US lowers threat perception on Iran

Iraq’s new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi won vote of confidence in the parliament in Baghdad on May 07, 2020.

The drawdown of US military presence in the Middle East, especially from Saudi Arabia, may not be an automatic open sesame — to borrow the magical phrase in the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”— leading to the hidden treasure of regional peace and stability, but it does open up a tantalising vista that is seamless in its possibilities. 

Speculations are galore about the Pentagon announcement Thursday that the US military will withdraw two Patriot batteries, which have been deployed to protect Saudi oil facilities, along with two jet fighter squadrons. 

The US President Donald Trump added an ambiguous explanation: “We’re making a lot of moves in the Middle East and elsewhere. We do a lot of things all over the world, militarily we’ve been taken advantage of all over the world… This has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia.” Trump seems to suggest there is a ‘big picture’.

Nonetheless, the move is seen as a showdown between the US and Saudi Arabia, where Washington says to Riyadh that if you do not follow our oil advice, we will throw you under the bus. The fluctuations in the oil market have put strains on the ties binding the two staunch allies and the US oil industry has been hit doubly hard, since even after the recent OPEC+ deal, oil prices continue to fluctuate at the expense of American producers even as Saudi oil tankers reach the US, selling their commodity at lower prices to American buyers, which Washington’s oil industry cannot possibly compete with. 

With the storage capacity in the US industry dwindling, the highest ever number of Saudi oil tankers in years are on their way to American shores.  Riyadh appears to be flooding the market to drown the shale industry. The mood in Washington has turned ugly, as Trump’s allies in the Congress whose states have been hurt by the price crash, sought a mitigation measure — the Strained Partnership Act — which threatened to punish the Saudis by way of pulling troops and reducing other military commitments unless Riyadh reduced its oil output.

Without doubt, the American oil crash in the wake of the pandemic has taken its toll on US-Saudi relations. But, having said that, Trump cannot be unaware that any US-Saudi friction at this juncture can only work to Iran’s advantage insofar as the coronavirus pandemic is providing an opening to challenge the US presence in Iraq and other places in the Middle East. Top Iranian military officials have openly said in recent weeks that they see the US at its weakest in a while.

Tehran seems to settle for a ‘wait-and-see’ approach till the November election in the US gets over, refraining from escalating tensions. Tehran can afford to wait, since the US’ Gulf allies — the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar — are no longer pushing the US into a confrontationist policy but instead engaging with Iran. There is growing disenchantment in the region regarding the consistency of the US policies.  

What lends enchantment to the view is that some easing of US-Iran confrontation is also discernible. Most certainly, the establishment of a new government in Baghdad under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi harks back to a priori history of tacit US-Iranian co-habitation in Iraq. 

Al-Kadhimi is a secular-minded figure who does not belong to any of the Shi’ite political parties and yet he won with the votes of the Fateh Coalition, the second largest in the Parliament, made up of Shiite political parties that have close ties to Iran. 

He briefly lived in Iran as a dissident but moved on to life in exile in UK and the US — and yet, he’s an acceptable choice to Tehran. He is close to Washington establishment, which is open to making deals with him, and also enjoys personal rapport with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but Tehran is unperturbed and seems to estimate that he is both pragmatic and can also be tough with the US in a way that no Iranian-backed candidate can be. 

Above all, Al-Kadhimi is smart enough know Iran’s support is vital if his government is to perform effectively. The hugely sensitive post of Interior Minister in his cabinet has gone to Othman Ali Farhood Musheer Al Ghanimi, an ally of Iran, while the key post of Finance Minister will be held by Ali Allawi, a pro-western figure and nephew of late Ahmed Chalabi. (Chalabi helped the Bush administration to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.)

Significantly, no sooner than Al-Kadhimi’s government got parliamentary approval on May 7, Washington announced yet another waiver of sanctions against Tehran by allowing Iraq to continue to buy electricity from Iran. Now, unlike previous monthly waivers, Washington has given a 120-day waiver upto September. Tehran is sure to take note. 

And this has happened while Washington and Tehran are working out arrangements for another ‘win-win’ prisoner swap. There are four Americans imprisoned in Iran, while Tehran claims “around 20” Iranians are in US custody. Then, there is also the case of a fifth American often thought to be imprisoned in Iran — Robert Levinson, a former FBI and CIA contractor. 

Prisoner swaps are a low-cost way of easing tension and Trump places high priority on winning the freedom of Americans imprisoned abroad, and is quick to boast that he is doing better than Barack Obama. 

Clearly, neither the US nor Iran is spoiling for a fight. Tensions will spike if the US presses ahead to get the UN Security Council to extend the arms embargo on Iran beyond October (failing which to invoke the ‘snapback’ clause of the 2015 nuclear deal to reimpose UN sanctions against Iran.) 

But then, for want of support from the EU or UK, Britain and Germany — and Russia and China’s opposition — Washington may not press ahead. Trump may discuss Iran with Russian President Vladimir Putin, if the frequency of their phone conversations — six times in as many weeks already — is kept up and the range of topics broadens. 

Moscow is counselling Tehran to show strategic patience in the face of US provocations. In the final lap of Trump’s term, Russia is keenly seeking an improvement of relations with the US and a showdown over Iran would spoil the climate. 

Thus, there is a lull in the fighting in Syria and Iraq. A pause is noticeable in militia attacks on US troops in Iraq in recent weeks. Talks are due in June in Baghdad between Pentagon and Iraqi government regarding US deployments. Israeli officials speak of signs of an Iranian retrenchment in Syria.

Some US officials have also openly acknowledged that Tehran no longer poses an immediate threat to US strategic interests. In this backdrop, the partial drawdown of US forces in Saudi Arabia can also be regarded as a trimming of the US belligerence toward Iran.