Amid a calculated and proactive realignment by Russia and China ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump, Europe appears tense and scattered. The Gulf states seem to be waiting in limbo, without a preemptive strategy. Iran appears vigilant, eager to preserve its regional gains and protect itself from the new U.S. administration that seems intent to scrutinize its every action. The UN has launched a new era with the inauguration of its new Secretary General Antonio Guterres earlier this month, amid reinvigorated efforts by the Security Council and international envoys in conflict zones from Libya to Yemen via Syria. Russia has commandeered the Syrian issue from the UN in Geneva, and taken it to its backyard in Astana, Kazakhstan, deliberately excluding the international organization from the Syrian peace process. The Gulf countries have responded by clinging to the UN role and resolutions, and by renewing their wager on the partnership with Europe in rejecting Russia's hijacking of the issue and refusing to reward Moscow by allowing the talks in Astana to succeed, betting instead on their failure.
Washington is still familiarizing itself with the new president as it bids farewell to the 44th president, Barack Hussein Obama, amid a deep division among Americans regarding the identity of their country at home and its foreign policy, especially with regard to its leadership of the world and US-Russian relations. The 45th president, Donald J Trump, will enter the White House next week, in the middle of a storm of controversy, apprehension, but also enthusiasm from his uncritical supporters. He enters the White House armed with threats against the media and his ability to stir up social media. Meanwhile, the unprecedentedly public rift between the president-elect and U.S. intelligence services over alleged leaks and Russian hacking shows no sign of healing.
All indications suggest Trump will keep his campaign promises, unless his cabinet and the establishment manage to restrain his arbitrary tendencies. His nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has given the House of Representatives a glimpse of his attitudes and convictions, but also made it clear that he had not coordinated in advance those positions with Trump, and that the final decision will be in the president's hands. The priorities listed by Tillerson indicate that he desires a partnership with Russia against the terrorism of ISIS and similar groups, and fighting the rise of Sunni and Shiite radicalism alike including the Muslim Brotherhood, unlike the Obama administration which he blamed for supporting radical Islamism and the rise of ISIS, and the implications of the U.S. abandoning its global leadership and traditional alliances especially in the Middle East. Tillerson vowed that Iran would be under a microscope, whether with regard to its support for extremists and militias, or its implementation of its commitments under the nuclear deal, which will be kept in place apparently contrary to what was suggested on the campaign trail, but will be reviewed. The nominee appeared to be a pragmatist, well verses in the language if strategic interests, bringing to the post his experience in energy and geography. Tillerson also had a lot to say about Russia and China.
The key difference between what the Kremlin wants for the American and European communities, by destabilizing them through support for nationalist movements and undermining their social cohesion, and what Tillerson wants for America and the world, lies in the principle of leadership and restoration of prestige. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, benefited immensely from Obama's leading from behind, and reaped great rewards after the U.S. abandoned its global leadership. They had radical differences on the issue of the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria. And this point is the subject of convergence that will newly emerge between Russia and the U.S. under Trump: opposing the rise of Islamists to power, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
This will have implications for the relationship with Egypt, which is fighting the Muslim Brotherhood, and will affect Turkey if it remains a key sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood project. Indeed, the joint message that will be sent by the Kremlin and the Trump administration will address all stakeholders, including the Arab Gulf states, declaring refusal to coexist with Islamic radicalism and any encouragement of the Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to declaring joint intent to eliminate ISIS and its ilk. Indeed, the shelf life of ISIS has expired, and the time has come to take it out of the equation with a joint Russian-American decision. However, relations between the two countries will not be confined to this convergence on fighting terror and extremism. The yardstick for US interests will differ from the one used by the Obama administration, and instead will be a version of what Tillerson described, in terms of reviving the U.S. global weight after the absence of US leadership allowed Moscow's rise and the reassertion of Russia's influence in its near abroad and the Middle East. Tillerson said the U.S. allies in NATO were right to worry about Russian resurgence, and that to restore stability, it is necessary to not only revive U.S. leadership but also assert its position vis-à-vis the threats coming from Russia. Tillerson therefore backed the continuation of sanctions against Russia until opportunities for cooperation are carefully explored. He also proposed giving room to cooperation with China, but insisted that China has not been a reliable partner and has failed to use its influence to contain North Korea. Tillerson said China's goals sometimes conflict with U.S. interests, saying Beijing always places its own objectives above all considerations.
Another major difference between Trump's administration and Obama's will emerge with regard to the relationship with Iran. There had been some convergence on the matter between the Kremlin and Obama. Obama's fixation with the need to conclude the nuclear deal intersected with Putin's need for a strategic alliance with Iran in Syria. Both effectively blessed the rise of Shiite extremism in Iran and rewarded it. While the Russian strategy was intent on fighting Sunni radicalism and stopping Washington's bid to push forward so-called moderate Islamists represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, Moscow turned a blind eye to the growth of radical Shiite Islamism represented by the Revolutionary Guards in Iran and Iranian proxy militias in the Arab region.
Tillerson placed the Muslim Brotherhood, Iranian elements, and al-Qaeda in the same basket of Islamic extremism. This is an important difference in the attitudes of the Trump administration and the Obama administration, and also between the Kremlin and the new White House depending on jow Russian-Iranian strategic relations evolve.
Iran is aware that the Trump administration will bring new pressures, but also through the Russian eagerness to have special relations with the new U.S. administration and even forge a grand bargain with Washington. This does not mean that Moscow is automatically ready to discard its strategic alliance with Tehran, but if Russia is forced to choose between Washington and Tehran, then Washington may take precedence.
Russian-Iranian differences over Syria are not small ones. However, any rush to assume that a strategic divorce between them is coming is a mistake. Moreover, addressing the longstanding crisis of confidence between America and Russia, the competition over grand interests, and forging what may become grand bargain subsequently, are all things that take time because conditions have yet to fully ripen. In the meantime, Iran is bent on benefitting from opportunities wherever they may become available, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iran is adopting a strategy of building on victories on the ground while giving signs of diplomatic demarches and willingness to engage in dialogue on its own terms.
The diplomacy of the Arab Gulf states seem as if deliberately absent while moving to contain Iranian regional influence and Russia's hijacking of the Syrian issue, pending Trump's inauguration. The Gulf states seem reassured by the uncertainty surrounding the incoming Trump administration, because the certainty that comes with Obama has been disappointing. The remarks by Rex Tillerson this week have revived some hopes in the corridors of Gulf diplomacy, when he called for rebuilding the U.S.'s old, now fragile links, being firm with foes, and responding when they violate agreements, in reference to the nuclear deal with Iran. His caustic criticisms of Obama's policies reassured many in the Gulf and increased their sense of anticipation.
Waiting is not a policy, especially since all other parties are actively aligning and carefully planning their next moves. Insisting on keeping the Syrian issue in the UN is a position but it is not a strategy. Betting on the failure of the Astana conference in the absence of Saudi Arabia and European powers may be a winning wager, but this amounts to little more than a tactic in a time marked by Russian and Iranian victories in Syria. The Gulf states are in dire need for a comprehensive strategy of alignment, not just vis-à-vis the Trump administration, but also with regard to the Russian infiltration of the Middle East and Russian-Iranian victory in Syria, Iranian supremacy in Iraq, and Iranian incursions in Yemen. Perhaps the time has come for a Gulf initiative that would sweep the rug from under the feet of Washington, Moscow, and Ankara, and move away from the wait and see tactic.
The traditional cold, back-channel communication between Gulf countries and Iran has not advanced Arab interests, especially in the time of the love triangle between Iran, and Obama's America and Putin's Russia, allowing Iran to advance its strategic agenda in the Arab geography. Perhaps then Trump's tenure will make room for a new approach, but this cannot happen through complacency. It requires a calculated push and a daring initiative. It suffices not for the Gulf summit in Bahrain to task Kuwait with engaging with Iran based on mutual non-interference and good neighborliness. Iran has yet to respond anyway, and continues to arm cells, militias, and rebels in Yemen. The emir of Kuwait's dispatching of a high level delegate to offer condolences for the death of Iranian former president Rafsanjani was a good message but what is needed is a qualitative shift in Gulf-Iranian relations, in accordance to a comprehensive initiative coinciding with the new administration in the White House, in order to avoid relying on false preconceived notions regarding Trumps thinking: a pragmatic and realistic initiative.
Translated by Karim Traboulsi: http://www.alhayat.com/m/opinion/19576740