Surprise Zigzag: Trump and Saudi King Agree to Test Iran on Détente – First
A string of contradictory events took place this week, posing puzzling questions about the motivations of the Trump administration and its attitude towards Iran, especially in so far as Saudi Arabia as leader of the Gulf emirates is concerned.
These events culminated in a statement by National Security Adviser Mike Flynn in an unusual appearance at the White House press briefing room on Wednesday, Feb. 1:
“As of today we are officially putting Iran on notice,” he said, after Tehran tested a ballistic missile and its Yemeni proxies attacked a Saudi naval vessel.
(Both incidents are discussed in separate articles in this issue.)
Flynn criticized the Obama administration for failing “to respond adequately” to Iran’s provocative behavior, but omitted to signal that any concrete US counteractions were yet to come.
In the Middle East, a spokesman for the US Central Command commented dryly: “We saw the statement…This is still at the policy level and we are waiting for something to come down the line. We have not been asked to change anything operationally in the region.”
Some sources in Washington are convinced that Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis, while on his way to official visits to Japan and South Korean, persuaded Flynn to soften his language on Iran.
The way Flynn spoke raised speculation that he and the defense secretary may be at loggerheads.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Washington suggested that Trump’s “Holy Trinity of Marines” (Mattis – the Iran portfolio is part of his remit – Joe Dunford and John Kelly) is acting as a moderating influence on Flynn in the National Security Council.
Iran’s name cropped up in another intriguing event that same Wednesday.
Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah arrived in Tehran for a rare visit. He carried a message for President Hassan Rouhani with a proposal to open a dialogue between the Gulf emirates and Iran, although he stressed that relations “must be based on the UN Charter and principles of international law.”
His arrived shortly after Rouhani’s disclosure that Kuwait had offered to mediate in the escalating dispute between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
That same Wednesday, too, the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, which is close to the Saudi royal court, ran an opinion piece by Tariq Alhomayed, which asked “Would Saudi Arabia engage in dialogue with Iran?” and answered, “I would say it is likely.”
The writer explained: “The ball (for dialogue) is in the Iranian court and it must start by adopting serious steps in this direction. If not, it would be a waste of time, as we have seen Iran’s hostile behavior through the last ten years, just as we have seen the level of arrogance it reached during the last years of the Obama term.
“Moreover, history has taught us a lot about Iranian tricks and the reformist and hardliner game. Therefore, Tehran must return to its geographic area and stop its sabotage and instigation in the region, to avoid facing its future fate.”
This onrush of seemingly irreconcilable events in a single day is traced by DEBKA Weekly’s sources to the long conversation President Trump held with Saudi King Salman two days earlier on Monday, Jan. 30, covering the situation in Syria and the US-Russian plan to establish safe zones in the war-ravaged country.
This conversation was preceded by a Saudi message, relayed through back-channels to Washington and Moscow, with notice of Riyadh’s decision to make a last attempt to reach understandings with Tehran on Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon.
The US president then discussed this with Defense Secretary Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and NSA Flynn. They decided that the White House would support and encourage Riyadh’s step – even while taking into account that this could be a Saudi gambit to make them look good while showing Iran up as a hardline rejectionist.
This decision laid the ground for the Trump-Salman conversation. But the day before it took place, on Jan. 29,
information reached Washington of a new Iranian test launch of a nuclear-capable ballistic missile.
And a day later, a Saudi frigate was attacked in the Red Sea by suicide boats run by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from the coast of Yemen (more about which in a separate item).
Both Washington and Riyadh chose to interpret those incidents as Iranian Revolutionary Guards initiatives to derail any possible détente between Iran and the Saudi Arabia – and decided not to be drawn.
On Wednesday, Feb. 1, Gen. Mattis put in a call to the Saudi king’s son, Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Salman, and gave him the green light to carry on with the effort to reach accommodations with Iran on their bones of dissent.
This series of events is revealing in the sense that the Trump administration is seen taking a nuanced approach to the Islamic Republic: While issuing tough warnings of possible US military payback for Iranian aggression, mainly for the ears of the belligerent Revolutionary Guards, the White House is at same time following a cautious diplomatic course.
However, our intelligence and Iranian sources are not optimistic about the outcome.
The reception which the feelers put out by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials – and indirectly the Americans – encountered in Iran is hardly different from the Obama administration’s experiences. Even Obama’s eight years of pro-Iranian policies did not get Americans past the Islamic Republic’s smiling front man, President Rouhani, to make direct contact with its real ruler, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the hard men of the Revolutionary Guards leadership.
Without their say-so, there will be no breakthrough to normal relations with revolutionary Iran.