Analysis

Iran, Yemen and Two More Bleeding Fronts Awaiting Trump's Next Tweet

Washington has become the most threatening front for Israel amid reports the United States is prepared to negotiate with Iran

Houthi rebel fighters ride on a truck mounted with weapons in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, August 1, 2019
Hani Mohammed,AP

The nightmare that Israel became trapped in after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah promised to retaliate for strikes in Lebanon suddenly seems like the least of the threats the country should fear. The real “threat” is emanating from the White House, whose owner is singing songs of peace with Iran.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who hasn’t yet managed to complete a single diplomatic deal, and whose diplomatic moves throughout his term have left a long trail of wreckage that has shaken U.S. allies and enemies alike, still clings to his faith that he is the grand master of conducting negotiations. At least four burning, bleeding fronts in the Middle East are waiting for his next tweet and the latest whim that will make the global situation more interesting.

And he didn’t disappoint them. Just this week, the U.S. State Department announced that it expects to sign an agreement with the Taliban that would allow some 14,000 U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan within 15 to 18 months, thereby finally extricating America from the quagmire in which it has been stuck for more than 18 years. The nine rounds of talks that have taken place in the Qatari capital of Doha may perhaps yield the longed-for end of the adventure President George W. Bush embarked on when he conquered the country where Osama bin Laden was based in response to September 11 attacks.

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The fact that America is negotiating with a murderous terrorist organization that has carried out thousands of attacks on U.S. troops and killed tens of thousands of Afghans no longer matters. Like Israel, Trump, too, learned fairly quickly that when the country’s interests make it necessary, it’s permissible to negotiate even with the devil.

U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, Washington DC, August 2019.
Carolyn Kaster / AP

It’s too soon to get excited about the progress in the talks with the Taliban. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani still hasn’t given them his blessing, and when it comes to the Taliban, last-minute obstacles aren’t unusual. But if an agreement is signed, it will give this lethal organization legitimate status as a partner in the government, which will enable it to take Afghanistan back to the dark times that prevailed when the Islamist organization ruled the country.

But Washington no longer cares. Unlike Bush, Trump doesn’t even use the phrase “spreading democracy” as a pretext for a continued American presence. He doesn’t believe democracy is suitable for Muslim countries.

Yemen is another regional theater that’s awaiting the start of negotiations between the Americans and the Houthis. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to open direct talks with the Houthis and impose a peace agreement on the Saudis. If this actually happens, it will consolidate a new diplomatic strategy under which, like in Afghanistan, it’s better to deal with the enemy directly rather than using other states as intermediaries, whether militarily or diplomatically.

The Houthis are considered Iran's proxies, who are giving Tehran an important foothold in the southern Arabian Peninsula and on the Red Sea. Over the past four years of fighting, they have become the symbol of the battle America and its Arab allies are waging against Iranian influence in the Middle East.

But Yemen’s civil war is primarily an internal struggle between an oppressed population that has been excluded from the centers of power and generations of Yemeni governments. The Houthis allied with Iran because it agreed to help them, but they could just as easily receive help from other countries, if any were to offer.

It’s not ideology, or even the weak religious connections between Iran and the Houthis, that led to the civil war. Rather, Saudi Arabia feared that the civic uprising in Yemen would spread to its territory, and therefore saw suppressing it as a national security goal – just like it worked to suppress the Arab Spring revolutions in all the Arab states where they took place.

The Houthis – who held talks with the U.S. administration under President Barack Obama – could have served America as an auxiliary force in the war against Al-Qaida and other Islamist terrorist organizations, like the Islamic State. But because the war was defined as part of the battle against Iran, America had no choice but to join forces with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to suppress the Houthis.

But then it became clear that the best Saudi and UAE troops were insufficient to achieve a victory. The UAE’s withdrawal from the field of battle and the renewed ties it has developed with Iran, alongside the political battle in Washington between Congress and the president, led to the conclusion that in Yemen, too, it was better to take the diplomatic route, and perhaps this could ultimately deprive Iran of its foothold in Yemen.

Khaled bin Salman, the younger brother of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, visited Washington this week to find out what the administration is planning. Prince Khaled was received with all due respect, but Washington's attitude toward Saudi Arabia has changed dramatically since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, to the point that the crown prince himself has become persona non grata in the American capital.

A quick resolution of the war in Yemen is politically essential for both Trump and Salman, since the future of the American-Saudi alliance hangs in the balance.

The Iranian conditions

However, the Afghan and Yemeni fronts pale in comparison to Trump’s about-face in his position regarding Iran. There are several signs that Trump and Iran are beginning to plot a diplomatic path.

Trump has publicly declared that he was prepared to negotiate with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, and Iran responded that it is always ready to hold talks; Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made a surprise visit to the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, which French President Emanuel Macron said was planned with Trump’s knowledge; and Zarif is planning to visit Russia and France next week. Trump’s statement on the sidelines of the Biarritz summit that he hoped to reach a deal with Iran that would extend past 2025 – when the current nuclear accord is due to expire – and entail freezing or canceling its ballistic missile program and an Iranian commitment not to develop nuclear arms was particularly important. And so, only three conditions remain of the 12 that Pompeo laid down as a basis for removing sanctions, and even those are subject to negotiation.

Iran still is in no hurry to agree to the French-American initiative, but this diplomatic discourse turned the Iranian-American dialogue into a discussion about conditions that would be presented during negotiations even before the negotiations were held. Iran attained not only the status of a legitimate state whose leadership one can and should negotiate with, but also forced Trump to shrink his list of demands, and became the one to present Trump with its conditions.

Analyses published in Iranian media indicate that Tehran believes the United States and European signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal had no option left but to negotiate. The sanctions that the United States levied on Tehran has riven deep fissures in the transatlantic relationship and failed to stir a civilian revolution in Iran that would threaten the regime. The military option was taken off the table, at least according to statements by the United States and Saudi Arabia that stressed its opposition to war and its position that attacks in Iraq and Syria attributed to Israel do not pose an existential threat to it.

While there is a fundamental argument in Iran over the feasibility of negotiations with the United States, this time it involves the tactic of negotiating, as opposed to other issues that bothered decision-makers on the eve the nuclear deal was signed.

Iran is publicly demanding the full repeal of sanctions as a condition for any negotiations. But the dispute within Iran revolves around the conditions Iran would have to set if a full repeal of sanctions doesn’t happen without a quid pro quo from Tehran. Iran says it plans to announce another round of cuts to its commitments to the nuclear deal on September 7, without giving details. Analysts believe that unless a diplomatic solution is found, Iran will enrich uranium to a significantly higher level and increase its stockpile of enriched uranium.

However, the pressure that this timetable imposes goes both ways. Just as European countries and the United States don’t want to reach a point of no return in which Iran will be declared as completely violating the nuclear deal, Iran also doesn’t want to reach that point because it would lose its leverage and leeway.

The options available to both sides are few. Aside from the possibility that both sides will adhere to their positions, Trump could decide to give a partial exemption to a small number of countries for a limited time, as well as announce that the United States will abide by the principles of the nuclear deal without being a partner to it. Iran could view such gestures as sufficient steps to begin negotiations, as long as the talks aren’t deemed as a new nuclear agreement. Iran has already agreed to a more stringent supervisory regime than what the nuclear deal requires, but the United States doesn’t consider this offer as sufficient for starting negotiations.

The United States would have to take into consideration Saudi Arabia's and Israel's interests in all its future negotiations with Iran. This fragile balance entails an important role for Yemen's Houthis, who worry the Saudis, and for Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens Israel. It is nearly mission impossible to defuse all these tripwires in one session of negotiations. It bears the enormous weight of maintaining the prestige of all sides, displaying an exceptional diplomatic marketing ability, avoiding volatile political land mines on every front, achieving security agreements, and attaining guarantees in an atmosphere that lacks any trust.

Paradoxically, an unpredictable leader like Trump, whose diplomatic rationality isn’t exactly his strong point, who by mere words turned the dictator of North Korea into a friend and doesn’t understand why he’s not supposed to mock European leaders, could give us the essence of Trumpism and untangle the web he has weaved.