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Latest moves show Trump grasps the realities of the Middle East

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During the past week, U.S. policy in the Middle East has taken on a sharper profile due to the coincidence of two major events.

On May 8, President Trump announced the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as “the Iran deal.” Less than a week later, on Monday, the American embassy opened in Jerusalem. Both steps represent breaks with the cautious foreign policy orthodoxy, but no one should have been surprised by either.

{mosads}Jettisoning the Iran deal and moving the embassy had been centerpieces of candidate Trump’s platform, and the president has certainly kept his promises.


That the two actions occurred so close to each other may have been an accident of different calendars: Trump was obligated to make a decision on the JCPOA at this point in time, while the celebration of the embassy opening was timed to follow on Israel’s independence day.

But accident or not, the two moves taken together are indicative of an American foreign policy that is breaking with inherited illusions by recognizing the realities in the region. 

Because of its many well-known flaws, the Iran deal never achieved consensus support in Washington. Nonetheless, Obama administration apologists continue to defend it as a vehicle to verifiably block Iran’s development of nuclear weapons technology while also promising a moderation of the regime in Tehran.

They have been wrong on both points. Iran’s military sites remain off limits to weapons’ inspections, and the notion of “snap-back sanctions” turns out to have been a mendacious fiction of White House communications strategy. 

The claim that the JCPOA would lead to a ratcheting down of Iranian expansionist ambitions also proved false. Tehran has shown no taste for détente. The leadership had a chance to move toward peace but chose war and imperial hegemony.

It has supported its surrogates’ launching missiles at Riyadh, while in Syria it has bolstered Assad and enabled him in his war against his own population, the vast demographic reshaping that has produced the refugee crisis.

Resources gained through the deal have helped pay for Iran’s strategy for regional domination; they certainly have not gone to improve the lot of the Iranians themselves. 

Nor has Iran’s anti-American rhetoric in any way abated. Despite all the advantages that the deal offered Tehran, the “death to America” rallying cry remains the watchword of the regime that cannot separate itself from its hard-wired anti-Americanism.

President Trump has made the correct and clear-sighted decision that the United States should not be bankrolling a regime that makes it perfectly clear that it wants to kill Americans and that is directly responsible for the lion’s share of American casualties in Iraq.

The Iran decision breaks with one illusion; the move to Jerusalem breaks with another. Opening the embassy in Jerusalem reflects the reality of the city as the capital of Israel. Jerusalem is the seat of the Israeli government and therefore its capital; embassies should be in the capital city, as is the case in all other countries.

While there is bipartisan consensus in the U.S. concerning Jerusalem, Europeans, for example, hesitate, by linking the status of Jerusalem to the peace process and negotiations with the Palestinians. The illusion on this point involves the absence of any credible Palestinian leadership seriously capable of negotiating because no Palestinian politician has been willing to recognize the Jewish state.

Over decades, Palestinian “misleadership” has only worsened the conditions of its people. Had Yasser Arafat accepted the Camp David Summit plan, a Palestinian state would now be in its 18th year.

Instead, we have Mahmoud Abbas’ recent anti-Semitic outburst and the tragic sight of Hamas urging protesters, including children, to storm the Israeli border, in full knowledge that fatalities would result.

That however is the cynical point: Urge demonstrators to put themselves in danger so as to provoke violence and produce headlines for the propaganda war.

Abandoning the Iran deal and moving the embassy to Jerusalem are two separate matters, but both show the Trump administration breaking with the illusions of the foreign policy establishment.

Signing the JCPOA did not produce a reformist turn in Tehran; on the contrary, it made matters worse by fueling Iran’s aggressive foreign policy. Pretending that Jerusalem was not Israel’s capital did not elicit any flexibility in Ramallah, but only the same old intransigence and prejudice. Better to give up on the mythologies and tell it like it is. 

Meanwhile these two different matters, Iran and Jerusalem, are converging in a strategically important way. Israel has long viewed Tehran’s ambitions in Syria as an existential threat, but it has now begun to attack Iranian assets systematically.

This Israeli assertiveness indicates renewed confidence in American support implied by the embassy move. What’s more, Russia appears to be tolerating these Israeli strikes, which suggests that a fissure may be opening in the Russia-Iran alliance. That would be a welcome outcome.

An American foreign policy that divides our enemies deserves to be called a success. 

Russell A. Berman, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is co-chair of the Islamism and the International Order Working Group. 

Tags Donald Trump Foreign policy of the Barack Obama administration Foreign relations of Iran Government International relations Iran–United States relations Jerusalem Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Nuclear program of Iran Politics Presidency of Donald Trump Status of Jerusalem

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