Trump puts fight against Iran in front and centre of his strategy in Middle East

The Trump administration has spent much time and energy in its first months in office reassuring regional partners, especially Saudi Arabia, that it stands by them in their confrontation with Iran.
December 24, 2017
With friends like these? Faith leaders place their hands on the shoulders of US President Donald Trump as he takes part in a prayer for those affected by Hurricane Harvey at the White House in Washington, last September. (Reuters)

Washington - Forget the Israeli-Palestin­ian conflict, the Syrian war or the confrontation between Arab neigh­bours on the Gulf. When it comes to the Middle East, fight­ing Iran’s influence is US President Donald Trump’s top priority, a newly released security document stated.

Trump’s National Security Strat­egy, unveiled December 18, says Iran is a growing threat to the re­gion and the wider world. “The Iranian regime sponsors terrorism around the world. It is develop­ing more capable ballistic missiles and has the potential to resume its work on nuclear weapons that could threaten the United States and our partners,” the document says. “We will work with partners to deny the Iranian regime all paths to a nuclear weapon and neutralise Iranian malign influence.”

In Trump’s view, the Israeli-Pal­estinian stand-off is no longer the centre of concern for the United States. The long-running conflict has, in effect, been redefined as an issue to be solved in the service of the fight against extremism and of getting to a bigger prize — a broad alliance against Iran.

“For generations, the conflict be­tween Israel and the Palestinians has been understood as the prime irritant preventing peace and pros­perity in the region,” the strategy paper says. “Today, the threats from jihadist terrorist organisa­tions and the threat from Iran are creating the realisation that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems. States have increasingly found common interests with Isra­el in confronting common threats.”

Trump’s strategy replaces a se­curity playbook issued by former US President Barack Obama in 2015. Much of the new document deals with global challenges posed by Russia, China and North Korea, homeland security and with inter­national economic policy. The new National Security Strategy defines US interests in the Middle East with a vision of a region “that is not a safe haven or breeding ground for jihadist terrorists, not dominated by any power hostile to the United States and that contributes to a sta­ble global energy market.”

In the document, Trump gives himself credit for military advanc­es against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in recent months. “We crushed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists on the bat­tlefields of Syria and Iraq and will continue pursuing them until they are destroyed,” Trump says in a foreword to his strategy paper.

The administration said the president’s decision to give US commanders in Iraq and Syria more leeway contributed to mili­tary victories there, even if Trump inherited US involvement in the re­gion from his predecessors.

Tally Helfont, director of the pro­gramme on the Middle East at the Foreign Policy Research Institute think-tank in Philadelphia, said despite all the rhetoric, Trump’s approach in the Middle East shows some continuity from the later years of the Obama administra­tion.

“There is one major departure and it relates to Iran,” she said via e-mail, pointing to Trump’s de­nouncement of the international nuclear deal with Iran that was concluded under Obama in 2015.

The Trump administration has spent much time and energy in its first months in office reassuring regional partners, especially Saudi Arabia, that it stands by them in their confrontation with Iran. The president refused to certify Teh­ran’s compliance with the 2015 nu­clear agreement and said it is pos­sible Washington will walk away from the accord.

Helfont stressed that Trump was returning to the “axis of evil” rhet­oric against Iran used by former President George W. Bush. How­ever, the Trump strategy paper did not back up that rhetoric with con­crete plans, she added. “How he plans to confront Iran… remains unclear and the 2017 National Se­curity Strategy does nothing to il­luminate his playbook,” Helfont wrote about the current president.

Administration officials have said they want to bring Arabs, led by Saudi Arabia, and Israel closer together. Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy Jared Kushner said he is working on a comprehen­sive plan for the region. Few details of the plan are known but a broad alliance against Tehran is under­stood to be one of its main pillars. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who has developed a close working rela­tionship with Kushner, reportedly visited Israel in September and the Israeli government said it has ex­tended another invitation.

Developments like those are in­dications that the Trump admin­istration is trying to make use of opportunities in the region. “The Saudis, for their part, have been quite clear that if the Israelis re­solve their conflict with the Pal­estinians, a working relationship with many of the countries in the region will ensue,” Helfont wrote.

Such a rapprochement is not as improbable as it would have been ten or 20 years ago. The relatively muted response after Trump’s rec­ognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6 has shown a degree of fatigue concerning the Palestinian issue in the Arab world.

“There has been an understand­ing within the region for some time now that citizens from Rabat to Sana’a have real problems of their own and their leader’s ability to dangle the Palestinian cause in their faces as a distraction ceased following the Arab uprisings,” Hel­font wrote.