The abrupt dismissal of Rex Tillerson as US secretary of state was seen overseas as a hardening of the Donald Trump’s America First policy, a serious blow to the future of the Iran nuclear deal, and a possible harbinger of a full-blown trade war with the European Union.
In his brief comments on Tillerson’s removal, Trump mentioned policy disagreements over Iran.
The US president has made no secret of his distaste for the multilateral 2015 deal – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action – which imposed strict curbs on the Iranian nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief. Tillerson, by contrast, had consistently argued that the US should remain in step with European allies and support the agreement.
On Tuesday, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted: “Mr Trump has made habit of being unpredictable and thus unreliable for anybody to engage with. Nobody will be interested in reaching any agreement with the White House if US signature only good for 4-8 yrs.”
Federica Mogerhini, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, will also be unnerved at the likely impact of Tillerson’s dismissal on the Iran deal.
France, Germany and the UK have been under relentless US and Gulf pressure to tear up the deal, or at least add supplementary treaties, covering the Iranian ballistic missile programme.
Although France and the UK agree with the US on Iranian ballistic missiles, the EU defends the overall deal not just as a successful contribution to nuclear disarmament, but as a symbol of multilateralism in action.
Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, has been critical of the Iran deal. In his year leading the CIA, Pompeo approved new authorities to target leaders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps through intelligence operations.
In Germany, politicians expressed fears that Tillerson’s departure reveals Trump is determined to wage a full-scale trade war with the EU, a move that Tillerson – a former businessman – had opposed.
In remarks aimed at Berlin, Trump at the weekend tweeted: “Many of the countries that treat us the worst in trade and military are our allies, as others like to call them.” He followed this up with an attack on Mercedes-Benz.
Michael Roth, a deputy foreign minister for Europe, tweeted: “The firing of Rex Tillerson won’t make things better…”
Center-left lawmaker Thomas Oppermann described Tillerson as “a reliable, intelligent interlocutor” whose departure would be a “further setback for German-American relations”.
Oppermann, the deputy speaker of parliament, said Trump’s decision showed the US president was “capricious and erratic”.
In Moscow, Tillerson’s removal – shortly after he had condemned Russia over the poisoning of the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal – was mocked by a foreign ministry spokeswoman, who asked whether Vladimir Putin was already being blamed for his dismissal.
But British politicians drew a circumstantial link between Tillerson’s strong statement of support for the UK in its diplomatic battle with Moscow and Trump’s decision to fire him.
The Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokeswoman Jo Swinson said: “Trump fires Tillerson after he expressed support for UK over Russia attack. Clear message: ‘special relationship’ with Trump’s US administration is worse than meaningless. Putting all our trade eggs in the US basket is madness.”
Pat McFadden, the former Labour Europe minister, implied Trump’s true special relationship was with Vladimir Putin, saying: “When the White House said they would stand by their closest ally we thought they meant us.”
Former Labour cabinet minister Liam Byrne said: “Secretary Tillerson & US State Department stood with us over Russia this week – now the White House needs to do the same.”
The abrupt departure was a blow for Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, since in a statement on Tuesday morning he had leaned heavily on Tillerson’s support for the UK position – only hours before Tillerson was given the final vote of no confidence by Trump.
No 10 later said: “We are grateful for the excellent relationship and cooperation that we have had with Rex Tillerson and look forward to that continuing under the new US secretary of state.”
Tillerson’s departure is likely to please Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have been frustrated by his even-handed response to their dispute with Qatar.
And when Saudi Arabia and its Emirati allies imposed an embargo on Qatar in June, Trump immediately took Riyadh’s side while Tillerson criticised the Saudi ambush and tried to broker a solution.
But Gulf expert Michael Stephens at the defence thinktank Rusi said: “If anyone from the Gulf really thinks a US administration as dysfunctional as the current one is suddenly going to see things their way because Tillerson left, they’re quite badly wrong. There is no new dawn … policy will stay as it is.”
The crown prince of Saudia Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, is due to visit Washington next week and has relied upon the White House rather than the state department for political support.
Saudi Arabia’s great ally in the Gulf, the UAE, had privately lobbied for Tillerson’s dismissal, according to emails leaked to the New York Times.