Trump's speech
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M. K. Bhadrakumar |

The Saudi Arabian government didn’t do well to schedule US President Donald Trump’s speech at the Arab-Islamic-American Summit at Riyadh for May 21. Just a day earlier, the headlines in the world media were all about a unique event in the Muslim Middle East – free and fair elections in Iran which enabled the moderate reformist President Hassan Rouhani to secure a second term by beating an opponent who was widely seen as representing the religious establishment.

At the end of the day, Trump settled for a policy to “isolate” Iran and to “pray for the day” when Iran will be an agreeable partner. There was no itch to confront Iran or attack Iran.

Trump would have understood the awkwardness of his position. He was obliged to show gratitude to his Saudi hosts who propose to spend $350 billion in the US economy that would create hundreds of thousands of new jobs for the American people. On the other hand, he was expected to condemn and pillory what is, arguably, the one and only democratic country in the Persian Gulf – Iran.

Read more: Rouhani’s re-election: No hope for better US-Iran ties, yet!

Trump ended up saying the irreducible minimum regarding Iran:

  • But no discussion of stamping out this (terrorism) threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment. It is a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region. I am speaking of course of Iran. From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.
  • It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room. Among Iran’s most tragic and destabilizing interventions have been in Syria. Bolstered by Iran, Assad has committed unspeakable crimes… The Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims are its own people. Iran has a rich history and culture, but the people of Iran have endured hardship and despair under their leaders’ reckless pursuit of conflict and terror.
  • Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.

“We are closely coordinating our efforts in terms of how to counter Iran’s extremism… in particular its support for foreign fighters… its support of militia not just in Yemen but in Iraq and in Syria.”
– Rex Tillerson

At the end of the day, Trump settled for a policy to “isolate” Iran and to “pray for the day” when Iran will be an agreeable partner. There was no itch to confront Iran or attack Iran. If a benchmark is needed, go back to George W. Bush’s famous ‘axis of evil’ speech regarding Iran in January 2002.

Indeed, the so-called Riyadh Declaration issued after the Arab-Islamic-American summit of 50 countries on Sunday contained much harsher language regarding Iran, but then, it is essentially a Saudi document, which the regime drafted exercising its prerogative as the host country. By no means, is it a statement reflecting the Iran policy of the US or of the other 48 statesmen who gathered in Riyadh, including from Egypt, Pakistan, Oman and so on.

Read more: A comprehensive guide to Trump’s speech addressing the Muslim world

Equally, it was also apparent from the noticeably restrained moderate remarks regarding Iran by the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the two joint press conferences with Saudi FM Adel Al Jubeir that the Trump administration took care not to exacerbate tensions with Iran. Jubeir spewed venom, but Tillerson simply listened. In his prepared statements regarding terrorism, interestingly, Tillerson did not even mention Iran. The ‘operative’ part of Tillerson’s remarks during the Q&A can be reproduced as follows:

  • We are closely coordinating our efforts in terms of how to counter Iran’s extremism… in particular its support for foreign fighters… its support of militia not just in Yemen but in Iraq and in Syria.
  • We are coordinating carefully around how we view the nuclear agreement.
  • What I would hope is that Rouhani now has a new term and that he use that term to begin a process of dismantling Iran’s network of terrorism, dismantling its financing of that terrorist network, dismantling the manning and the logistics and everything that they provide to these destabilizing forces that exist in this region. That’s what we hope he does. We also hope that he puts an end to [Iran’s] ballistic missile testing. We also hope that he restores the rights of Iranians to freedom… That’s what we hope this election will bring. I’m not going to comment on my expectation. But we hope that if Rouhani wanted to change Iran’s relationship with the rest of the world, those are the things he could do.
  • So it is our hope that – and we have a new leadership or a renewed leadership beginning another term in Iran – they will begin to examine what this behavior is gaining for them, and rather, they will find their way back to a place that Iran historically enjoyed: good relations with its neighbors. And that’s what we hope they find their way back to as well. In the meantime, we will continue to take action to make it clear to Iran when their behavior is unacceptable… we will continue to take action through sanctions and we will continue to encourage others in the global community to take action as well so that Iran understands this is not acceptable. So we will be dealing with Iran in the economic sanction front and we will be dealing with Iran in these countries where they have decided to put their presence militarily.

In sum, Tillerson recapitulated the Obama administration’s policies toward Iran. No threat of war – ‘all-options-are-on-the-table’, etc. – no threat of regime change, no containment strategy. On the contrary, the subtle emphasis has been on the terms of engagement with Iran someday in a conceivable future.

The bottom line today is that without Iran’s cooperation, the US cannot get very far in the war against the ISIS, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.

Thereupon, Tillerson dropped a bombshell. The following was his answer when he was asked by a journalist, “Will you ever pick up the phone and call Iran’s foreign minister? Have you ruled out diplomacy with Iran?”:

Well, in terms of whether I’d ever pick the phone up, I’ve never shut off the phone to anyone that wants to talk or have a productive conversation. At this point, I have no plans to call my counterpart in Iran, although, in all likelihood, we will talk at the right time.

Read more: Trump’s ‘America First’ reappears center stage

Tillerson said effectively that the US hopes to engage with Iran “in all likelihood”. It is no small matter that he said this from Riyadh while summing up what has been an extraordinarily successful visit by Trump in pursuit of his ‘America First’ doctrine.

Of course, the US-Iranian relations will remain highly problematic. But then four years is a long time in politics – and both Trump and Rouhani have that much time in hand. One can anticipate that Tehran will be savvy enough to sense the vibes from Riyadh and accordingly plot the road map ahead in its dealings with the Trump administration.

Do not forget that Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech in 2002 notwithstanding, Washington and Tehran had already got into a waltz in Iraq circa 2005 in a coordinated enterprise to advance Shi’ite empowerment in that country. Both the US and Iran knew the ground rules and the ‘red lines’ in Iraq, and they largely respected them in a co-habitation in mutual interests that was truly exceptional in contemporary world politics.

The bottom line today is that without Iran’s cooperation, the US cannot get very far in the war against the ISIS, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. To be sure, there will be a lot of jostling for space and influence but a US-Iran confrontation is not on cards. Neither side is seeking it.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”.

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