After Tillerson, is Gulf crisis heading for a long ‘cold peace’?

US President Trump had been at odds with Tillerson, seen as a ‘voice of moderation’ on key foreign policy issues.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks to the media at the U.S. State Department after being fired by President Donald Trump in Washington
Tillerson appeared to be at odds with Trump on a range of issues [Leah Millis/Reuters]

Washington, DC  US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s removal by President Donald Trump and the replacement of CIA Director Mike Pompeo may shift US policy in the Middle East in ways that could prolong the Gulf crisis and raise tensions with Iran, according to US-based analysts.

“The Qataris have lost a friend in the administration, and that can’t be very comforting for them,” Gerald Feierstein, director of Gulf affairs and government relations at the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera.

Trump and Tillerson appeared to be at odds with each other on a range of key foreign policy issues, including the Iran nuclear deal and the Gulf dispute.

On Tuesday, after he confirmed Tillerson’s departure, Trump told reporters outside the White House that he and the top US diplomat “disagreed on things”.

After Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt initially cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar on June 5, 2017, Tillerson criticised the group, urging it to ease its blockade.

This appeared to contradict the initial support from Trump, who tweeted on June 6: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”

Two weeks after the blockade began, the state department issued one of its most blistering critiques of the Saudi-led group, saying it was “mystified” that the blockading countries had not given Qatar its list of demands or “the details about the claims they are making towards Qatar”.

“The more time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said at the time.

The blockading countries issued a list of demands days later on June 22, which included scaling down relations with Iran and closing down Al Jazeera.

Trump has since softened his tone towards Qatar as the State Department repeatedly urged the countries to engage in dialogue.

Earlier this month, the US president and Qatari emir spoke over the phone about regional developments and opportunities to “enhance the American-Qatari partnership on a range of security and economic issues”, according to a White House press release.

Trump is also set to meet several leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) over the coming months to discuss the possibility of establishing a GCC summit later this year under Washington’s auspices, according to Reuters news agency.

‘Saudis, Emiratis dug in’

Incoming Secretary of State Pompeo has said nothing publicly about the Gulf crisis, and, according to analysts, it looks unlikely that things will change in the Gulf in the foreseeable future.

“Everything that we have seen and heard so far is that the Saudis and Emiratis are dug in and not particularly inclined to reach an accommodation,” said Feierstein, a former ambassador to Yemen and deputy to former Secretary of State John Kerry in the Obama administration.

“They are perfectly prepared to see this thing drag out for years.

“The best guess is that we are going to continue to have this cold peace” between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours.

Tillerson, who had been CEO of ExxonMobil for 10 years, understood the importance of the US’ role in smoothing out tensions between US allies in the Gulf, Hady Amr, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera. 

“He understood the importance of that role, and he argued for the US to play that role. And we certainly saw that when the Gulf crisis first erupted nine months ago,” Amr said.

“Trump is looking for a secretary of state that is going to go along with and bolster his instinctive agenda more.

“This is a president who kind of surfs public opinion, with a generic, default, ‘America First’ position that he has settled in on.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is scheduled to meet Trump at the White House next week, kicking off a planned three-day tour of the US that will take him from Washington, DC, to New York, Boston, Seattle and Los Angeles.

The Saudi goal is to present the prince as the face of a new, socially and economically reforming Saudi Arabia.

Anger over embassy move

The Trump administration wants to demonstrate that the US still has very close allies in the region, despite anger over moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

According to US news media, Tillerson, Pentagon chief James Mattis and others within Trump’s inner circle had warned the president about the move, citing security concerns.

“It certainly is interesting that [Tuesday’s] decision came a week before Mohammed bin Salman lands on our doorstep,” Feierstein said.

“Whether Trump wanted to get dissenting voices out of the way before the Saudis get here is a question mark.”

Pompeo, 54, who as a Republican member of Congress had opposed former President Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Iran, is more of a partisan hardliner whose thinking is closer to Trump’s.

Tillerson had disagreed with Trump on breaking the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which the president has repeatedly called a “terrible agreement”.

Pompeo is hawkish on Iran. He called the landmark agreement “disastrous” and said Iran was “mounting a ruthless drive to be the hegemonic power in the region”.

According to Jessica Tuchman Mathews, a distinguished fellow and former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Tillerson has been a steady voice of moderation”.

His departure “is bad news on policy”, she told Al Jazeera.

North Korean challenge

In the near term, the US administration’s top foreign policy concern will be Trump’s agreed meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

Pompeo’s hostility towards the Iran nuclear deal and his closeness with Trump is likely to frame the US posture in talks on North Korea’s denuclearisation.

“Getting a deal half as restrictive as the Iran deal is going to be very difficult,” Mathews said.

If Trump scuttles the Iran deal, “the North Koreans will understand that, signing an agreement with the Americans, they might not hold up their end of the bargain”.

Source: Al Jazeera