Trump must play pacifier between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata HasnainFormer Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps

Published: 04th June 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th June 2017 08:07 AM   |  A+A-

President Trump delivering a speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit, in Riyadh on May 21

US President Donald Trump was reportedly a reluctant traveller during his nine-day international tour which took him to the Middle East and Europe. First international tours of US Presidents are supposed to be trendsetters, but Trump had too much on his mind about the impending and existing scandals back home; all reflective of the inexperience he brought to office and the awkward belief that high officials can get away with anything. The US system is full of checks and balances, and gives little leeway for political mistakes. The effects of becoming tainted are most telling on foreign policy.

There was a time when we eagerly awaited the speech of an American President, on tour to a crucial region of the world. From his words, geopolitics was molded. From Kennedy to Obama, US Presidents were known for their wit, presence of mind and sense of balance. I recall Obama’s message to the Islamic world from Al Azhar University in Egypt on June 4, 2009.

His legendary Assalamualaikum may not have impacted with the intent it was delivered, but the symbolism of delivering it from Egypt could not have been missed. Egypt and its ancient civilisation has been much to the Arab world.

Egypt was also the first to recognise the reality of fruitless confrontation against a US-backed Israel. Pragmatism and moderation ruled the country from where Obama decided to commence his journey of engagement with the Islamic world.

He adopted a policy of pragmatism rather than tilting favour to any segment of that world. He was aided by the fact that the US need for energy from West Asia was getting restricted during his time, with internal energy resources increasing within the US. Although he did not support Iran in any strident manner, his accommodative approach enabled the signing of the Iranian Nuclear Deal which is severely opposed by Saudi Arabia and Israel.

In fact, it was Obama’s more apparently neutral policy which peeved Saudi Arabia and led to a greater cementing of Israeli-Saudi ties to balance the increasing power of Iran. The US refusal to help the Saudis in the war in Yemen was another sore issue between the two nations.

All this led to a cooling of US-Saudi ties, necessitating Obama to go back twice to Riyadh during his second term to assuage feelings among the Royal leadership. By sheer contrast, President Trump, eight years later, decided to start his foreign tours from Saudi Arabia. It hogged headlines, but not too positively. 

Trump’s USP was anti-Islamism during his campaign, which should clearly put him on the other side of the divide. It was, therefore, probably a smart thing on the part of his foreign policy team to have the Middle East as his first stop. The Trump visit also took in the Saudi initiative of putting together a virtual summit of the Sunni Islamic world; the President addressed it and had something to say for almost every country.

The message is becoming clearer. Trump, too, is a Realist, or at least his advisers have finally prevailed upon him to be one. Possibly, he has been told that his views on foreign policy are not sufficiently mature and that the US interests in it cannot be dictated by personal whims. So how does this impact the US approach to the Middle East?

Trump had the option of playing midway between Iran and the Saudis. That would have helped improve relations with Iran and sustain the Iran Nuclear Deal, offset the growing Russian and Iranian influence in Levant, put together some joint initiative against the IS and hope to resolve the mess in Syria.

However, the US mindset, based on the ignominy of the hostage crisis of 1979-80, will take years to look at issues concerning Iran in a more positive way. That makes the Russian link with Iran stronger. None of this is going to help the world resist the threats of Islamism.

Yet, Trump has only gone halfway. He has not rescinded the Iran Nuclear Deal, nor has he taken a decision on the visa restrictions against Muslims. He has signed billions of dollars’ worth of arms deals to sustain the US economy, with no assurance from where his hosts would find the money to pay for that; given the low cost of oil and an economy under threat.

The fight against Radical Islam has to be focused in the Middle East. At the core of it is the Shia-Sunni divide manifesting politically as the Iran-Saudi divide. If the US really wished to take the lead in resolving an enduring problem affecting the world, it perhaps should look towards reduction of Iran-Saudi enmity instead of enhancing it. Israel can play a crucial role in this. For now, that may be utopian, but if Trump’s advisers are sensible, this is what they should work towards.

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