US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on 16 August the creation of what he called the “Iran Action Group.” The purpose behind the setting up of the group is to coordinate the US State Department’s post-nuclear-deal policy concerning Iran and to work with other agencies within the federal government.
Pompeo said that Washington hoped that “one day soon we can reach a new agreement with Iran, but we must see major changes in the regime’s behaviour inside and outside its borders” first. He added that the newly created group would “lead the way in growing efforts with nations which share our understanding of the Iranian threat.”
The Iran Action Group will be headed by veteran American diplomat Brian Hook who previously headed the state department’s policy planning and worked on renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran, or the Iran nuclear deal.However, these efforts failed, leading to the American decision on 8 May to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran.
Although the US administration denies it wants regime change in Iran, the creation of this group casts doubt on this position.
The group will have as its mandate nothing less than the fulfilment of the 12 demands that Pompeo outlined a few weeks after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal.
I dealt with these demands in a previous article published two weeks ago, but the point I would like to highlight here is that the Trump administration is now tightening the noose around Iran diplomatically, politically and on the general strategic level.
This effort comes in the context of a major American push for a new alignment of forces in the Middle East that will stand for many decades to come.
In the post-Second World War period, the Middle East saw the rise of five major regional powers, namely Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Israel. Regardless of the many radical changes that some of these powers have seen in the last seven decades, Egypt, Turkey and Iran in particular, the American strategy has remained unchanged. This has centred on working for a region-wide alliance against “common enemies and threats,” whatever that has meant, in which Israel would become the centre of this alliance.
Without going into the history of the Middle East and the upheavals that are reshaping the region, the anti-Israel powers are being weakened economically while facing mounting security challenges. They lack the resources and the power to oppose the emergence of a new institutionalised balance of power in the region to the benefit of Israel.
The battleground par excellence for this grand strategy is Syria and to a lesser degree Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine (meaning Gaza and the West Bank). In other words, this strategy refers to the same geographical boundaries that were the subject of the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France in 1916. This agreement was linked to the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain recognised a national home for the Jews in Palestine. The new redistribution of power in the Middle East one hundred years later is related to something even more dangerous, which is the final demarcation of the geographical boundaries of Israel at the expense of Arab sovereignty by rejecting the principle, recognised in all UN Resolutions concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict, of a return to the 4 June 1967 borders of Israel.
In 1916, the two great powers of the time that determined the fate of the Middle East for the next hundred years were Great Britain and France. The two great powers in today’s world that will have the final say on the new Middle East are the United States and Russia. It would not be a surprise if the American-Russian summit in July in Helsinki saw an understanding concerning the shape of the new Middle East.
The United States for all practical purposes accepted the long-term entrenchment of Russia in Syria in return for Moscow, in cooperation with Washington, ensuring the security of Israel in the face of Iranian enmity and making sure that Syria will not become a launching pad for future Iranian attacks against the country. Thus far, Russian moves on the Syrian board give credence to such a hypothesis.
As far as Turkey is concerned, the recent fall of the Turkish currency due to US sanctions targeting two ministers and some Turkish exports to the United States should be read in a larger strategic context than the differences concerning the fate of an American priest held by the Turkish authorities. The fast depreciation of the Turkish lira should be seen in Ankara as a wake-up call not to be on the wrong side of the tide of history in the Middle East. Further financial and economic pressures targeting Turkey will not be discarded as long as the Turkish authorities fail to understand the new regional realities. One test will likely come soon in Idlib in Syria.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia find themselves between a rock and a hard place. For one thing, they have publicly reaffirmed their commitment to the Arab Peace Plan of 2002 based on a land for peace formula as enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967, while what is offered by the American administration has been nothing but what is commonly known as an “economic peace.” Not only that, but the two countries could also be requested to join an Arab NATO that would include Israel for the purpose of containing Iran in the Middle East and the Gulf. The newly created Iran Action Group in Washington is an instrument in such a strategy.
Would Egypt and Saudi Arabia agree to join such a regional security grouping? It remains to be seen. However, regardless of their ultimate position in this regard, they will perforce be part of this new Middle East. It is to be hoped that these two Arab powers will have their say in Middle Eastern affairs in the years and decades to come.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* *A version of this article appears in print in the 30 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A new system for the Middle East