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US focus on confronting Iran should reassure allies

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech on Thursday in Cairo about America’s Middle East policy reminded many of former US President Barack Obama’s speech delivered 10 years ago from the same city. Pompeo’s speech may not have gotten the global attention that Obama’s did, but the secretary of state was more direct and straightforward.

Since US President Donald Trump’s announcement of the US troop withdrawal from Syria and the pull-out of thousands of US service members from Afghanistan, America’s allies have had a nagging feeling that the ensuing vacuum will be filled by those who want to exploit developments to their advantage. The allies’ main concern is Iran and its malign activity in the region.

Pompeo’s Middle East tour — including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, among other countries — is aimed mainly at assuring US allies of the continuation of American support for them despite the troop withdrawal from Syria.

The Cairo speech was not as inspiring as expected, but it was well expressed. It indicated that Trump’s regional policy for 2019 revolves around defanging Iran and checking its interference and that of its militias in the Middle East.

Pompeo’s messages may not have been broadcast globally, but they were heard clearly by those at whom they were directed, especially Iran. In Syria, the US “will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot,” he said. So Trump’s decision is not just to pull out troops from Syria, but to ensure that Iranians are no longer there.

Pompeo highlighted that “countries across the globe have cut Iranian oil imports to zero and are working toward that goal. Private companies in France, Germany, Britain and elsewhere have all calculated that enriching themselves through work with the (Iranian) regime is bad for business and bad for the people of their own countries.”

He firmly stated that there will be no US reconstruction assistance for areas of Syria held by Bashar Assad until Iran and its proxy forces withdraw “and until we see irreversible progress toward a political resolution.”

These were clear messages for Iran, whose economic situation may worsen this year if it refuses to stop its malign activity in the region. Americans are confident of Iran being forced to leave Syria, as Assad will need the help of wealthy Arab nations for his country’s reconstruction, as well as US help for global support. That cannot happen with Iranians on Syrian soil.

With the reopening of the Emirati and Bahraini embassies in Damascus, the chances of other regional countries doing so have increased. Tunisia will host an Arab League session in March 2019, and there is a possibility of Assad being invited and Syria being welcomed back to the organization.

For the reconstruction of Syria and the normalization of its relationship with the wider world, Assad needs to sacrifice Iran in order to remain in power and rebuild his nation. It seems this is also clear to the Iranians. During Pompeo’s ongoing tour, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei mocked American leaders, but this will not go down well with the Iranian people, who are being forced to live in very difficult economic circumstances.
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