Specter of Iran Mess

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It looks that Trump is considering Iranian Nuke deal a thorn in Washington’s heart

By Chandan Kumar

US President Donald Trump in a step that could embolden Saudi Arabia to move ahead with plans to destabilize Iran, has instructed White House aides to give him the arguments for withholding certification in October that Iran has complied with its nuclear agreement with world powers. At the same time, the president has twice imposed new US sanctions on Iran to penalize it for its development of ballistic missiles. Iran argues that it missile program does not fall under the agreement.

Arguments that Iran has failed to comply with the agreement that lifted crippling international sanctions and opened the door to Iran’s return to the international fold, are likely to focus on allegations that the Islamic republic has failed to comply with the spirit rather than the letter of the accord.

Trump’s decision to task hard-line White House aides rather than the State Department signaled, according to Foreign Policy, the president’s mounting frustration with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s failure to provide him with the arguments he needed. Foreign Policy quoted Trump administration officials as saying that Trump wanted options, but had yet to decide whether to de-certify Iran in October.

Critics of the Iran agreement argue that it has enabled Iran since the accord was inked in 2015 to increase its capacity to strike Gulf States with ballistic missiles and support proxies, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Shia militias in Iraq, and rebels in Yemen. Some critics argue that tearing up the agreement would not solve the problem, but that Iranian compliance with the agreement is not enough. These critics have yet to detail what Trump could do to use the nuclear agreement to counter Iranian policies.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran would exhaust the agreement’s mechanisms to oppose any US move to undermine the accord, but warned that “Iran has other options available, including withdrawing from the deal.” Irrespective of what Trump decides, his move, much like his statements during a visit to Riyadh in May contributed to the eruption of the Gulf crisis and the UAE-Saud-led boycott of Qatar, could encourage Saudi Arabia to step up its long-standing existential battle with Iran.

Lowering relations with Iran, with whom Qatar shares the world’s largest gas field, was one of the demands initially put forward by the UAE-Saudi-led coalition. Kuwait, the lead mediator in the Gulf crisis and one of the Gulf States that has long balanced its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, last fortnight expelled the Iranian ambassador and 14 other diplomats for alleged links to a “spy and terror” cell.

Saudi Arabia has felt emboldened by Trump’s hostility towards Iran and his focus on combating terrorism even though the US administration appears to be wracked by policy differences between the president and some of his key aides.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who earlier this month cemented his position in a palace coup, has proven to be a brash 31-year old, willing to take risks to establish the kingdom as the Middle East and North Africa’s dominant power. Prince has in the last year been laying the groundwork for an effort to destabilize Iran by fomenting unrest among the Islamic republic’s restless ethnic minorities. The plans have resonated with some quarters in the Trump administration, populated by officials known for their antipathy towards the Islamic republic even if they differ in their attitudes towards the nuclear agreement.

The very fact that Trump is considering denying Iran certification in October irrespective of what he decides, is likely to encourage Prince Mohammed to at the very least further fine tune his plan and ensure that the kingdom has the building blocks in place.

Using the Pakistani province of Balochistan, already wracked by nationalist and militant Islamic strife, as a spring plank could, moreover, undermine Pakistani efforts to get a grip on at least some of the violent groups operating in the country and could rekindle sectarian strife.

Balochistan borders on the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Militant groups believed to enjoy Saudi backing have long launched cross-border attacks, prompting Iranian counter-attacks against the militants on Pakistani soil. Intelligence sources said that Pakistan had detained in early May a commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who was on a recruiting mission in Balochistan.

The US Treasury designated at about the same time Saudi-backed Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab, a militant Pakistani Islamic scholar of Afghan origin as a specially designated terrorist while he was on a fund-raising tour of the Gulf. Mr. Abu Turab is a leader of Ahl-i-Hadith, a Saudi-supported Pakistani Wahhabi group that operates a string of religious seminaries in Balochistan along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Abu Turab is moreover a board member of Pakistan’s Saudi-backed Paigham TV and heads the Saudi-funded Movement for the Protection of the Two Holy Cities (Tehrike Tahafaz Haramain Sharifain), whose secretary general Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil has also been designated by the Treasury. He serves on Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology, a government-appointed advisory body of scholars and laymen established to assist in bringing laws in line with the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Trump administration last fortnight refused to pay Pakistan $300 million as a reimbursement for the cost of its fight against militant groups, some of which are believed to be supported by Pakistani intelligence. The US Defense Department said the funds were being withheld because Pakistan had failed to take “sufficient action” against the Haqqani Network, a Pakistan-based offshoot of the Afghan Taliban.

Instability in Iran and increased violence in Baluchistan would further complicate China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. China is already worried that the Gulf crisis could endanger its crucial energy imports from the region as well as Gulf investment in the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that is slated to fund some One Belt, One Road projects.

Chinese nationals have repeatedly been targeted by militants in Balochistan, a crown jewel of the Chinese project that includes the People’s Republic more than $50 billion investment in what has been dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Prince Mohammed appeared to set the stage for an effort to destabilize Iran by declaring that the fight between the two Middle Eastern powers would be fought in the Islamic republic, not the kingdom. Prince Mohammed did not specify what he had in mind but a Saudi think tank, the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies (AGCIS) that is believed to have his backing, argued in a study in favour of Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran.

Saudi Arabia further signaled its support for Iranian dissidents with former intelligence chief and ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal attending for the past two years rallies in Paris organized by the exiled People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a militant left-wing group that advocates the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic regime and traces its roots to resistance against the shah who was toppled in the 1979 revolution.