with the Indian Premier and likewise it was this attitude that eventually convinced the DPRK’s Chairman Kim Jong-un to sit down with Donald Trump”
As DPRK-US tensions remain low according to both sides, in spite of a mutual disagreement regarding the sanctions issue, it can be objectively stated that the Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un was a success in so far as it has clearly reduced tensions in north east Asia, has seen Pyongyang and Seoul partner for a long term sustainable economic relationship aimed at achieving peace through prosperity and finally, the peace process has resulted in a cessation of violent rhetoric flowing between the US and DPRK.
It has long been received wisdom that the US has no actual appetite for a full scale Iraq style invasion of Iran – much though Israel wishes the opposite were true. Thus, the de-facto theatre of hostilities between Iran and the US was primarily Syria and Iraq. With the military situation in Syria giving way to a political settlement that is largely being driven by Russia and Turkey, with Iran and the US playing something of a secondary role – opportunities for Iran-US antagonism in Syria are being minimised as a result of presently unfolding events. Likewise, although America’s Saudi ally attempted to challenge the Iraq-Iran partnership by staging anti-Iran provocations in the southern Iraqi city of Basra in 2018, for now, the situation in Iraq remains somewhat frozen with Baghdad caught in the middle of a rather forced US alliance in spite of many in Baghdad remaining on very good terms with Tehran.
Because of this, areas in the Middle East that were hot spots in respect of the Iran-US (non) relationship are becoming increasingly normalised due to events which have been largely beyond the control of both Washington and Tehran. In respect of the Iran-Israel conflict, it has been Russia rather than the US which offered Israel a de-facto insurance policy in which Moscow guaranteed Tel Aviv that Iranian troops and pro-Iran Hezbollah partisans would be withdrawn from areas near the Purple Line which separates the occupied Golan Heights from the rest of Syria. Furthermore, it was Russia rather than the US which assured Israel that there would be no Syria-Iran-Hezbollah attempt to liberate the Golan Heights in spite of Syria and its allies having the legally recognised right to take back its own illegally occupied territory.
As the US did nothing other than publicly acknowledge its positive views on Russia providing Israel with an ‘insurance policy’ against Iran with Trump going so far as to accurately remark that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a fan of Bibi” [the Israeli leader] – it is clear that Russia has largely subsumed what many would have thought was the US role of keeping Iranian and Israeli forces separated in Syria.
Elsewhere in Syria, in the west of the country, the Russo-Turkish authored agreement to effectively split Idlib has largely left Iran out of the equation with western Syria being largely divided between a Turkish zone of influence in much of Idlib and some of northern Aleppo Governorates on the one hand, with Syria and its Russian partner maintaining control over the rest of the west and south west of the country. Finally, while Iran never conducted any military advisory activities in north-eastern Syria, the expected gradual transfer of power from the US to Turkey in that region is likewise an issue that has nothing to do with Iran.
It is therefore against this background that one should understand Donald Trump’s recent statement about Iranian involvement in Syria when he said:
“Iran is no longer the same country…Iran is pulling people out of Syria. They can do what they want there, frankly, but they’re pulling people out. They’re pulling people out of Yemen. Iran wants to survive now”.
First of all, while Iran is more militarily powerful than it was prior to the Syria conflict by virtue of its military advisers being battle hardened though participation in a conflict in which Iran is largely seen as being on the winning side and while Iran’s support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels did not include any ‘boots on the ground’, there is another way of interpreting Trump’s statement that is focused less on his factual inaccuracies and more on his over all aim in making the statement.
Iran is quietly being squeezed out of Syria both by hostile forces but also by benign forces. While Turkey and Iran are enjoying excellent bilateral relations that have seen Turkey offering a robust defence to Iran’s attempts to resist unilateral US sanctions, in Syria, Turkey is now by far the most influential political player after Russia and in some respects Turkey is even more influential than Russia by virtue of the fact that Turkey is both a key Russian partner as well as being a major NATO member. Iran has therefore lost much of its sought influence over the political settlement in Syria and is instead acting more as the Astana trio’s rubber stamp than a mover of events.
Secondly, as it is Iran’s partner Russia that is siding with Israel over disputes along the occupied Golan Heights, there is little that Iran can do to reverse this trend without alienating Russia – one of the most important economic partners to Iran in a post-JCPOA environment.
Therefore, when taken as a whole, Iran can indeed ‘do what it wants’ in Syria, because Trump clearly understands that there is little left for Iran to do and that is before discussing how the GCC members of the Arab League are rapidly advancing the normalisation of relations with Damascus.
In this sense, it is in Afghanistan where Iran now has more actual and potential influence than in Syria. Unlike in Syria, there are Persianate ethnic groups in Afghanistan with long ties to Tehran. Beyond this, while in Syria, Iran has disagreements with both its Turkish and Iranian partners, about which little can be done from Iran’s perspective – in Afghanistan, Iran is increasingly on the same page as Pakistan, Russia and China in calling for a comprehensive all parties peace process that includes the Taliban while also being respectful to Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun minorities (most of which are indeed ethnically and/or culturally and spiritually Persianate).
It is against this background that one should view a statement from Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Director when he stated that US officials in Kabul informed him that they want to talk to the Iranian side. Here, it helps to remember that while today, Iran (like Russia) has pivoted its late 20th century position on Afghanistan, in 1998, Iran nearly declared war on the Taliban controlled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan after Taliban forces murdered ten Iranian diplomats at a consular facility in Mazar-i-Shari. But with the Taliban pledging that if (more likely ‘when’) they are back in power in some form throughout Afghanistan, they will not oppress non-Pashtun minorities, Iran has clearly accepted this olive branch and has worked with Pakistan, China and Russia to encourage an all parties peace process – one that technically the US also supports via its direct talks with with Taliban, the latest round of which recently concluded in the UAE on what Washington described as a positive note.
Therefore, with the US talking directly to the Taliban and with the US President reaching out directly to Pakistan’s independent minded Prime Minister Imran Khan over the issues facing Afghanistan and its beleaguered peace process, there is no reason why Iran could not also speak directly with the US about the Afghan peace process, not least because in 2001, Iran found itself privately in agreement with the US regarding Washington’s new found hatred of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan .
Should such a scenario unfold, the US would score a double-whammy in so far as Iran would be drawn further into a peace process which would allow the US to commence with the troop withdrawal long sought by the Taliban and now apparently also sought by Donald Trump. Secondly, by holding direct talks with Iranian officials, Trump could have another ‘Kim Jong-un moment’ by telling his electorate that he has “tamed Iran” when in reality, by endorsing Iran’s role in Afghanistan at a time when Russia and Turkey are minimising Iran’s role in Syria, Trump would in actual fact merely be allowing Iran to do what it was going to do anyway.
Of course, the US based Israel lobby will naturally put more pressure on Trump to avoid a handshake with the Iranian leadership than that which was the case involving the DPRK. That being said, Trump has shown an independent streak before and therefore Iran should not automatically dismiss US calls for a meeting between representatives of the two states.