A New American Strategy in the Middle East

The reversal of the policies of US former President Barack Obama, which had acquiesced to much of Iran's nuclear, regional, and internal priorities, has begun in earnest. The Trump administration has initiated a qualitative shift in relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with a view to restore traditional alliances with them as the basis of US interests in the Middle East, to be expanded to include the UAE, Jordan, and Morocco as well. But Tehran's gains during Washington's thrust under Obama to conclude the nuclear deal and forge bilateral relations, in a stark departure from thirty years of hostility, will not be automatically upended under Trump. However, the new administration intends to enforce the deal down to the letter, and will put Iran under extreme scrutiny and threat of accountability. The Trump administration will pour cold water on the warmth Obama wanted to have in the context of American-Iranian relations. The second demand that Obama's administration had met, with regard to something that Tehran had claimed was its right, was its regional role beyond its borders. For that purpose, Tehran used the nuclear deal to blackmail and deter Washington from using its cards to block Iran's expansionist ambitions in the Arab countries, from Iraq to Syria, and from Yemen to Bahrain and Lebanon. Since President Trump assumed the office of president, the pillars of his administration have begun to tackle not just the Iranian project in these countries, but in the same measure, tackle the most important cornerstone of this project, namely, the creation of paramilitary entities parallel to regular armies along the lines of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iran, the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and various militias backed by the IRGC and its Qods Force in Syria. This is an interesting radical transformation in the new US policy. Thirdly, the Islamic Republic had also obtained from Obama his personal recognition of the legitimacy of its theocratic regime, implicitly pledging not to interfere in Iran's internal affairs and back Iran's opposition. The pillars of Trump's administration are not speaking about toppling the regime in Iran, but at the same time, they have not pledged to respect the legitimacy of the regime, which they have emphasized is the largest sponsor of state terror worldwide. In other words, the new administration is divorcing with Obama's strategic decisions on Iran. If we add to this the Trump administration's apparent bid to restore the strategic alliances with the Gulf countries and Egypt, after relations with them got on the verge of enmity under Obama, it becomes clear that Trump is developing a comprehensive strategy for the Middle East region, in which the key riddle however is how it will be formulated in the context of the extraordinary relationship Trump has suggested he wants to have with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, are quite reassured by the signals being sent by the Trump administration, indicating the Gulf's centrality and security have once again become one of America's strong commitments. What Trump said during his campaign, regarding the need for the Gulf nations to pay for US security services, is something that the Gulf countries already understand and accept, and has always been one of the elements understood to be the basis of American-Gulf security relations. Indeed, restoring confidence in US security commitments is priceless for the Gulf countries, particularly after their relations with and Trust in America were fundamentally shaken under Obama, not just because of the American-Iranian rapprochement, but also as a result of the implications of America's coolness for the reliability of her security guarantees.

The Gulf countries had felt that Obama deliberately marginalized and excluded them from regional engagements. Obama wanted to put them in their place and humiliate them, while simultaneously appeasing Iran and unshackling its hands in the Arab geography, including Saudi Arabia's borders through its intervention in Yemen where it supported the Houthi rebels. They also felt that Barack Obama, deliberately or otherwise, supported Shiites against Sunnis in the sectarian struggle between them by blessing Iran's regional ambitions, and not just as a result of the nuclear deal that gave Tehran the right to acquire nuclear weapons in principle and undermined the principle of nuclear non-proliferation, in return for freezing its non-civilian nuclear activities for just ten years.

But the Arab Gulf's bewilderment with the US push to secure Iran's interests at the expense of Arab interests had not started with Obama, but with his predecessor George W. Bush. Indeed, the Iraq War effectively offered Mesopotamia to Iran on a golden platter, in the Arab Gulf view. To the Gulf countries, this was an odd reversal, especially since the US and the Gulf countries had once backed Saddam Hussein himself in his war with Iran in the 1980s. At the time, the US position was on the side of the Sunnis against Shiites in the sectarian equation, until the decision to topple Saddam was made. The Obama era consolidated this shift in US policy, igniting the sectarian war like never before in modern history.

Today, President Trump is bringing something new to this equation. Perhaps it is on the mind of US long-term policy to restore some balance vis-à-vis the Sunni-Shiite question, to put out fires, contain the hostility, and be able to once and for all defeat radical Islamism in all forms: ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra and their ilk from amongst the nihilistic Sunni radical terror groups; and the Shiite militias spawned by Iran in the context of its regional project. Interestingly, Russia in turn is going down a similar path at this time, especially in Syria where it has significant differences with Iran, its strategic military partner there, regarding the fate and role of its proxies after the ceasefire.

The first stop in Trump's overhaul of the US' Iran policy will be the new strategy to fight ISIS in Iraq. Defenders of Obama's policy say that seeking the help of Iran's influence and military assets in Iraq was inevitable because the goal first and foremost is to defeat ISIS. Iran thus presented itself as an indispensable partner in that war, and for the purpose manufactured the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Shiite-dominated militias, to spearhead the effort. Now, people close to the Trump administration say the US interest no longer aligns with Iran's project to seize and hold territories the international coalition helps deliver from ISIS. For one thing, they say, this could lead to the emergence of new terror groups out of that fertile geography, with terror to dwarf that of ISIS and continue the sectarian war that may generate generations of radical Sunnis and Shiites.

There is increasing talk of new approaches to fight ISIS in Mosul, in Iraq, and Raqqa, in Syria. The US-led coalition is effectively capturing territories from ISIS, and is not in absolute need for Iran to finish the job. If true, this would mark a key shift in the US policy under Trump's administration, markedly different from Obama's strategy, with broad and long-term implications.

This development is complemented by interesting stances expressed by the Trump administration, which flows in the same direction of its pledge to fight both Shiite and Sunni radicalism. The administration has indicated it might designate the IRGC and the Muslim Brotherhood as terror groups. This would be a huge step that the Trump administration may not be able to implement in one go: First because the IRGC is part of the regime in Iran; and second, because the Muslim Brotherhood are part of the tough equation in Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, and Turkey especially. For this reason, people close to decision makers in Washington expect gradual steps that may begin with the Qods Force, currently deployed to Iraq and Syria under the command of shadowy general Qassem Soleimani beyond terror designation - and this issue has ramifications connected to American-Russian negotiations. As regards the Brotherhood, a gradual approach is also expected, beginning with the organization's military wings.

Two main players linked to the Muslim Brotherhood are Egypt and Syria. Here too, American-Russian talks are paramount, especially since strained Egyptian-Turkish relations are hovering this point: Egypt's government is absolutely intolerant of the group, while Turkey has adopted the Brothers as part of its regional project, which it has scaled back following a failed coup attempt last year given its immense need for a Russian lifeline (and Moscow's longstanding hostility to the Islamists' rise to power).

The intricate overlap of interests, and regional and international entanglements must be closely watched in this fateful period in the Middle East. The Arab region is fatigued by war in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Some are anticipating Trump to restore some balance to the Arab-Iranian-Turkish triangle. But others fear Israel may yet be the biggest winner. There are also Arab concerns that Trump's belligerence could prompt an Iranian escalation and even a military confrontation, because the majority of Arabs want the containment of Iran and not another devastating war.

American-Iranian relations are inseparable from American-Russian and Russian-Iranian relations. But the Gulf countries are now back in the talks and the decisions, and they are thus welcoming the new approach of the US administration, as they prepare keenly for any actions that could help restore the old historical relationship.

Translated by Karim Traboulsi: https://goo.gl/ZgiFio