The U.S. fumbles on Jerusalem, Iran, and Syria in epic fashion

Vice President Pence tries to defend Trump's Jersualem decision in the Middle East as Tillerson fights a losing battle over the Iran deal in Europe.

Vice President Mike Pence meets with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin  in Jerusalem on January 23, 2018.  CREDIT: Mark Neyman /Israeli Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Vice President Mike Pence meets with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on January 23, 2018. CREDIT: Mark Neyman /Israeli Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

U.S. leaders are badly handling foreign policy in the Middle East this week.

On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence told Reuters that the timeline of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks depends on the Palestinians without mentioning which U.S. partners, exactly, were in on these talks.

“The White House has been working with our partners in the region to see if we can develop a framework for peace,” said Pence, while in Jerusalem. “It all just depends now on when the Palestinians are going to come back to the table.”

The comment came just one day after Pence said that the U.S. embassy will be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a disputed territory between the Palestinians and Israelis, in 2019 — a sooner timeline than was expected.

That decision, made by Trump on December 6 and rebuked by the rest of the U.N. Security Council as well as the General Assembly, is the very reason Pence is in the region. Pence has in recent days visited Egypt and Jordan, where he was told that that both countries disagreed with President Donald Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the Israeli capital.

With the exception of Israel, no U.S. partner in the region — no Arab country and not Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Egypt (all key U.S allies there) — has supported Trump’s Jerusalem decision.

As for the Palestinians, whose humanitarian aid has been dramatically cut as a result of refusing to negotiate with Israel on Trump’s terms: They’ve protested Pence’s visit and have refused to meet with him. Given that Trump has already tweeted that Jerusalem is not “off the table” in the negotiations, Palestinians say it’s clear that the United States cannot play an impartial facilitator in future talks.

It’s not just U.S. foreign policy in Israel and Palestine at risk.

While in Jerusalem Pence also told the Israeli parliament and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin that Trump said he will pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal unless it is fixed, which shines a light on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s mission in Europe now, where he is focusing on getting European partners to renegotiate the 2015 deal in President Trump’s vision.

To recap: The agreement, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed between Iran, the United States, United Kingdom, China, Russia, France, and Germany in 2015. Under the terms of the deal, Iran reduces its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent while submitting to frequent and stringent U.N. inspections in exchange for sanctions relief. Iran has always insisted that it is not pursing a nuclear bomb and what President Trump wants is a guarantee that this will never be the case, that the current terms of the deal — good for another 13 years — will be tightened and turned into a forever deal that will also include Iran’s ballistic missile program.

But the European partners — onto whom Trump has transferred the burden of renegotiation — have no appetite for this. The day before President Trump said he was granting sanctions waivers to Iran for the last time, those same European partners met with Iran to affirm their commitment to the deal.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has already said that “signatories must stand by their word” on the deal.

“If it is respected by Iran — which is what the IAEA says, and we don’t have any reason not to believe it — the signatories must stand by their word,” said Le Drian, according to the Associated Press. “Because when an agreement is signed, each signatory must respect it. He (Tillerson) knows it.”

Trying to interpret the diplomatic puffs of smoke coming out of Tilleson’s meeting with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Monday, there’s nothing to indicate that Johnson supported a renegotiation of the deal he previously described as “a crucial agreement that makes the world safer.”

Germany, the final European partner and not on Tillerson’s itinerary, is enveloped in its own very staid version of a political crisis, with Chancellor Angela Merkel trying cobble together a coalition government at a time of great uncertainty in the European Union. But for what it’s worth, here’s what German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel had to say about the deal earlier this month: “We want to protect the JCPOA against every possible undermining decision whatever that may come. It would send a very dangerous signal to the rest of the world if the only agreement that prevents the proliferation of nuclear weapons was negatively affected.”

Even Tillerson knows he’s got a tough mission — he’s already said he doesn’t think he’ll get Trump what he wants on a short timeline.

But then, Secretary Tillerson isn’t just focused on Iran — he’s also supposed to deliver the U.S. strategy in Syria to European and Arab allies. It’ll be interesting to see what that strategy is, beyond the stated open-ended U.S. presence in the country (which the Syrian government has already said it would perceive as an act of aggression).

Just last week, the United States had to backpedal, at warp speed, from an announcement that it was forming a Kurdish border security force in Syria after the Turkish government promptly threatened to attack it. Indeed, the threat of any kind of Kurdish stronghold close to its border has Turkey bombing Afrin since Saturday, with Russia giving it the all-clear and the United States only so far being able to call the operation “disruptive.”

Nicolas Heras, with Center for a New American Security, told the Washington Post that the situation in Afrin “shows how difficult it is for U.S. policymakers to walk and chew gum when it comes to Syria.”