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Trump’s Middle East spurt: Riyadh encouraged, while Tehran set on alert

U.S. President Donald Trump and King Salman ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud. Photo: Reuters

News analysts forecasted a high news-making potential of Donald Trump yet before he took office. Their forecasts have come true, even the boldest ones, as the administration of the 45th U.S. president shows unprecedented foreign policy activity.

Middle East anticipated certain novelty from Trump’s actions, if not surprises. And it happened – the U.S. president caused a stir even among traditional partners of Washington, let alone its geopolitical opponents. For instance, Saudi Arabia has appeared to be unready for the new Middle East swing.

The Arab monarchy is experiencing uneasy domestic political, social and economic situation. Nevertheless, it is still one of the key players in the Middle East. Despite all bilateral problems of Washington and Riyadh that emerged yet under Barack Obama, the United States has remained committed to guaranteeing security of Saudi Arabia against Iran’s “actions destabilizing the region”, first.

Saudis are happy to see the wording “Tehran’s destabilizing role” in the geopolitical vocabulary of Trump’s administration. Besides, the Republican president’s team has already launched some specific, anti-Iranian steps. Riyadh expected Trump to make the American-Iranian relations tense and he came up to its expectations.

First, on January 27, the president put a contradictory, 90-day ban on entry of citizens of seven countries, including Iran, to the United States. The ban was harshly criticized by the judicial systems and human rights organizations. Afterwards, on January 29, some 48 hours after imposing the travel ban, Iran tested a ballistic missile (some Western sources say it was a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead). Before the test, Tehran responded to Trump’s travel ban vowing symmetric measures against U.S. citizens.

Then a sharp exchange, sometimes far from being politically correct, started between officials in Washington and Tehran. On February 3, an outbreak of mutual discontent made Trump impose sanctions on 13 individuals and 12 companies in Iran (registered in Lebanon, China and UAE as well). In response, on February 4, Iran’s armed forces used missiles in a massive Revolutionary Guards exercises launched on Saturday. According to Sepahnews, the website of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the massive drills demonstrated a “full defense capability” to meet threats and “offensive sanctions” by the United States.

It appears that Trump’s team just waited for a trivial ground to shift from warning to actions. During his presidential campaign, Trump slammed the nuclear deal Iran and six powers, including U.S., made in July 2015. Besides, Trump threatened to shoot Iranian ships in the Gulf, if they continue harassing the U.S. Navy.

So far, the U.S. president’s threats to revise the nuclear deal with Tehran have not resulted in any practical steps. Instead, the anti-Iranian sentiments in the White House and Congress are high enough to trigger Washington’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal.

The regressing U.S.-Iran relations will favor the Saudi authorities. The negative attitude to the nuclear and missile programs of Iran unites Saudi Arabia and Israel. If the United States join their efforts to link the nuclear program to one threat – “nuclear warhead”, they will be happy.

UN Security Council’s Resolution 2231 dating back to June 20 2015 does not ban Iran from testing medium-range missiles. The document just calls on Tehran not to undertake such launches. “Paragraph 3 of Annex B of resolution 2231 (2015) calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology,” the text of the Resolution says among others. Therefore, development of the missile program will have no international legal consequences for Iran.

The Saudi-Israeli duet spared no effort to persuade Obama’s Administration that Tehran violates the nuclear deal by its missile tests. Now, they are managing to do it. Trump’s Administration looks for a reason to torpedo the nuclear deal among others through the sanctions in response to Iran’s missile tests.

Saudi Arabia has gained from the situation in Syria too from the viewpoint of deterring Iran’s regional ambitions and “destabilizing role.” Trump promotes the idea of creating the so-called “safe zones” in the north of Syria where civilians that fled military actions could find shelter. Yet, it is not clear yet where particularly those zones will be created, which countries will provide military, logistic and financial support. Nevertheless, the idea of “safe zones” that contrasts the stance of Obama’s Administration meets the interests of Saudi Arabia. Any area to be turned into a “safe shelter” for civilians should be demilitarized and armed groups must have no access to it.

There are few pro-Iranian groups in the north of Syria, in Aleppo province, unlike southern and western regions, but there are some and Americans initiating the establishment of “safe zones” (whether at the suggestion of Turkey or not – it no longer matters) will have to reckon with them. In the north of Syria, not only Iran but also Russia will face a series of problems. Russia is not sure in Trump’s plans related to “safe zones.”

To “deter” Iran, Trump shows readiness for more steps meeting the interests of Al-Saud family. For instance, a few days ago, U.S. sent a Navy destroyer USS Cole to waters of Yemen where Tehran-backed rebel-Hussites attacked Saudi ships. According to Western media, the U.S. naval presence in the area of Bab al-Mandab looks to provide security to shipments and sent another warning to Iran following the launch of missiles in late January.

Besides, the United States Navy led by USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) supercarrier is heading towards Middle East. According to the press office of the 6th operative fleet of the U.S. Navy, the naval force comprises also Philippine Sea and Hue City missile cruisers and Laboon and Truxtun missile destroyers.

Trump doesn’t mind increasing the military-technical cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in the Persian Gulf. Trump’s party fellow, senator Bob Corker said earlier that he anticipated the While House to approve the sale of F-16E/F fighting falcons to Bahrain. Obama’s administration blocked the contract earlier blaming Bahrain for violation of human rights. Corker anticipates that the contract may be signed shortly without any political restrictions (1).

The U.S. defense industry approved the deal, as its export capacities depend on Arab clients. A representative of Lockheed Martin said the sale of 19 F-16 falcons to Bahrain for $28 billion is of critical importance for the company’s production line.

Political changes in Washington promise more contracts to Saudis: U.S. weapons and security guarantees in exchange for Arabian oil-dollars.

So far, these are the only benefits of Saudi Arabia from Trump’s Administration. So far it is uncertain if the Republic majority in Congress supports the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, JASTA, passed in September 2016. Republicans killed that bill for many times under Obama angering the Arabian monarchy. To recall, the U.S. citizens and their legal successors who suffered from September 11 2001 terror attacks have a right to sue directly the Saudi government for any role it might have played in 2001 attacks.

Riyadh so far hopes JASTA will not grow into an “avalanche” of claims against the Kingdom. Widely covered in Saudi media, Trump’s phone call with King Salman ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud on January 29 has not reveal the attitude of the new administration to that issue so painful for Riyadh.

It is uncertain if Trump will stop the financial flows from numerous members of Al-Saud family to as many extremist groups in the Middle East, including in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Gulf not only fund “moderate” and radical Islamic militants, but also supply those groups with “Jihadist infantry” and field commanders loyal to the Arab monarchies. Trump has already shifted to some practical steps after his promise to launch total fight against “Islamic terrorism” (recall the immigration ban issued on Jan 27).

Trump’s policy in the Middle East with a focus on unconditional support to Israel creates certain inconvenience to Saudi Arabia, specifically in the issue of Palestine. Suffice it to recall Trump’s intention to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. If this happens, the reason of the protracted dispute of Israel and Palestine where the latter enjoys the support of the Arab countries when it comes to division of Jerusalem into the western and eastern parts, Riyadh will have to respond. The Saudi king has the title of custodian of two holy mosques, while the third after Mecca and Medina is in Jerusalem – Al-Aqsa Mosque. However, Saudis will hardly want to oppose the new president of U.S. or spoil the relations with Israel not to favor Iran, among others.

Anyway, Saudi Arabia has more reasons for optimism rather than pessimism concerning Trump’s policy in the Middle East. The U.S. president leads the situation to confrontation with Iran, which fills its two geopolitical rivals – Saudi Arabia and Israel – with enthusiasm.

Meantime, the Democrat-president did not perceive Iran as a priority problem. Furthermore, he tried to make the Shia country as a subject for settling more acute issues in the Middle East. Trump and his team in the White House, Pentagon and CIA (2) consider Iran as the problem number one. So, Saudis and their allies pin great hopes with him.

(1) U.S. Congress, on September 28, 2016, approved long-pending sales of fighter jets to Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain for about $7 billion, after two-years of talks amid Israel’s concerns that the U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf may use those arms against it. In particular, Israel criticized Qatar over ties with armed Islamist groups. Projects were approved after signing a 10-year-long package of military aid to Israel for $38 billion. However, in late September 2016, Obama Administration refused from final approval of the deal with Bahrain unless there is progress in human rights field in that country.

(2) As Middle East analysts say, persons loyal to the Kingdom are on the key diplomatic, military and intelligence posts of Trump’s Administration. Defense Secretary James Mattis is a known quantity from his CENTCOM days, and the designated secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is familiar to them as former CEO of ExxonMobil. The CIA is a longstanding back channel for the kingdom, and its new director, Mike Pompeo, will be expected to visit Riyadh early in his tenure. (Bruce Riedel, Saudis hopeful but wary about Trump // Al Monitor, February 1, 2017).

EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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