While the Trump administration has been tacitly showing off its willingness to start a new, and a better, phase of relations with Russia, the policy the new administration is chalking out towards the Middle East in general, particularly Iran, is likely to trigger a fresh wave of tension that might make the task of tilling the frozen ground of US-Russia relations a lot harder even for Rex Tillerson. On the one hand, the Trump administration has been vocal about defeating the Islamic State, and on the other hand, it has decided to uphold and execute the Obama administration’s policy of supplying weapons to the “moderate” Sunni groups, including Kurdish militias, and is also determined to establish ‘safe zones’ with Saudi backing despite Russia’s opposition to this policy. This execution has coincided with the rising tension with Iran, potentially signaling the Trump administration’s renewed push towards inserting the US back into the Middle East.
What this multi-faceted policy indicates is the dual nature of objectives the US is currently pursuing. That is, while it may be wanting to improve relations with Russia, it cannot strategically afford to ‘abandon’ the Middle East, give Iran and Russia a free hand to shape its politics and thus leave its own Arab allies in a political quandary where they might find no other option but to look to Russia, allow China a trade route across the Middle East and into Europe and be forced, subsequent to this, to improve relations with Iran too. This objectives pits the US as much against Russia as Iran.
The Trump administration has clearly outlined Iran as a villain in the region. The last Wednesday statement given by the US National security adviser, Michael Flynn, was not only provocative but also said things that indicate a significant downfall in US-Iran bi-lateral relations.
Accusing the Obama administration of following a lacklustre policy towards Iran, Flynn went on to list the ‘crimes’ Iran has been committing and continues to commit. He attributed to Tehran the responsibility for the attacks in recent months by the Houthis of Yemen against Emirati and Saudi naval vessels and the threats to US and allied vessels transiting the Red Sea. Flynn said, “In these and other similar activities, Iran continues to threaten US friends and allies in the region.” Marking a potential end of the so-called era of lacklustre policies, Flynn said, “the days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.”
This policy is, however, not limited to containing Iran’s ballistic missile programme, it goes deep into containing Iran’s regional clout that it has quite successfully projected through its military assistance to Syria against both the IS and the US sponsored “moderate” groups. Flynn’s statement suggests that Trump prioritizes the exit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Hezbollah from the Syrian theatre above anything else. There is little doubt that a storm is gathering. Fresh sanctions on Iran is only a small indication of what is to come in the future…