President Donald Trump’s claim on Wednesday that Iran was withdrawing its forces from Syria because the Tehran regime “wants to survive now” has drawn a concerned response across the region, not least from three normally stalwart allies of the US in the Middle East — Israel, the Kurds and important elements of Iran’s pro-democracy movement.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, Trump — who was pictured sitting with a “Game of Thrones”-style poster from last November warning Iran that “Sanctions Are Coming” — explained his conviction that, “Iran is a much different country than when I became president.”
The thrust of Trump’s message was that Iran — whose enormous military and political influence over the last decade has extended from Lebanon to Yemen — was now in retreat.
“Iran is no longer the same country,” the US president argued. “Iran is pulling people out of Syria. They can do what they want there, frankly, but they’re pulling people out. They’re pulling people out of Yemen. Iran wants to survive now.”
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Trump credited his decision last May to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which led to the reimposition of tough sanctions on the regime, as the reason for Tehran’s alleged change in behavior. “Iran was going to take over everything and destroy Israel while they’re at it,” he said. “They’re having riots every week in every country (sic — student protests have been reported in Tehran and other Iranian cities this week). I’d love to negotiate with Iran … but Iran is a much different country right now.”
Trump’s remarks came one day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel’s security would not be damaged by the American decision to withdraw 2,000 troops from Syria.
On Thursday, several Israeli media outlets quoted an unnamed intelligence source questioning Trump’s basic understanding of the situation in the Middle East, with particular alarm expressed over the observation by the president that “…they (Iran) can do what they want there (Syria), frankly…”
“It’s unfortunate that he isn’t paying attention to the evidence provided by the intelligence services,” the Israeli source was quoted as saying of the US president.
“We are in a state of shock,” the source added. “Trump simply doesn’t understand the extent of the Iranian military’s presence in the region.”
However, in a sign that Israel’s intelligence establishment is thinking through the strategic implications of Trump’s “America First” policy, the same source emphasized: “What is comforting is that at least Trump isn’t opposed to Israel’s operations in Syria.”
The source confirmed that Trump’s remarks “will not change the situation as far as we are concerned, we will continue to act resolutely against the Iranian entrenchment.”
Iranian opponents of the Islamic Republic also expressed alarm at Trump’s comments, with one prominent analyst calling on the US president not to retreat from a “maximum pressure strategy” toward Tehran.
“[Trump] was trying to justify his decision to leave Syria and he needed to claim that the Islamic Republic was not going to benefit from his decision,” Saeed Ghasseminejad — a senior adviser on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank in Washington, DC — said in an email exchange with The Algemeiner on Thursday.
Ghasseminejad noted that the “president’s words do not accurately reflect the reality on the ground in the Middle East.”
“It is correct that the previous US strategy of only fighting ISIS has significantly helped Tehran and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, but that does not change the fact that the decision to leave Syria benefits the Islamist regime in Tehran and allows it to solidify its gains without paying the price,” he said.
Shabnam Assadollahi — a former child inmate of Tehran’s Evin prison and a co-signatory of the open letter to Trump published this week by Iranian supporters of the exiled Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, son of the late shah of Iran — urged the US president to remember that Iranians opposed to the Islamic Republic “see this administration as their only hope in the world of freeing them.”
“If the Trump administration decides to negotiate with the Islamic Republic, that will be a stab in the back to the Iranian nation,” Assadollahi told The Algemeiner on Thursday. The White House should not be fooled by overtures from a regime that “has shown for 40 years that they can be wolves in sheep’s clothing,” she added.
Ghasseminejad said that any retreat by the US from its “maximum pressure strategy” against the Islamic Republic would simply enable Iran “to harvest economic and political benefits in Syria while spending less money on its regional wars, at a time Tehran is short on hard currency.”
Such a development would enable “the mullahs to spend more on domestic issues including domestic security forces” that would be used to repress dissent and public protest, Ghasseminejad pointed out.
On the other hand, Ghasseminejad continued, “if Trump is fully committed to the maximum pressure strategy, he will make Syria Iran’s Vietnam, while pressuring Tehran via sanctions and programs which can encourage Iranians to go to the streets and demonstrate against the regime.”
Ghasseminejad observed that at the current juncture, “we have only seen the sanctions in place, the US is neither pushing back against Tehran’s military adventures in the region nor has a well-devised plan to help Iranian people to organize mass demonstrations against the mullahs — both of which can help Washington to reach its goal, whether it is to force Tehran to sign a better deal or to change the regime in Iran.”
Assadollahi emphasized that opponents of the regime inside Iran were specifically looking to the Trump administration to help secure unrestricted access to the internet. Iranian pro-democracy activists often use popular social media platforms such as Instagram and Telegram, both of which have been targeted by the regime, to organize demonstrations and share video of protests and rallies with the outside world.
In a Dec. 31, 2017 tweet, Trump condemned Iran’s leaders for having “closed down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate.” One year on, Assadollahi said, the US leader had to “ensure that Iranians have free access to the internet, so that they can communicate, and so the world can know what is happening in Iran.”
“This regime cannot be reformed,” Assadollahi stated. “It is falling apart, but it will do anything to stay in power.”
Kurdish leaders — historically the most reliable allies of the US in the northern regions of the Middle East — were also rattled by Trump’s comments at the White House, taking exception to the president’s statement that he “didn’t like the fact that [the Kurds] are selling the small oil that they have to Iran, and we asked them not to do it.”
Kurdish broadcaster Kurdistan 24 questioned the accuracy of Trump’s assertion.
“It was not entirely clear whether Trump was referring to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq,” the broadcaster noted in an article on its website.
“The KRG has significant amounts of oil — and not a small amount,” the article said. “That oil is shipped out of the Kurdistan Region through a pipeline to Turkey. As for the YPG, geography alone prevents them from selling oil to Iran, a knowledgeable Kurdish source told Kurdistan 24. Theoretically, such oil could be shipped across Turkey to Iran, but Ankara ‘would never allow it,’ he said.”
The broadcaster said that the same source “did allow that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two major parties in Iraq, might truck some oil to Iran, but it is ‘very minimal’ and it is done by independent actors and ‘not through formal or official channels.’”
In a separate development relating to Iran’s regional presence, the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw reported on Thursday that Kurdish leaders and the central government in Baghdad had agreed on a withdrawal of the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary forces from Kirkuk — the northern Iraqi city liberated by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters from ISIS in 2017.
Shakhawan Abdulla, a member of the Kirkuk Situation Normalization Committee, told Rudaw that the deal had been forged “much earlier in Baghdad and they will soon take effect to clear Kirkuk from all the multiple forces present in the city.”
Abdulla added that “the Hashd al-Shaabi groups are ready to help normalize the situation of Kirkuk and for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to return.”
The Algemeiner (c) 2018 . Ben Cohen