Trump’s secret cabal on Iran at the State Department
No one excels more than a Washingtonian at coming up with fancy words that turn a dull bureaucratic day job into a stimulating venture and might occasionally trigger a global panic. Announcing the “Iran Action Group” (IAG) at the US Department of State on August 16 was one of these moments meant to bewilder watchers of the American bureaucracy under President Donald Trump.
The Department of State traditionally forms a task force when a certain country is facing a political crisis or is high on US priority, but typically no one bothers to make a fuss about it. President Barack Obama’s administration was masterful in establishing the concept of “czar”, which created parallel decision-makers to existing institutions and diplomats. When Trump came to power in January 2017, he closed these positions and declared them “wasteful spending”. Last Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a “killer” presentation to announce a mere staff reshuffle: Brian Hook was demoted from policy-planning adviser to Special Representative on Iran and will be supported by few unnamed existing staff to form the secret cabal of IAG.
Of course, a panic wave followed speculating how ingenious to make this announcement on the 65th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) bringing down the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadegh. Peacemongers warned this cabal reminds us of the lead up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq while warmongers beat the drums by whispering the r-word for regime change. One cannot blame them, it might be easy to fall for the Trump administration’s bombastic rhetoric. However, here’s why the IAG is an empty threat when it comes to policy impact but serves much needed bureaucratic purposes.
It is worth noting that the State Department simultaneously appointed a new Special Representative on Syria, former Ambassador James Jeffrey, without brouhaha. The establishment of the IAG masks a tacit and belated recognition by the Trump administration that a traditional approach is required for US diplomacy to become at least seemingly effective once again.
What is ironic though is how excluded has Mike Pompeo become from the Iran portfolio. Last Thursday, he introduced Brian Hook in a short statement and went out of sight. Since making his major speech on Iran last July, Pompeo came under pressure by Trump allies in Congress who saw him harbouring an ideological attitude that could take the US on a path of war with Iran. One week later, Trump outmanoeuvred his secretary of state by calling for a dialogue with Iran: “no preconditions” and “whenever they want”. Since then, Pompeo is involved in the Iran decision-making process as much as he is in the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio. The State Department could name the new unit “Iran Coup Squad”, this will not change the fact the White House sets the Iran policy. Brian Hook is National Security Adviser John Bolton’s man in the State Department, and that’s the only reason why the White House has embraced the Iran Action Group. What Pompeo did on August 16 was officially transferring the Iran portfolio at the State Department to Brian Hook who is tasked by the White House with engaging the world on US policy towards Iran.
The decision to establish this group also reflects the White House recognition that reintroducing sanctions on Iran will be an arduous path and that the Iranian regime might not be coming to the negotiation table anytime soon.
Moreover, the IAG was desperately needed to bring some order and sense to a disoriented US policy. Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis obviously do not see eye to eye on how to tackle the Iranian challenge, and the White House has been struggling to set the tone. But keep in mind that the IAG is not even an interagency unit in which representatives from multiple departments take part in the deliberations, meaning its ability to shape US policy is limited and the White House National Security Council is not giving up its mandate of coordinating interagency policies. The Trump administration needed a full-time point person dedicated to rallying or coercing reluctant world leaders to abide by the re-imposed US sanctions on Iran. The IAG is similar, but in a reverse way, to the team the Obama administration assembled to implement the Iran nuclear deal. However, it additionally addresses Iran’s wider regional activities, which reflects the Trump administration’s approach of linking these activities to Iran’s nuclear deal.
The decision to establish this group also reflects the White House recognition that re-introducing sanctions on Iran will be an arduous path and that the Iranian regime might not be coming to the negotiation table anytime soon. Unlike the sanctions under the Obama administration, the lack of international consensus requires intensive diplomatic efforts to convince countries like India, China and Iraq, among others, to refrain from doing business with Iran. The IAG will be so overwhelmed with requests from allies asking for exemptions to trade with Iran, and with decisions penalizing others who did not comply, that it will not have time to plan a coup in Tehran.
The ambiguous policy towards Tehran, ranging from calls for unconditional talks to psychological warfare, seems to be meant to keep Iran second guessing US intentions, which could lead to miscalculations or unintended consequences. The Trump administration is pushing the Iranian regime to the corner, and those who are cornered typically surrender or act desperately. For now, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is saying no war and no negotiation with Trump. Neither the US nor Iran have changed their military posture in the region nor drastically altered their tactics in countries like Iraq and Lebanon where they share influence. The tightrope between Washington and Tehran will last until the end of the year, at least, as Iran will continue its attempts to evade US sanctions. Ironically, if and when the US decides to take action on Iran, whether escalating conflict or engaging in dialogue, the IAG might automatically become null.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.