January 31, 2019

From the Hill: Trump’s Mideast Policy: Disengagement or Escalation?

“The President of the United States had never been in General McMaster’s office, it’s two doors down,” journalist Mark Perry said citing White House sources, speaking on a panel discussion hosted by NIAC on Capitol Hill last week. Perry stressed that President Trump’s detachment from his advisors, including from current National Security Advisor John Bolton, indicates that they don’t always speak on the president’s behalf.

The briefing, “Trump’s Mideast Policy: Disengagement or Escalation?” included Reese Erlich, freelance journalist and author of the Iran Agenda: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis; Kate Kizer, policy director at Win Without War; Sina Toossi, research associate at NIAC; and Perry, a freelance writer and a contributing editor to the American Conservative. Negar Mortazavi, Iranian-American commentator and consultant editor at the Independent, served as moderator.  

Erlich argued that if Iran were to have violated the July 2015 nuclear agreement, the outcome would have been threats of military intervention by the United States. Erlich stated that despite the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal, “they [Iran] continue to adhere to the accord and we’re still threatening to bomb them.” Erlich noted that the Iranian people have capacity to determine their own affairs, proclaiming: “They don’t need the help of the U.S. Particularly, any talk of war is going to encourage the hardliners in Iran.” Erlich concluded by stating that the U.S. must cease threats, return to the nuclear deal, and “allow the people of Iran to determine their own future.”

Perry focused on President Trump’s announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and contentious U.S. relations with Turkey. He highlighted a conversation between Secretary of Defense James Mattis and General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. According to Perry, Scaparrotti warned Mattis not to pursue relations with Kurdish forces in Syria at the expense of U.S. relations with Turkey, a NATO ally. He stressed that U.S. relations with Turkey are “permanent, strategic, and fundamental.” Trump’s announced withdrawal of U.S. troops of Syria, Perry explained, reflected the president siding with Scaparrotti and choosing Turkey over the Kurds as a more important long-term U.S. ally.

Kizer stressed that U.S.-Iran relations have deteriorated as the Trump administration has “outsourced its Middle East Policy to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Persian Gulf states.” The U.S. failure to reexamine its regional interests has led to a distorted interpretation of Iran, according to Kizer. She stated that the U.S. had bought Saudi rhetoric, including that “every ill will within the region, particularly in Yemen, is Iran’s fault.” Kizer explained that Saudi Arabia’s actions were also destabilizing to the region.

Toossi provided an overarching criticism of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy. He suggested regional people must be allowed to “undergo organic political change, manage their own affairs, societies, and futures” and stressed that it was wrong for the U.S. to support “these autocratic regimes which fail to provide economic opportunity or political representation to their people.” Toossi stated that “long term U.S. interests shouldn’t be based upon the sustainability of these regimes.” Instead, he said, the U.S. posture should be of “diplomatic flexibility that’s centered on balancing these regional powers.” His called for a strategy that “includes cooperating with all regional powers to find lasting political solutions to regional conflicts.”

Introducing the panelists, NIAC President Jamal Abdi noted an upcoming milestone marking the Trump Administration’s treatment of Iranians.  “I would be remiss if I didn’t just note, this weekend will mark the second anniversary of the Muslim travel ban. It’s an unjust policy which continues to be in place.” Shortly after the anniversary, legislation from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rep. Judy Chu was introduced to rescind the ban.

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