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‘Principled Realism’

Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Trump

‘Principled Realism’

Reuel Marc Gerecht
2nd June 2017 - The Weekly Standard

Donald Trump's recent sojourn in the Middle East leaves the United States where it was before the president departed: His administration remains committed to containing Iran while philosophically adopting a pre-9/11 approach to combating Sunni Islamic militancy. Sunni Arab leaders have reason to be content. However much Candidate Trump wanted to avoid wars and costly alliances, President Trump clearly isn't going to abandon the southern Middle East to Iranian aggression. His Riyadh "Islam speech," which was more about the Islamic Republic than anything else, signaled that Trump wasn't particularly moved by the reelection of the foreign-investment-loving Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.

Gulf Arabs, who have had no idea how to check a resurgent Iran that commands Shiite militias in the Levant and Iraq, were consumed with fear that Washington would again fall victim to back-channel messaging from "moderates" in Tehran. Trump's oration, given two days after the Iranian election, quieted Arab anxiety about crafty Persians, an alluring Iranian marketplace, and whispering pro-Iranian Russians. Trump's willingness to sell lots of American weaponry to Sunni Arabs (a longstanding bipartisan American reflex) and his disinterest in the human-rights abuses of those attending the Saudi king's anti-Iranian conference also reassured Arab leaders that Trump won't be, à la George W. Bush, a double-edged sword, cutting Arab authoritarians even more than Persian mullahs.

Yet Trump's "Principled Realism" is no more likely than Barack Obama's politically correct, fearful realpolitik to check Tehran's clerical regime where it matters most, in Syria. Trump appears ideologically too handicapped to target the Islamic Republic at its weakest point—internally, where serious pro-democracy dissent rumbled beneath this year's presidential campaign. And Trump didn't publicly mention once, in either Riyadh or Jerusalem, Obama's nuclear deal, which the White House has decided to maintain. For those wanting Trump to downgrade the deal's strategic importance, to keep it from dominating Middle Eastern foreign policy as it did under Obama, that has to be a disconcerting sign. No countries were more loudly fearful of Obama's atomic handiwork than Israel and Saudi Arabia; none would have been more welcoming of a Trump critique of the agreement's continuing dangers.

Of course, it's possible when the Trump administration finishes its Iran policy review, which should be no later than August, the White House will boldly tackle the Islamic Republic's Shiite imperialism, its development of long-range ballistic missiles, and the ticking time bomb that is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which guarantees that Tehran can develop industrial-size uranium enrichment within 13 years. Except this isn't how Washington works, even in our current contrarian age. The administration isn't going to spend months certifying that the mullahs have sufficiently complied with the terms of the atomic accord and then, at the end of a multi-agency review, go the other direction. Bureaucratic inertia and the Pentagon's obvious fear of Iranian-directed, vengeful Shiite militias targeting U.S. soldiers in Iraq, where around 6,000 serve, should be more than enough to maintain the deal, barring the unexpected, through 2020.

The regional calculus plays to the accord's advantage. The administration has already become accustomed to the Iranian-Russian axis behind the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. It has become accustomed to tens of thousands of Syrian children dying by conventional munitions (death by gas jarred the White House; death by barrel bombs less so). It appears even to have become accustomed to Iranian dominion in Iraq—an obvious flashpoint for the national security adviser, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, who did much to save Iraq from a savage insurgency 10 years ago. The notion that the administration will in the autumn play hardball with the Iranians and the Europeans, who now clearly care more about Iran's commercial promise than they do the menace of the nuclear deal's sunset clauses or Iranian complicity in mass murder, and demand a renegotiated or supplemental accord to eliminate the JCPOA's weaknesses seems farfetched. This would be a multi-front task requiring enormous concentration of presidential will. Even assuming President Trump intellectually is in agreement, and is prepared to meet head-on the international blowback, temperamentally this just seems too challenging. As the Council on Foreign Relations's Ray Takeyh has pithily put the durability of the JCPOA: "Revision delayed is revision denied."

Trump's approach among the Arabs also suggests that a hardline Iran policy won't solidify. Though unremarked in the media, the president emphasized burden-sharing as much in Riyadh as he did in Brussels. It would be unfair to suggest that Trump aims to create a new Arab-heavy Baghdad Pact aimed against the Islamic Republic (the original anti-Soviet alliance, formed in 1955 and ineffective from birth, never really had American buy-in), but not that unfair. It just beggars the imagination to believe that the Saudis and the Emiratis, the bankrollers of the anti-Iranian Arab cause, could or should play any substantive role in the confrontations between Sunnis and Shiites in the northern Middle East. They may have, through their needlessly destructive bombing campaign in Yemen, converted Houthis, hitherto a not particularly radicalized or globalized Shiite sect, into foot-soldiers for Iranian ambitions. The hodgepodge Sunni Arab Saudi-led alliance in Yemen is bogged down. The Saudis have shown no bravery on the battlefield; the Emiratis briefly threw themselves into it before showing that they, too, cannot take casualties.

And competence and steadfastness aside, how do Gulf Arabs raised on Wahhabism, the most virulently anti-Shiite branch of Sunni fundamentalism, advance a healthy outcome in either Syria or Iraq? The Saudis, Qataris, and Emiratis have all supported various radical Sunni groups in Syria. They do so not just because the savagery of the war has left them few effective options. Without doubt, the oddest moment of President Trump's speech in Riyadh was when he called upon the Saudis, among others, to cast out the extremists in their midst. Sounding a bit like a godfather calling out Satan at a baptism, Trump implored his listeners to "DRIVE THEM OUT of your places of worship. DRIVE THEM OUT of your communities. DRIVE THEM OUT of your holy land. And DRIVE THEM OUT OF THIS EARTH." (The White House provided the capitalization.) Most Saudis unquestionably want no part of terrorism aimed at the West—Israel being the possible exception. But Saudi society is a cornucopia of hatreds, bigotries, and harshness that Wahhabis, more than members of any other Sunni creed, have nourished for over 270 years. The Saudi royals have become accomplished ethical contortionists. Good Wahhabis exiling Bad Wahhabis, however, would be a push.

A good argument can be made that a sound American policy in the Middle East ought to reassure the Saudis and other Sunni sheiks of the Persian Gulf that Washington has their backs so they will cease deploying their assets and ideology throughout the region. There is certainly a place for the Saudis and the Emiratis in finance and commerce to ensure that Iran's ruling elite and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military pillar of the regime and the cutting edge of Tehran's military adventures, are starved of foreign investment. There are clever ways for them to deploy their considerable financial leverage with European banks to discourage financing of major Iranian projects. But on the ground in the Middle East, we should always want the Saudis to do less, not more, in any alliance with the United States. This isn't, of course, in sync with President Trump's transactional approach to foreign affairs.

We don't know yet what the White House really wants the Saudis to do in the Middle East. We probably don't know because the administration's better strategic minds, let alone the president, haven't thought through what a Sunni Arab-American partnership against the Islamic Republic means. No matter how one turns it, however, it's difficult to see how Saudi military support, unless channeled and controlled by American soldiers, won't turn counterproductive, abetting the so-far-successful Iranian effort to create a sectarian realignment in the Middle East. Heretofore in Syria against the Islamic State, the Trump administration has let others—primarily Kurds and Syrian Sunni Arabs—carry the battlefield burden. The Pentagon and the National Security Council are certainly aware that the Syrian Kurds have de facto aligned themselves with Damascus. The Syrian Kurdish war against the Islamic State, like the Iraqi Kurdish war against the Islamic State, has already strengthened Kurdish popular opinion, especially in Iraq, in favor of independence if not statehood. There is a decent argument to be made now for an Iraqi Kurdish homeland. It's not clear that Washington realizes that Kurdish Judgment Day and a monumental storm with Iraqi and Syrian Arabs and the Turks may be around the corner. Our short-term interests—keeping U.S. force commitments low—poorly prepare us for an outcome that could oblige Washington to make a decisive, convulsive choice on strategic partnerships throughout the region. With Trump, more of these strategic choices seem inevitable.

The president's comments in Riyadh suggest that the White House has little intention of pressuring Iran through proxies. This part of the president's speech may be revealing: "Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve." If this is a lens into Trump's mind, the future of American Iran policy will revolve, once again, around sanctions.

That is the least confrontational approach, at least with the Iranians. It does imply, however, that Trump is willing to risk the nuclear agreement to punish Tehran for its baleful regional actions. The JCPOA hinges on one thing: atomic restraint in exchange for sanctions relief. If Trump and Congress resolve to pound economically the Iranian regime for its nonnuclear behavior, and new congressional sanctions legislation targeting the Revolutionary Guards continues to move forward with bipartisan support, it will be evident that the administration has decided to make the nuclear agreement subservient to a larger anti-Iranian Middle Eastern strategy. Since U.S. sanctions are now unlikely to change Iranian strategic ambitions and tactics, Trump would be signaling that he is in fact willing to reintroduce American hard power against Tehran, though elsewhere he's been showing that he isn't. This apparent contradiction will in all probability remain until the president decides whether to approve the $17 billion Boeing sale to Iran, which, if rejected, would presumably also down the multibillion-dollar Airbus sale to Iran, given the use of American parts in the European planes. If he allows the Boeing deal, which would sustain thousands of U.S. jobs, President Trump's Iran policy will become just a rhetorically harsher, more intellectually confused version of President Obama's Iran policy.

Which would leave Trump's approach to Sunni militancy the only area of possible divergence from his predecessor. However, here, too, the president will likely accomplish the reverse of what he intends. In Riyadh, Trump gave Gulf monarchs and Egypt's president-for-life Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a green light to continue to pummel dissent. Such oppression always creates its Muslim nemesis: Politico-religious opposition will grow. It is no accident that after Trump's speech in Riyadh, Sisi signed a new law essentially criminalizing all nongovernmental organizations. It is no coincidence that Egyptian radicals aligning themselves with the Islamic State have increased in number and ferocity since Sisi's coup in 2013 against the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi.

Many on the American right are comfortable with what Trump tried to do in Riyadh: rally the Sunni Arabs from their Obama-induced depression and let the clerical regime in Tehran know that America is no longer going to give it a free pass. If in that transaction Washington abandons any pretense of concern about how Sunni Muslims states are ruled, that is a price worth paying so long as Trump doubles down on the Islamic Republic. There is a certain intellectual fatigue on the American right with discussions about the root causes of Islamic terrorism that don't derive from the Muslim faith. President Trump's distaste for traditional American moralism—"We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship  .  .  ."—certainly has fans among those uncomfortable with George W. Bush's emphasis on democracy and freedom. After eight years of President Obama's political correctness about Islam, Trump may still be to many a breath of fresh air. But the president is well on the way to exhibiting an unpleasant truth: Trump may prove no better than Obama in grappling with Islamic militancy. Odds are decent he will do worse.

Iran is the wild card, the one place Trump might make a big difference. As the Dartmouth scholar Misagh Parsa shows in his insightful book Democracy in Iran, an examination of the 38-year tug-of-war in the Islamic Republic between the people and theocracy, Iranians have been after far more than a "just and righteous government." That would be the biggest irony of them all: if an American president who cares so little about democracy and freedom abroad convulsed the clerical regime, letting loose the counter-revolution that's been building like a magma pool under a volcano. Odds aren't good. But as each day reveals, the Trump presidency is always in flux.







Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


iran, saudi-arabia, trump