Meghan L Sullivan: 'Trump undermines his own goals and emboldens Iranian designs on region'
The move of US President Donald Trump to visit Baghdad is a small, good one, amid a week of calamitous decisions. The press will understandably highlight the time that Trump spent with US troops.
Yet a key objective of the trip will have been to shore up the new Iraqi government's confidence in the US, as Iraqi officials must be high on the list of those shocked by the president's recent decisions to rapidly withdraw US forces from Syria and Afghanistan. Perhaps the president has realised his administration has some hard work to do if there is any hope of keeping his latest decisions from dramatically strengthening Iran.
The Middle East is a complicated place, where generations of American presidents and policymakers have struggled to prioritise competing interests, balance delicate relationships and manage inevitable trade-offs. Yet Trump's actions and words - at least until last week - made it clear that his highest priority was on containing and punishing Iran in an effort to get Tehran to the negotiating table to reach a new, sweeping agreement on both its nuclear programme and its other destabilising behaviour in the region.
Other priorities in US Middle East policy have suffered to some extent as a result of this focus on Iran. The desire to have Saudi Arabia as a strong partner in containing Iran has been an important part of shaping Trump's calculus toward Riyadh - which has involved a near pass on behaviour that would normally be seen as unacceptable, such as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its conduct in the war on Yemen (until Congress recently stepped in).
Moreover, the focus on Iran has put the new government in Baghdad in unnecessary and challenging situations, at a time when Washington should be making every investment in its success. The Trump administration has only grudgingly granted two 45-day waivers to Iraq for its continued importation of Iranian natural gas (opposed to the 180 days others received). The Iraqi government has put valuable time and political capital into facing the choice between being subject to US sanctions or losing the energy source that powers nearly a third of Iraq's electricity.
Nevertheless, while one might not have agreed on the wisdom of making Iran so central to US foreign policy in the Middle East, at least the above trade-offs could be debated around policy views and threat assessments. This is no longer the case. Trump, in his recent announcement to draw down troops from Syria and Afghanistan, is taking steps that work against his professed goals - for no apparent gain.
First, an American withdrawal from Syria will remove a curb on nefarious Iranian activity in the region and open up new opportunities for Iran to embed itself in various countries there. The US presence in Syria, although small, has helped curb the activities of Iran and its ally Hezbollah. It has also helped frustrate Iran's ability to establish a land bridge connecting Iran to the Mediterranean and, as a result, has limited Iranian regional interventions. With the US vacating Syria, Iran will now be well positioned to compete for territory currently held by US partners, and Hezbollah will be able to make a stronger stand near Israel.
Second, the withdrawal will make achieving the administration's declared goal of a tougher, more comprehensive agreement with Tehran all but unimaginable. Getting Tehran to meet a fraction of Secretary of State Michael Pompeo's "12 demands" - including a full withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria - was always going to be tough. But US diplomats will be particularly challenged to produce Iranian concessions in a situation where the US has even less leverage due to the withdrawal of its troops.