Tehran’s limited options might require a rethink of strategy with the US
The midterm elections will undoubtedly impact US foreign policy, with Democrats poised to obstruct Donald Trump’s agenda through their newly increased power in the House of Representatives. Mr Trump has said he is not worried about potential congressional investigations but Democrats are determined to put a spoke in the wheels of his foreign policy, even as they seem to be – albeit begrudgingly – planning to avoid pushing for impeachment amid fears they might be accused of deepening the rift among Americans to dangerous levels.
Russia is at the top of the Democrats’ list, given that they are convinced the Russians meddled in the presidential election that saw Hillary Clinton defeated. They will be scrutinising the US president’s relationships in the Middle East. And there is Iran, which former president Barack Obama had cosied up to during his term in office, signalling that the most important part of his legacy was mending relations with Tehran by legitimising the regime there. He sealed a nuclear deal with its leaders in 2015, which was swiftly shredded by Mr Trump this year.
Mr Trump may or may not be right to downplay the impact of the Democratic momentum in Congress on his policies. But it would be a mistake for the countries concerned to see his sense of perspective as a guarantee of continuous foreign policy, because the anti-Trump media will now double down and partner with Democrats in Congress as they gear up to identify the weakest links.
For its part, Iran will be studying its options to find any opportunity and might resort to secret negotiations again to repair relations with Washington in the hope of striking a deal similar to the previous one. The Arab Gulf states must therefore pursue an in-depth reading of US-Iranian relations and make contingency plans in the event Washington backtracks from their demands regarding ending Iran’s regional expansionism, in exchange for reforming the nuclear deal and normalising relations with Tehran. Abandoning allies and partners would be nothing new for US policy, where national interests are given an absolute priority, no matter the cost to America’s reputation abroad.
During Mr Obama’s tenure, Tehran was determined to secure three key points: first, a recognition of the legitimacy of its regime, including non-interference in Iranian domestic affairs and refraining from supporting Iranian opposition factions. This was duly delivered by Mr Obama from the UN General Assembly rostrum. Second, the regime demanded recognition of its right to nuclear energy, which was secured under the nuclear deal. Third, it wanted tacit acceptance for its regional role and excursions, which were effectively sanctioned by the nuclear deal, as Iran insisted on excluding those issues during the negotiations and threatened to leave the table should they be raised. In addition, Iran sought to invalidate UN Security Council resolutions that crippled its ability to conduct military interventions, support proxy militias and deploy military personnel outside its borders.
According to one source in Washington familiar with the Tehran mindset, the Iranians might not be good at war “but they are good at negotiations”. Now after expanding the sanctions that the Trump administration thinks will force Tehran to accept the terms for new negotiations, it is possible the Iranian leadership will decide to contain Trump’s policies rather than challenge them, the source said.
Tehran has limited options. In terms of the economy, it faces a costly collapse that will have an impact both domestically and on its foreign projects, given the scope of new US sanctions. In other words, the regime could implode from within and the project to build a crescent of influence could stumble in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, even though the cost of Iranian intervention via the Houthi rebels in the latter country is not high.
Traditionally, Iran has resorted to patience and stalling in its foreign policy, to frustrate the other side and to underscore its resilience and persistence. However, there is a different scenario in play today. The Trump administration has a stronger appetite for patience, because the new sanctions are a direct threat to the rulers in Tehran and time is not on their side.
In Lebanon, Iran’s partners wanted to wait for the outcome of the US midterm election, hoping they would shackle Mr Trump’s hands. They must have seen an opportunity in the Democratic takeover of the House. However, the Iranian leadership is no doubt aware that a Republican-controlled Senate is more important than the House when it comes to major legislative decisions and that the time required to effectively challenge Mr Trump’s policies does not serve Iran’s more urgent needs.
In light of this, it is likely the rulers in Tehran will resort to secret negotiating channels to hold talks with officials in the Trump administration in the hope of pulling off a mutually beneficial deal. Today, there is an urgent need for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain to be crystal clear with the Trump administration and highlight their concerns over the US history of abandoning friends and allies, and to insist the issue of Iranian expansionism is not once again sidelined as a price for a deal with Iran that benefits Washington. It might be useful for these countries to remind Mr Trump that this was exactly what Mr Obama did. It is crucial for Arab Gulf states to draft a comprehensive strategy that would guarantee their interests and relations with the US, whether with the Republican administration or a Democratic House.
A wise strategy by the Arab Gulf states would be to conduct a frank review of the state of relations with the US, address the gaps boldly and transparently, and probe the ways they can meet the priorities and policy demands sought by Washington. Here, the first stop might be Yemen. Indeed, stopping the war in Yemen is a goal desired by both the Arab coalition and Washington. Compromise and concessions must be accepted as a necessary part of any political solution. Second, the Houthis must be encouraged to disengage from Iran. Third, Russia must be encouraged to pressure Iran to end its provocations against the Gulf states. And fourth, Washington must be encouraged and supported to lead the effort to end the war in Yemen and find workable solutions.
This is not the time to be complacent and assume everything is okay just because the Trump administration says so. In fact, the situation is very delicate. The US has never hidden the fact that its own national interests always come first and Mr Trump has never hidden the fact that making deals is his favourite game.