Reactions in the Middle East on Wednesday to the firing of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reflect the volatile divide between Iran, where many fear his departure heralds the demise of the 2015 nuclear deal, and Gulf Arab nations hoping for a more hawkish US stance toward Tehran and Qatar.
There was no immediate response from officials in the region. But Iran’s daily Javan newspaper, believed to be close to the hard-line Revolutionary Guard, said that replacing Tillerson with CIA director Mike Pompeo signaled the end of the nuclear deal.
President Donald Trump’s appointment of Pompeo places an ardent foe of the deal in charge of US diplomacy as the administration debates whether to withdraw from the agreement.
Tillerson had pushed Trump to remain, and had been pursuing a delicate strategy with European allies and others to try to improve or augment the Obama-era deal.
“For quitting the deal his dumping was necessary,” Javan said.
That would be welcome news for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which view Iran as a regional menace. They have also pushed Washington to take a harder line on Qatar, which they and other Arab nations have boycotted since last year, accusing it of supporting extremist groups and cozying up to Iran. Tillerson had sought to mediate the crisis among the US allies.
In the UAE on Wednesday, the English-language Khaleej Times borrowed from the US president’s show-biz days for its headline: “YOU’RE FIRED!” Saudi Arabia’s English-language Arab News had the same headline.
Another English-language newspaper, the state-aligned The National newspaper of Abu Dhabi, offered an editorial saying Tillerson’s firing would “surprise few,” pointing to his disagreement with Trump over Qatar.
The UAE, along with Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, cut off land, sea and air routes to Qatar in June 2017. Qatar, which has backed Islamist opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, has denied supporting extremists. It shares a massive offshore natural gas field with Tehran.
Trump has at times appeared to side with Qatar’s rivals in the dispute, while Tillerson had projected a more neutral stance.
“While Mr. Tillerson shortsightedly urged Saudi Arabia and allies in the quartet to end their boycott of Qatar, Mr. Trump named Doha ‘a funder of terrorism at a very high level,’” The National’s editorial page said.
Faisal J. Abbas, the editor-in-chief of the Arab News, similarly said Tillerson’s mishandling of the Middle East “turned the region into his political graveyard.” Abbas wrote that Tillerson’s handling of the Qatar dispute proved the former ExxonMobil CEO was “’full of gas’ more than anything else.”
“Is there reason to believe Doha had influence over Tillerson? Was he really biased toward Qatar?” Abbas wrote in a front-page editorial. “Or was he surrounded by so many State Department officials still stuck in the Obama era that they undermined his ability to act? None of this matters now.”
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati professor of political science, called Tillerson “the worst foreign minister in the history of America” on Twitter. He also implied Gulf Arab unhappiness with Tillerson led to his ouster.
“History will remember that a Gulf state had a role in expelling the foreign minister of a superpower and that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he wrote.
Kuwait, which has sought to broker an end to the Qatar crisis, offered no immediate comment, though a local newspaper described Tillerson’s departure as striking “like an earthquake” in a headline.