United States/Iran – Three months into its term, the Trump administration has fired rhetorical opening shots in its dealings with Iran, an issue likely to shape Washington’s Middle East policy in the coming years. Statements by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Defence Secretary James Mattis suggest that Washington is determined to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East. Observers say the Trump administration is likely to avoid a direct military showdown with Tehran and is not expected to end the nuclear agreement with Tehran, even though US President Donald Trump has called the accord the “worst deal ever.” Tillerson, in a speech in Washington, warned of “Iran’s alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence, destabilising more than one country at a time.” He renewed US accusations that Iran was responsible “for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining US interests in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon and continuing to support attacks against Israel.” The international agreement designed to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons “fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran,” Tillerson charged. He said the administration was reviewing American policies towards Tehran. In a statement issued a day before Tillerson’s speech, the State Department confirmed “that Iran is compliant through April 18 with its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” or JCPOA, as the nuclear deal is known. Iran rejected Tillerson’s speech and pointed to the State Department statement. “Worn-out US accusations can’t mask its admission of Iran’s compliance w/JCPOA,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif posted on Twitter. Mattis used a visit to Saudi Arabia to criticise Iran’s role in the conflict in Yemen, where Tehran-backed Houthi rebels have been fighting a coalition led by Riyadh. “We will have to overcome Iran’s efforts to destabilise yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbollah but the bottom line is we are on the right path for it,” Mattis said. The tough talk by Tillerson and Mattis masks an acceptance of political realities, analysts said. They said the Trump administration is aware that a unilateral decision to walk away from the JCPOA would leave the United States isolated, as its partners, especially the European countries involved, would stick to the agreement. One reason behind the rhetoric from the administration is that Washington wants to reassure US allies in the Middle East who felt betrayed by US President Barack Obama’s decision to cut the nuclear deal with Iran. “America’s message is: There’s a new sheriff in town,” said Alex Vatanka, an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington. For all its fiery words, the US administration is expected to keep JCPOA alive. “All the indications are that the Trump administration will abide by the agreement,” said Gary Samore, executive director for research at Harvard’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government. For Iran, there was “no advantage to be gained by blowing up the agreement” either, he added. By accepting the JCPOA, the US government is inviting questions about how this position can be squared with Trump’s campaign pledge to tear up the agreement. Given that promise, it was unclear what the purpose of the review mentioned by Tillerson would be, Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official, said. “What is there to review?” he asked. With the JCPOA secure at least for now, Washington is embarking on efforts to limit Iran’s regional influence, especially in Yemen, Samore said. Trump is also facing the challenge to weaken Tehran’s roles in the Syrian conflict and in Iraq. As Washington grapples with different and complex situations connected to Iran at the same time, working out a comprehensive plan to deal with the country will be difficult. “There is no Trump grand strategy on Iran,” Vatanka said. The challenge was to find an approach making sure that “if you do something on the nuclear issue, you don’t hurt yourself elsewhere.” The acceptance of the nuclear deal by both countries and a willingness on both sides to steer clear of a direct military confrontation is creating a framework for US-Iranian relations, Vatanka said. Iran’s upcoming presidential election is unlikely to change this, he said, adding: “Even the most hard-line candidate would stick to the agreement.” Rubin said the United States should concentrate on the year 2025 when the JCPOA expires and limits on Iranian research of nuclear enrichment are lifted. Unfortunately, Washington was not ready to do so, Rubin said: “That is a question that Trump is not interested in and the administration is not yet staffed to handle.”
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly
United States/North Korea – North Korea said on the 23 Apr 17 it was ready to sink a US aircraft carrier to demonstrate its military might, as two Japanese navy ships joined a US carrier group for exercises in the western Pacific. US President Donald Trump ordered the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to sail to waters off the Korean Peninsula in response to rising tension over the North's nuclear and missile tests, and its threats to attack the United States and its Asian allies. The United States has not specified where the carrier strike group is as it approaches the area. US Vice President Mike Pence said on the 22 Apr 17 it would arrive "within days" but gave no other details. North Korea remained defiant. "Our revolutionary forces are combat-ready to sink a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a single strike," the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the North's ruling Workers' Party, said in a commentary. The paper likened the aircraft carrier to a "gross animal" and said a strike on it would be "an actual example to show our military's force". The commentary was carried on page three of the newspaper, after a two-page feature about leader Kim Jong-un inspecting a pig farm. Speaking during a visit to Greece, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said there were already enough shows of force and confrontation at present and appealed for calm. "We need to issue peaceful and rational sounds," Wang said, according to a statement issued by China's foreign ministry. Adding to the tensions, North Korea detained a Korean-American man in his fifties on Friday, bringing the total number of US citizens held by Pyongyang to three. The man, Tony Kim, had been in North Korea for a month teaching accounting at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, the institution's chancellor Chan Mo-park told Reuters. He was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport on his way out of the country. North Korea will mark the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People's Army on the 25 Apr 17. It has in the past marked important anniversaries with tests of its weapons. North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, two of them last year, and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States. It has also carried out a series of ballistic missile tests in defiance of United Nations sanctions. North Korea's growing nuclear and missile threat is perhaps the most serious security challenge confronting Trump. He has vowed to prevent the North from being able to hit the United States with a nuclear missile and has said all options are on the table, including a military strike. North Korea says its nuclear programme is for self-defence and has warned the United States of a nuclear attack in response to any aggression. It has also threatened to lay waste to South Korea and Japan. US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on the 21 Apr 17 North Korea's recent statements were provocative, but had proven to be hollow in the past and should not be trusted. "We've all come to hear their words repeatedly; their word has not proven honest," Mattis told a news conference in Tel Aviv, before the latest threat to the aircraft carrier. Japan's show of naval force reflects growing concern that North Korea could strike it with nuclear or chemical warheads. Some Japanese ruling party lawmakers are urging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to acquire strike weapons that could hit North Korean missile forces before any imminent attack. Japan's navy, which is mostly a destroyer fleet, is the second largest in Asia after China's. The two Japanese warships, the Samidare and Ashigara, left western Japan on the 21 Apr 17 to join the Carl Vinson and will "practice a variety of tactics" with the US strike group, the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force said in a statement. The Japanese force did not specify where the exercises were taking place, but by the 23 Apr 17 the destroyers could have reached an area 2,500km south of Japan, which would be east of the Philippines. From there, it could take three days to reach waters off the Korean Peninsula. Japan's ships would accompany the Carl Vinson north at least into the East China Sea, a source with knowledge of the plan said. US and South Korean officials have been saying for weeks that the North could soon stage another nuclear test, something the United States, China and others have warned against. South Korea has put its forces on heightened alert. China, North Korea's sole major ally, opposes Pyongyang's weapons programmes and has appealed for calm. The United States has called on China to do more to help defuse the tension. Last Thursday, Trump praised Chinese efforts to rein in "the menace of North Korea", after North Korean state media warned the United States of a "super-mighty pre-emptive strike".
United States/Russia/Taliban – The United States must confront Russia for providing weapons to the Taliban for use against US-backed forces in Afghanistan, top US military officials say. According to the Associated Press news agency, a senior US military official said in Kabul on the 24 Apr 17 that Russia was giving machine guns and other medium-weight weapons to the group. The Taliban are using those weapons in Afghanistan's southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan, the official said. General John Nicholson, the American commander in Afghanistan, would not provide specifics about Russia's role in Afghanistan at a news conference in Kabul alongside Jim Mattis, the US defence secretary. But Nicolson would "not refute" that Moscow's involvement includes giving weapons to the Taliban. Asked about Russia's activity in Afghanistan, where it fought a bloody war in the 1980s and withdrew in defeat, Mattis alluded to the US' increasing concerns. "We'll engage with Russia diplomatically," Mattis said. "But we're going to have to confront Russia where what they're doing is contrary to international law or denying the sovereignty of other countries." "For example," Mattis said in the Afghan capital, "any weapons being funnelled here from a foreign country would be a violation of international law." Russia denies that it provides any such support to the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan until the US-led invasion in 2001. Moscow says contact is limited to safeguarding security and getting the group to reconcile with the government - which Washington has failed for years to advance. Russia has also promoted easing global sanctions on Taliban leaders who prove cooperative. The Afghanistan war began in October 2001. The US has about 9,800 troops in the country. They ended their combat mission against the Taliban in 2014, but are increasingly involved in backing up Afghan forces on the battlefield.
United States/Iran – The US Navy says a guided-missile destroyer fired a flare toward an Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel in a tense encounter in the Gulf. Lt. Ian McConnaughey of the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet says the incident happened on the 24 Apr 17. He says the Iranian boat came within 1,000 meters (yards) of the USS Mahan. The lieutenant says the Mahan "made several attempts to contact the Iranian vessel by bridge-to-bridge radio, issuing warning messages and twice sounding the internationally recognized danger signal of five short blasts with the ship's whistle, as well as deploying a flare to determine the Iranian vessel's intentions." The Iranian vessel later sailed away. Iranian authorities did not immediately report the incident on the 26 Apr 17. The US Navy and Iran routinely have tense encounters in the waters of the Gulf. On the 25 Apr 17 Emirati soldier Sgt. Abdullah Mohammed Issa Al Hammadi was killed after an Iranian boat entered Emirati territory the UAE’s official news agency WAM reported.