During a regional tour that took him to nine Arab countries in a little over a week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lobbied for support for Washington’s plans to make the region increasingly uncomfortable for Tehran.
On 7 January Pompeo arrived in Amman for the first stop of a tour that would take him to Baghdad, Cairo and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with Muscat in Oman as his last stop on Tuesday.
The trip was coupled with two parallel visits, also designed to corner Iran: US National Security Adviser John Bolton visited Israel and Turkey, and US Under-Secretary of State David Hale visited Lebanon.
In his visits to Baghdad, Cairo, Doha and Riyadh Pompeo spoke about US plans to expel “every Iranian boot on the ground” from Arab countries. He said that “increasingly countries understand that we must confront the Ayatollahs” and that work was being done by the US and its regional allies to end “Iran’s malign influence” in the region.
In Lebanon Hale spoke of the need to put pressure on the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, one of Iran’s strongest Arab allies. In Israel and Turkey Bolton discussed the need to make sure that the upcoming withdrawal of US troops from Syria, announced by US President Donald Trump late in December, would not allow for any expansion of Iranian influence.
Informed diplomatic and political sources say that Washington could face problems in lobbying for its anti-Iran plans, not least because it remains unclear what the US really wants to do about Iran.
Some US officials have hinted to regional interlocutors of the possibility of limited military action. The message was delivered in parallel to news reports suggesting that the White House had asked the Pentagon to offer possible scenarios for military action against Iran.
It also came against the backdrop of leaked information suggesting Bolton, a hawk in the Trump administration, had tried, against the advice of the Pentagon and recently resigned US secretary of defense Jim Mattis, to convince Trump to target military installations in Iran last autumn, using Iraq to stage the limited strikes.
According to one informed Cairo-based European diplomat, some in the region would have been happy to see Iran come under military attack though this was far from being the consensus among Washington’s regional allies, many of whom worried about what this would mean for Syria and Iraq, countries where the Iranian presence cannot be overlooked.
On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif arrived in Baghdad for a two-day visit to hold talks with Tehran’s Iraqi allies.
The visit came a few days after Pompeo’s, and as the Iraqi parliament was debating the need for the Iraqi government to clarify that strategic cooperation between Baghdad and Washington does not include permission for the US to use Iraqi territory for an attack against Iran.
According to European diplomats, it is almost impossible to determine the Iranian reaction to any attack. Would Tehran target American or other Western targets in Iraq and elsewhere in the region? Or would it allow Hizbullah to target Israel? Nor is it clear how the US can secure an Arab alliance to help with any possible action against Iran, military or otherwise.
During his tour, Pompeo was keen to tell his Arab interlocutors that the US would like to see an end to feuding among its allies in the Middle East. This was particularly the case regarding Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt and Qatar.
Speaking in Doha at a joint press conference with his Qatari counterpart, Pompeo said the time had come for the quarrel to end. Notably, Pompeo’s tour came simultaneously with the signing of two agreements to expand US military cooperation with Egypt and with Qatar.
But Pompeo’s talks with Washington’s Arab allies did not produce any promises among Arab adversaries to put aside their disagreements and move towards initiating the proposed Middle East Security Alliance (MESA) that would bring together the six GCC members, Egypt, Jordan and the US.
A meeting to upgrade talks among military representatives from the eight countries is being scheduled and should, according to one Washington source, take place in the US capital in advance of the meeting the US wants to see convened in Poland to discuss ways to contain Iran.
According to a well-informed political source, “when all is said and done, if the US decides it needs its Arab allies to take part in any action it will be hard to see this wish being declined, no matter what the concerns or the disagreements Arab states might have with one another.”
An Arab diplomat speaking about Pompeo’s visit said that during his talks in the region the US secretary of state had breathed new life into earlier Kuwaiti attempts to reduce tensions between Qatar, on the one hand, and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the other. Even so, no timeline had been offered for any meetings Kuwait might initiate.
Washington’s Arab allies began discussing what Pompeo’s visit might mean even before the US secretary of state had left the region, with talks between Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi hastily arranged in Amman. Hale and Bolton’s visits were also being subject to a forensic analysis by regional powers.
Informed European diplomats say there is concern over how far the US has managed to push its allies towards accommodating possible action against Iran without first calculating the impact any escalation against Iran might have on a region that is already in turmoil, and which has brought Europe face-to-face with a massive influx of refugees.
Iran is currently topping the agenda of talks between Washington and Moscow and between several European capitals and Washington. The European diplomats say the need to act prudently to try to reduce tensions in the Middle East means trying to find political compromises rather than going for head-on confrontations, whether political, economic or military.
European capitals remain wary of tensions between Turkey and the US over the management of Washington’s planned withdrawal of US troops from Syria, concerns that were inflamed by Trump’s threats on Twitter this week to drive Turkey to economic collapse should it attack Syrian Kurdish forces. They are also worried about the reliability of the political calculations of some of “the younger” leaders in the region who might end up rocking the boat in a way that prompts further instability.
The next few weeks, the same diplomats say, will see a flurry of consultations between European leaders and their Arab counterparts — not least French President Emmanuel Macron’s trip to the region in February — in an attempt to urge caution. Macron has long been uncomfortable with Trump’s policies on the Middle East, including on Iran and Syria.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Tipping the balance