The US President Donald Trump got everything he ever dreamed of at the summits in Riyadh, from the royal reception, the pledges of investing huge sums of money in the US economy, the establishment of a new front against terror, to the putative enlistment of 34,000 reservists from Muslim and Arab countries in the fight against terrorism in Syria and Iraq, not to mention an Arab and Islamic proposal to normalize relations with Israel in return for peace with the Palestinians, all under US auspices. This is all valuable ammunition for the new president, who met leaders from more than 55 Arab and Islamic countries in one place, before heading to Israel and Palestine in a successful visit, and then the Vatican and Brussels for a NATO summit with European allies. Trump has been met with relief for merely choosing dialogue and cooperation instead of confrontation and intransigence, which he had shown as candidate especially vis-à-vis NATO. Trump appeared presidential, and was taken seriously and as someone who is here to last, even as bad news continued from home with accusations against him of obstructing justice and covering up suspicious ties with Russia. There is no other choice for the world but to deal with the US president in power no matter what his situation at home is, because waiting for the conclusion of local political battles or even impeachment is a gamble. Nevertheless, there is a difference between realism and practicality in how to deal with the Trump presidency on the one hand, and excessively investing in Trump and pinning too many hopes on him or on the United States. Nothing is permanent in the US relations with the Arab countries, particularly since the permanent interests of the US in the region do not cover these countries like they cover Israel, for example, which has become part of domestic US policy. Iran is not a fixture of US strategic calculations, and for this reason, the current phase of US-Iranian-Arab relations deserve a profound analysis, particularly in light of the presidential elections that kept the reformist Hassan Rouhani in the presidency, and dealt a heavy blow to the hardliner Revolutionary Guards and its generals like Qassem Soleimani. The needle of the compass in these trilateral relations has yet to settle, as this is a period of reconfiguration of the balances of escalation and the prospects of accord.
Strong positions were made and strongly worded statements were issued by the summits in Riyadh, demanding the Islamic Republic of Iran to stop its incursions in Arab territories, and end its support for militias and terror groups. The joint American-Saudi statement issued by the bilateral summit reaffirmed the determination to work jointly to contain Iranian threats to the region and the world, and Tehran’s interventions in the internal affairs of other countries, ignition of sectarian strife, support for terrorism, and destabilizing actions in the region. The statement affirmed the determination to stand up to the militias backed by Tehran. The two sides also expressed support for the Lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah and restrict arms to the legitimate armed forced.
The holes in these pledges lie primarily in the obstacles to their implementation. Indeed, direct military confrontation with Iran is not part of the US strategy vis-à-vis Tehran. However, the Trump administration has delivered a message that its threats are credible – as President Trump had proven when he bombed Syria and Afghanistan. For this reason, Tehran has to read between the lines of the statement, and understand that the threat is real.
The men who succeeded so far in shaping foreign policy – despite the opposition from the neocons in the White House – are the top brass in the so-called Axis of Adults. And their strategic policy on Iran is based on ideas inspired by the Surge principle, to regain momentum on the ground as a basis for future accords.
As a starting point, the main policy of the Trump administration on Iran, according to sources close to decision-making circles, will rely on rhetorical, political, and economic escalation to isolate Iran as a state sponsor of terror and non-state actors intervening in other countries. The US strategy however does not involve military escalation against Iran on its soil, but include facilitating measures against Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, and even Hezbollah in Lebanon unless accords are reached with the Iranians.
The strategy once again relies on a carrot and stick approach. If the leadership in Tehran understands that Washington is serious about isolating and punishing Iran for its continued regional expansion and changes course, it will find that the Trump administration is willing to work with it based on the progress made on the ground, rather than on floating promises. In other words, the Revolutionary Guards and its proxies must withdraw from Syria and Iraq and abandon the project for a Persian crescent. In return, Iran would obtain a US promise to not return to the policy of isolation and containment, and a gradual lifting of sanctions. But if Tehran decides on escalation and confrontation, it will find Washington ready to draw lines everywhere, according to one informed source, who said that the US has many options in the framework of its coalitions.
“Leave by your own volition, or we will force you to leave,” the source added, summing up the Trump administration’s policy on Iran’s expansionism in Syria and Iraq. He explains that the US strategy prefers to convince Russia to abandon Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but if that fails, then all sides will be made to understand that there will be no coexistence with continued Iranian expansionism in the region. Yet, the official was not talking about US boots on the ground, but about a new military strategy that combines advanced US capabilities providing cover for non-US troops.
Non-US sources expect that the priority for the returning Iranian reformist president, now with a mandate against the hardliners, will be to avoid confrontation with the US in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran itself. Tehran will not fire the opening shot in any confrontation, but the question here is what Iran would do if the US decides to drive out its forces from Syria and Iraq, and to contain its precious card, Hezbollah, in Lebanon.
The answer may lie in the fate of the US-Russian relationship. If the relationship reaches a deal that would compel Iran to withdraw from Syria and Iraq, while allowing it to keep its Hezbollah card in Lebanon but with guarantees to neutralize its rocket arsenal, this could be the best possible option in the balance of accords. But if Tehran insists on its crescent project and refuses to submit to accords or escalations, it will find that the generals of the White House and the Pentagon have made plans to pushback against its regional influence in multiple locations.
Perhaps decision-makers in Tehran will decide to stall and maneuver, hoping that Trump’s domestic woes would lead to his eventual impeachment. Trump is the antithesis of his predecessor Barack Obama, who had fallen in love with Iran and was bent to appease it. Perhaps Tehran will judge that its interests lie in waiting until the dust settles in the US battles between the White House, the various departments, the hawkish neocons, and the generals of the Axis of Adults, hoping the latter would emerge as the losers. Everything is possible in the United States after all. Logically speaking, however, even if the investigations establish Trump’s involvement in suspicious ties with Russia and this leads to his impeachment, the new policy pursued by the vice president will remain in force. Furthermore, impeachment is a long and complicated process and is only justifiable if the US national security is under threat.
Donald Trump has antagonized the intelligence community and the media, and this puts him in danger, because he is his own worst enemy. He is arrogant and refuses to adapt and admit to mistakes. The United States since Obama has been deeply divided, and is even more divided now, but the Americans do not want their country to collapse. This is why many nations are keen to continue dealing with the Trump administration with professionalism and seriousness.
The summits in Riyadh astounded Trump and were truly historic in many ways. Never in the past did it cost to fix bilateral relations up to $500 billion, whose guarantees may fluctuate to the rhythm of the fate of the president. Was it excessive? Perhaps. However, the fact is that there was no other option because restoring US-Saudi relations in Riyadh’s view is the cornerstone of Saudi national security and the Saudi vision for ensuring and restoring the country’s prosperity.