Tillerson's departure and the future of US policy in the Middle East

Rex Tillerson’s unhappy tenure at State Department ends with a whimper – Gerald Feierstein        

Rex Tillerson was never an easy fit for the Trump administration. His management of the State Department was a source of constant frustration for the career staff as well as Capitol Hill. On policy issues, Tillerson hewed more closely than Trump to establishment Republican positions. Allied with Secretary of Defense Mattis and National Security Advisor McMaster, Tillerson often acted as an anchor against the president’s more aggressive impulses.

In the Middle East, Trump and Tillerson were most famously at loggerheads over the U.S. response to the intra-GCC conflict between Qatar and the “Quartet”—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Tillerson and Mattis successfully steered U.S. policy toward a negotiated settlement of the conflict and deterred Trump from pursuing his initial support for the Quartet’s demands. The conflict has become more problematic for the Trump administration since allegations surfaced that the UAE sought to influence U.S. policy through appeals to the Trump family’s private business interests. While there have been no suggestions yet that the GCC issue was a major factor precipitating Trump’s decision, the timing one week before the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is suspicious.

Tillerson suffered embarrassment over other aspects of Trump’s management of foreign policy. The State Department was largely cut out of Jared Kushner’s Israeli-Palestinian peace project and appeared to be advocating more of a “go slow” approach to the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Tillerson was also known to chafe at U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley’s role as a key policy spokesperson, including her threats to cut Palestinian and UNRWA funding, which caught Tillerson by surprise.

Pompeo’s ascent, rather than Tillerson’s departure, of most interest to Iran – Alex Vatanka

The departure of Rex Tillerson is unlikely to generate much commotion in Tehran. As far as the Iranians are concerned, he was a minor factor in shaping Washington’s overall posture toward Tehran on the two most important questions in the U.S.-Iran tussle.

Sure, against Trump’s wishes he supported the U.S. staying in the 2015 nuclear agreement. Tehran, however, always viewed that as the collective judgment of the State Department and not a case of Tillerson sticking his neck out. On the regional front, particularly in regard to Syria, Tehran again saw Tillerson play a lesser role as compared to Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

Meanwhile, Mike Pompeo’s move to State is arguably a win for Tehran. As a longtime die-hard opponent of the Islamic Republic, who has for years advocated for a policy of regime change in Tehran, the Iranian government had good reasons to wonder what sorts of covert campaigns Pompeo could devise at Langley. He was seen as someone willing to help set the stage for a military conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

Notably, Pompeo’s decision to release captured al-Qaeda documents from the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad in order to show an alleged working relationship between the al-Qaeda and Iran raised alarm inside the regime. The Iranians called it a deliberate manipulation of intelligence, while Pompeo’s supporters in Washington applauded him for taking the fight to Tehran.

In his new role in Foggy Bottom, Pompeo will have much less room for maneuvering on Iran. While he will be far more in sync with the hawkish position of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Pompeo will still have to grapple with the basic challenge of convincing the Russians, Chinese and Europeans to confront Iran. This will not be an easy task given international reservations about the Trump administration’s haphazard agenda.

Pompeo’s appointment could mean a more hawkish U.S. stance on Syria – Charles Lister

Mike Pompeo’s appointment as Secretary of State is likely to embolden those within the Trump administration who seek to further amplify a more assertive posture within the Syrian crisis. Pompeo has made no secret of his hostility to Iran and its broader regional, expansionist agenda in the Middle East; his concerns surrounding Russia’s aggressive attempts to undermine U.S. supremacy and influence; and his support for Israel’s security. He has also repeatedly declared the importance of fostering a “Sunni partner force” in Syria to counter terrorism and to challenge the Assad regime and Iran.

These views align more closely with those espoused within the Trump White House and National Security Council (NSC). They also sharply conflict with the more restrained opinions held within the State Department and Department of Defense, which favor a more limited presence and set of objectives. That administrative policy divergence is also being revealed with regard to a newly vigorous determination within the Trump NSC to reconcile with Turkey—potentially at the short-term cost of the U.S.’s relationship with its Syrian Democratic Forces partners—in order to expand U.S. strategic interests, influence and leverage across the entire northern Syrian border. That too is driven by a broader desire to block further gains by Assad, Iran and Russia.

If Pompeo’s appointment is followed by the widely rumored departure of General H.R. McMaster, then one should expect this more hawkish stance to become established policy. The long-term fate of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who has recently torpedoed Trump proposals for more aggressive action in Syria, may then also come into question.

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