Is there a Connection Between the Jerusalem Decision and Reports of Rex Tillerson Leaving Office?
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, perhaps the most respected of President Donald Trump’s cabinet members, may be on the way out. He could be replaced by current CIA director Mike Pompeo. Tillerson’s fall from grace and his replacement could be part of a wider foreign affairs and security shakeup.
Pompeo is leaving the CIA to serve as Secretary of State while newly elected Senator Tom Cotton, a noted anti-Iran deal “hardliner,” would take his office in Langley. (Source: “Intelligence veterans blast Tom Cotton as pro-torture, ‘partisan,’ and ‘wholly unfit’ to lead the CIA,” Business Insider, November 30, 2017.)
Rumors burst in the last week of November that Trump had soured on Tillerson. Some speculated that the president did not take well to Tillerson having described him as a “moron” during a Pentagon meeting last October. (Source: “White House Plans Tillerson Ouster From State Dept., to Be Replaced by Pompeo,” The New York Times, November 30, 2017.)
Tillerson has brushed off the rumors and he’s still scheduled to go on a mission to Europe. However, Washington insiders say that the “moron” comment did not simply infuriate Trump; it also damaged the relationship between Tillerson and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. (Source: “Trump denies that Tillerson is on his way out,” CNN, December 1, 2017.)
So, is the “moron’”comment to blame for Rex Tillerson’s likely and forthcoming dismissal? No. “Moron” is merely the match that set off the gunpowder that had accumulated over two key policy differences.
One of these concerns the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The other is Iran.
However, Tillerson and Trump have also disagreed over North Korea. Kim Jong-Un’s agents must have understood, given the timing of their long-range “Hwasong-15” intercontinental ballistic missile test on November 29. Tillerson, whose task is to execute out U.S. foreign policy, must have perceived that Trump’s international strategy posed severe obstacles to diplomacy.
Amid another dangerous escalation of tensions with North Korea, President Trump decided to bring up moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv, which is the de facto diplomatic capital of Israel, to Jerusalem. Tillerson, as chief U.S. diplomat, knows that no country has an embassy in Jerusalem. Opening one there would compromise U.S. relations with the whole Arab world.
Tillerson Disagrees with Trump Over Jerusalem and It’s Not Just Semantics
Rex Tillerson has, on previous occasions, expressed strong objection to Trump’s Jerusalem embassy schemes. He feels such a move would anger–no, make that infuriate–the Palestinians and terminate any of the already few and faint hopes of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Trump administration was especially keen about moving its main diplomatic mission in Israel to Jerusalem on November 30. In addition, Trump is said to be planning to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
No U.S. president has ever gone that far. In fact, it would be a diplomatic (or undiplomatic) precedent, because the Palestinians also want to establish the capital of their future state in Jerusalem, whose Eastern side was part of the state of Jordan until June 1967. Declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel would evaporate any pretense that a peace process still exists. It could prompt a war in the Occupied Territories and Israel, which would no doubt engage the most effective Arab army of the modern era: Hezbollah.
In other words, what Trump may understand to be a “semantic” detail, could trigger a major Middle Eastern war, which would necessarily invite Iran, while breaking any current alliances the U.S. has in the region.
Tillerson understands this. He would have been briefed by experienced foreign service and CIA officials, as well as the foreign leaders he’s dealt with from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq.
We know that Rex Tillerson has vociferously objected to the”Jerusalem capital recognition” plan from the very beginning.
Trump supporter and Jewish-American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson was said to be furious with Tillerson over the latter’s insistence that moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem could only occur if it would not harm Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. (Source: “Adelson reportedly ‘furious’ with Tillerson for tying embassy move to peace deal,” The Times of Israel, May 15, 2017.)
For all the scheming from Trump’s son-in-law and “meddler-in-chief” Jared Kushner, Rex Tillerson may have been kept in the dark. Should the suspicion of interference from Kushner be true, it suggests Tillerson has been a sitting duck all along. Rather than the head of U.S. diplomacy, he’s just acted–unbeknownst to him–as its “face.”
Rather, Tillerson, who as head of an oil company knows Saudi Arabia well, understands that the Kingdom, no matter how friendly with the United States, would feel threatened by a U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel. Kushner and Adelson, less so. (Source: “Jared Kushner may have kept Rex Tillerson in the dark on Saudi scheming in the Middle East,” Business Insider, November 30, 2017.)
Tillerson Likes the Iran Deal; Pompeo and Cotton Do Not
Then there’s the matter of Iran.
From 2006 to 2016, current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM), ExxonMobil was one of the companies that most enthusiastically lobbied the U.S. government to sign the “nuclear deal” with Iran in 2015. Under Tillerson’s watch, ExxonMobil’s European subsidiaries did business with Iran, as well as Syria and Sudan. (Source: “ExxonMobil and Iran did business under secretary of State nominee Tillerson,” USA Today, January 9, 2017.)
You can’t beat Iranian oil for convenience. It’s abundant, relatively easy to refine, and cheap to extract. Iraq’s oil shares some of those characteristics, but it suffers from that ever-frustrating problem of civil war, political instability, and unresolved autonomy issues between the Kurds and the government in Baghdad.
It’s no wonder, then, that Tillerson, as CEO of the world’s largest oil supermajor, wanted to secure a few blocks for his company in Iran. It may be an Islamic Republic, but oil, as far as we know, has no religion. ExxonMobil investors would have been furious with Tillerson had he not hunted Iranian hydrocarbon opportunities, losing out to its major American, European, or Chinese rivals.
As Secretary of State, Tillerson has been one of the primary supporters of the Iran nuclear deal, regardless of the fact that Obama signed it. He may even have persuaded Trump about the desirability of having Iran at arm’s length, rather than at no length at all.
But if anything is clear about Trump’s leadership so far, it’s that the president has a penchant for 180-degree turns. Indeed, with Tillerson out, there’s nothing to hold Trump back from scrapping the Iran nuclear deal.
Perhaps Defense Secretary Mattis might still make an argument in favor of the deal, but with Pompeo and Cotton, there won’t be much room for negotiation. (Source: “Tillerson says in US interest to stay in Iran nuclear deal,” The Financial Times, October 15, 2017.)
Scrapping the Iran deal–adding to the Jerusalem Recognition–isn’t just about multinationals ceasing their oil, gas, or other business with Iran. Tillerson’s removal slams the door wide open to an official recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Clearly, such a move would be a mere step away from an outright declaration of a clash of Middle Eastern titans, no doubt involving the United States, which won’t please China or Russia. It certainly won’t help in resolving North Korea either.
If you don’t own any defense sector stocks now, you won’t have time to kick yourself later. The scenario that is shaping in the White House has a good chance of ending with a bang.
Pompeo Has Always Opposed the Iran Deal; He Will Urge Trump to Scrap it
This will put Washington in direct agreement with neo-conservative hawks, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. It would also please the Iranian hardliners who oppose President Rohani, voiding his diplomacy and openings to the West. Therefore, all the parties who are itching for a fight will have their opportunity. If diplomacy had a chance of succeeding with Tillerson, it will become an extinct species under Pompeo. Tillerson was also trying to resolve the Pyongyang nuclear file diplomatically. The duo that Trump wants to take charge of foreign policy and intelligence will not “waste” their time with diplomacy.
Perhaps the only thing that could hold Trump back is if Steve Bannon can remind him that his voters aren’t interested in more wars. Had that been the case, there was a candidate for that, and she really wanted the presidency. She didn’t get it. Bannon, who effectively ran Trump’s campaign, was always focused on domestic issues and fighting liberals at home rather than armies and lost causes abroad, least of all the Middle East.
The temptation to start a war with Iran–without Tillerson to reason Trump out of it–will be difficult to resist. The hawks will smell the air and get high on the napalm that’s brewing in it. Trump’s new foreign policy team may even persuade him that attacking Iran would be a great way to send a message to Kim “Rocketman” Jong-un in the old “kill two birds with one stone” ploy.
Hopefully, Trump has included to account for the “China error.” Xi Jinping isn’t just going to sit around, though Trump may have calculated that attacking the Middle East is better than angering the “dragon” directly in his backyard. For all the media obsession with Trump and his supposed “friendship” with the president, Tillerson is the one who had a relationship with Putin, developed long before he became Secretary of State.
Rex Tillerson is the one that ensured Trump didn’t interfere with Russia’s plans in Syria, allowing Moscow to help Asad regain control of most of that war ridden country. With Tillerson gone, so does Trump’s détente with Moscow. Americans better be sure that the “F-35” is better than the “Sukhoi-35,” because without Tillerson there’s more than a chance they will “compete.” The most optimistic scenario now has instability and unpredictability at its heart; as for the most pessimistic, it’s unthinkable.