President Donald Trump’s surprise decision on Monday, March 26, to order 60 Russian diplomats out of the US and shut down the Seattle consulate, had most observers guessing. Until then, he had avoided pointing the finger at Moscow for the nerve agent attack on the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, rebuffing the demands of UK Prime Minister Theresa May. He changed his mind, say DEBKA Weekly’s sources, when he saw an opening for enlisting support for his administration’s posture on Iran, ahead of his May deadline for recertifying or scrapping the 2015 nuclear deal.
This week, 27 Western governments threw out 140 Russian diplomats in the largest-scale expulsion of Russian envoys and agents since the Cold War. By joining the European move, Trump laid the groundwork for buying the continent’s backing for his strategy on the Iranian nuclear deal and his fight against the Tehran-Moscow axis.
So far, only the broad lines of a US-EU give-and-take are in place; the details are still in negotiation and either side is free to walk away. But just for agreeing to expel a large number of Russian diplomats, Trump exacted an initial double quid pro quo from Brussels:
- French President Emmanuel Macron (with whom he talks often) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (with whom relations are lukewarm) must make good on their bid for key concessions from Tehran, sufficient to satisfy Trump that the flaws in the nuclear accord are “fixed” and allow him to go ahead on May 12 and give it another six-month lease of life.
- Europe must reciprocate by backing him up in his policies on Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. This lineup would effectively reconfigure the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) as a broad-based, dynamic Western front, after its recent enlargement by new members – Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Trump seeks to further broaden this front by attaching Arab Gulf oil governments, as well as such Middle East allies as Egypt and Israel. If he can re-energize NATO and bounce it up to an expanded, vibrant alliance, Trump will have trumped all his predecessors in the White House.
Mike Pompeo was the live wire in broaching secret bargaining sessions with the Europeans before his appointment as Secretary of State. The emerging blueprint was shown to John Bolton, who takes up the post of National Security Adviser on April 9.
It is important to stress here, in an aside, that Trump made it clear to the Europeans that the Iranian nuclear issue they were focusing on would be kept separate from the related issue of Iranian-North Korean interaction on their nuclear and missile programs. He emphasized that Trump was addressing this issue himself directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping and the North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un. He fully intends to sever the clandestine Tehran-Pyongyang links.
(On Wednesday, March 27, Xi took this potential US-North Korea track a step further when he announced that Kim, during a four-day visit to Beijing, had agreed to denuclearization and a summit with the US.)
In the meantime, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and his French counterpart, Jean-Yives le Drian arrived in Jerusalem to sound out Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on his views on a possible compromise deal with Tehran. When Trump agreed to Merkel and Macron brokering the bid to bridge the gaps between his demand for a better accord and Tehran’s adamant objections to any changes at all, he insisted on their getting Netanyahu on board. This would not be easy, given the Israeli government’s flat objection to granting Iran any leeway on its nuclear program. (See separate item in these talks.)
The US president was additionally motivated to line up with the UK and EU against President Vladimir Putin over his alleged hand in the poisoning of the ex-spy, by his anger over the way Moscow is helping Iran consummate its interests in Syria and Iraq. This axis, he feels, cuts into America’s standing as leader of the Western world and of NATO. Furthermore, the Russian intelligence war with the UK is damaging the western alliance’s intelligence operations. While intending at one time to “get along” with Putin, he now hears the Russian leader wants to work with the US in Syria, while doing the exact opposite. Not only is Moscow helping Iran fortify its military hold on Syria, but also abetting any party challenging United States positions in Syria. Turkey, for example, was allowed to launch its Afrin operation against America’s allies, the Kurds of northern Syria.
On Wednesday, March 28, Trump and Theresa May talked by phone about the Skripal case and agreed on the necessity of busting the Russian spy networks operating in the West. While this is virtually impossible, a start was made with the mass expulsions of agents disguised as diplomats. The president stressed the importance of ongoing US cooperation in this effort with the important European spy agencies, the British MI6, the German BND, or the French Directorate-General for External Security – DGSE. On the advice of Mike Pompeo, until recently director of the CIA, Trump struck while the iron was hot and joined those allies for an wide-ranging pruning of the Russian clandestine networks operating in North America and Europe.
In Syria too, Trump poked Putin in the eye: The US military released to US NBC television coverage of a NATO AWACS plane scanning all parts of Syria in eight-hour shifts from Turkish airspace. NATO had never before been revealed with a role in the seven-year Syrian conflict. Now, Moscow was treated to imagery of a spy plane with the hated NATO markings keeping watch on Russian military moves, among others, in the war-torn country. This demonstration of US-European intelligence solidarity against Russia won’t go unanswered. The broadened base of the US anti-Moscow front also affords the Russian leader more diverse scope for retaliation. He will bide his time looking for new chinks in Western armor before delivering payback.