US Diplomacy in a Higher Gear

September 22, 2020

With the November 3 presidential election approaching, the Trump administration’s Middle East policy has shifted into a higher gear. It began on January 28 with the unveiling, by President Trump and PM Netanyahu, of the “deal of the century”, officially called “Peace to Prosperity”. On August 13, the UAE became the third Arab country to have diplomatic relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia announced that it would allow flights from “all countries” to cross over its airspace on flights to or from the United Arab Emirates. Thus, El Al was able to fly a joint US-Israel delegation to Abu Dhabi, through Saudi airspace.

At the Trump White House on September 4, Kosovo and Israel agreed to recognize each other and Serbia agreed to move its embassy to from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On September 9, President Trump announced that Bahrain will also establish diplomatic ties with Israel.

Last Tuesday, Israel, the UAE and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords at the White House. President Trump said the Accords would “change the course of history”, “mark the dawn of a new Middle East”. Yet, Secretary Pompeo’s statement of September 19 on JCPOA snapback[i] made it abundantly clear that despite the fine talk, this is about drawing new battle lines in the Middle East. Because Washington is not only re-imposing all sanctions on Iran but also threatening those who would not follow the US example. This what Mr. Pompeo’s statement said:

“The United States expects all UN Member States to fully comply with their obligations to implement these measures… If UN Member States fail to fulfill their obligations to implement these sanctions, the United States is prepared to use our domestic authorities to impose consequences for those failures and ensure that Iran does not reap the benefits of UN-prohibited activity.”

The next day, Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and the UK issued a joint statement which said the US has ceased to be a participant to the JCPOA following its withdrawal from the deal on May 8, 2018 and consequently its decision to re-impose sanctions is incapable of having legal effect. Moreover, the statement said that any decisions and actions which would be taken based on this procedure or on its possible outcome would also be incapable of having any legal effect. In other words, any attempt by the US to impose its own sanctions on countries not complying with the reimposed UN ones is also legally void.

The ongoing controversy over the snapback clause of the JCPOA shows that Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal was a rash one taken without foresight and professional legal/diplomatic advice. Because had Washington not withdrawn from the JCPOA it would have been in a much stronger position on sanctions snapback.

Thus, six weeks before the presidential election, the Trump administration has helped Israel and Gulf states to establish diplomatic relations, but it has failed to rally support on the Iran sanctions snapback. Although the signing of Abraham Accords is important, it is not something that would change the course of history as claimed by Mr. Trump. Opposition to sanctions snapback on the other hand underlines Washington’s diplomatic isolation and is just as more important.

Would the signing of Abraham Accords mark the end of Trump administration’s pre-election diplomatic campaign? Or would other diplomatic initiatives follow? Would Greek-Turkish tensions, for example, offer the Trump White House another window of opportunity for a diplomatic stunt?

In mid-August, Democratic presidential candidate Biden’s comments about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan surfaced. During a meeting with the New York Times editorial board in January, Mr. Biden suggested that the US should “embolden” President Erdogan’s opponents to defeat him in elections. “Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process.” he said.

Two days later, President Trump said world leaders have sought his help with President Erdogan, because the Turkish leader will only listen to him. “The heads of countries last week they called me up, ‘could you call Erdogan?'” Trump said during a Fox News interview.

Trump said he asked the undisclosed leaders why he should be the one to speak to the Turkish president, to which Trump said they responded, “‘You’re the only one he’ll listen to. He doesn’t listen to us. You’re the only one.'”

Finally, on September 15, Secretary Pompeo responding to a question of Lea Salame of France Inter regarding mounting tensions between Turkey and Greece and criticism of lack of strong American engagement and leadership said:

“The President’s been very engaged, I’ve been very engaged, and my whole diplomatic team has been very engaged in this as well.  In fact, I was in Cyprus less than, goodness, 48 hours ago in that very Eastern Mediterranean working on this problem set.  We’ve spoken – the President’s spoken both with President Erdogan and Prime Minister Mitsotakis urging them to resolve their conflicts, their maritime dispute in a way that’s appropriate, consistent with international law …”

How would Turkey react to a US diplomatic initiative regarding Turkish-Greek tensions?

Justice and Development Party (JDP) leadership’s relations with the Obama administration started on a high note.[ii] Unfortunately, as the JDP left the democratic path, the tide turned. Towards the end of Mr. Obama’s second term relations went sour. Vice President Biden’s visits to Ankara did not help and the outgoing President became a target for JDP leadership.

President Erdogan’s relationship with President Trump has been a roller-coaster for a variety of reasons extending from disagreements over Syria, relations with Iran and Israel to Fethullah Gulen. Regardless, Ankara would prefer a Trump White House to a Biden one and probably respond positively to an American diplomatic initiative.

Athens, however, having secured significant if not total support from the EU on Mediterranean issues may prove reluctant. And most EU member states would disapprove an election gift to Mr. Trump no matter how small it may be.

Turkey and Greece are NATO allies, but their differences are far more complex than the relations between Israel and the Gulf states and would not allow for big gifts anyway. Nonetheless, a US initiative to reduce tensions in eastern Mediterranean before the November 3 election cannot be discarded completely.

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[i] https://www.state.gov/the-return-of-un-sanctions-on-the-islamic-republic-of-iran/

[ii] https://diplomaticopinion.com/2015/01/31/president-obama-and-the-middle-east/

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