American presidents have long devised strategic visions to guide their foreign policy, focusing on a particular enemy or threat, whether communists, Arab nationalists or “violent jihadists”.
With communism defeated, Arab nationalism in crisis, and “Sunni Jihadists” on the run, the Trump administration has made Iran the object of its enmity.
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After a year of confusion and uncertainty, a revised American doctrine focused on the Middle East, but with direct implementations for South East Asia, Europe and Russia is finally taking shape, for reasons that can be best explained with the telling and memorable acronym, I.S.R.A.E.L.
I for Iran
“The Great Deal Maker” president has finally abandoned the “badly negotiated” Iran nuclear deal to pressure for a more comprehensive deal that allows for inspections anywhere and everywhere in Iran, and guarantees Tehran never comes close to a nuclear weapons programme.
There’s absolutely no surprise here. In January, Trump warned:
No one should doubt my word. I said I would not certify the nuclear deal – and I did not. I will also follow through on this pledge. I hereby call on key European countries to join with the United States in fixing significant flaws in the deal, countering Iranian aggression, and supporting the Iranian people. If other nations fail to act during this time, I will terminate our deal with Iran. Those who, for whatever reason, choose not to work with us will be siding with the Iranian regime’s nuclear ambitions, and against the people of Iran and the peaceful nations of the world.
Since then, the US president has managed to get his preferred national security team in place. And now, he is ready to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and prepare for an all-out confrontation with Iran. Trump’s national security trio: John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and James Mattis, all agree on the need to confront Iran because they believe its regime responds only to coercion and force.
After decades of mutual demonisation, Iran is an easy villain in the “Great Satan’s” storyline – the flag-burning crowds, the stern-faced ayatollahs, the ideological arm of the axis of evil.
For them, the supposedly moderate Rouhani government might be tactful and pragmatic at times, but it remains part and parcel of the Iranian dictatorship.
That’s why for the Trump administration, any future deal must ensure that Iran foregoes any suspicious nuclear activity, ends its ballistic missiles programme, curtails its bellicose regional activities, and rolls back its destabilising ideology. Demands that are considered humiliating infringements on Iran’s sovereignty and therefore been rejected by the country’s moderates and “radicals” alike.
S for Saudi
Saudi Arabia, Trump’s newest BFF, is the most enthusiastic supporter of the drive against Iran – perhaps more so than Israel. Riyadh took advantage of Trump’s foreign policy creed and greed to incite and entice the new president against Iran with hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts.
It’s a little-known fact that Saudi and Israel pushed for attacking Iran instead of Iraq after 9/11. When the push towards Baghdad got under way, the two unlikely bedfellows campaigned for an extension of the “war on terror” to Iran to “cut the head of the serpent”. But the US debacle in Iraq not only prevented the US from imposing a regime change in Iran; it, in fact, strengthened Iran’s hand in Iraq and the whole region.
Obama might've embraced the so-called offshore balancing between Middle East powers with the US watching from a distance, but the Trump doctrine is leading to offshore blasting that could draw the US into direct confrontation with Iran.
Riyadh’s wish to fight Iran “until the last American soldier” may not have materialised, but there’s no giving up. The ambitious new Saudi leadership is willing to put forward its resources, soldiers and clout to confront Iran, as in Yemen, if the Trump administration agrees to tag along. And Trump has shown signs of accepting the idea of the US acting as the mercenary, for the right price; like in Syria for example.
Last year, the Saudis assembled a large gathering of Muslim world leaders, minus Iran, to honour and listen to the man who, only months before, insulted them and their faith. And this year, Saudi leaders expressed openness to Trump’s “deal of the century” that paves the way for new relations with Israel at the expense of Palestine.
R for reversal of everything Obama
President Trump’s approach to his predecessor’s legacy is political and strategic. But it’s also personal: an obsessive drive to reverse anything and everything Obama.
So, even when he agrees with Obama, Trump turns against his own impulse to keep his anti-Obama credentials intact.
He may agree with Obama that the region is “a mess” and its people should resolve their own problems, but by walking away from the nuclear deal, Trump is de facto committing the US to a protracted, messy and violent involvement in the region for years to come.
When Obama helped strike the Iran deal, he rejected objections and demands from Israel and Saudi Arabia, leading to unprecedented tensions with both nations. Trump, on the other hand, seems disposed to embrace their strategic thinking and to rely on them to help preserve US security designs for the Middle East.
Obama might’ve embraced the so-called offshore balancing between Middle East powers with the US watching from a distance, but the Trump doctrine is leading to offshore blasting that could draw the US into direct confrontation with Iran.
A for Arms
Trump’s doctrine posits on US military supremacy and economic superiority, which means subsidising and supporting the US arms industry.
As the US arms trader-in-chief, Trump has made it his passion to boost US arms exports even if that leads to an arms race and potentially more devastating wars in the Middle East and beyond.
The Gulf tops the list of US customers. Saudi Arabia alone committed more than $100bn to arms last year, leading its crown prince to boast of Saudi military superiority and beat the drums of war against Iran.
If Iran ends up abandoning the nuclear deal, the region may not only witness an arms race but potentially a devastating nuclear race.
E for engagement
When it comes to Donald Trump, don’t just pay attention to what he says. It pays to pay attention to what he does. His tweets may be controversial, even entertaining, but his actions are consequential and reckless.
He says “I want to pull US troops out of Syria”, then decides to keep them there and push for confrontation with Iran and its allies. He says “I will agree to what the Israelis and Palestinians decide” but recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and prepares to propose/impose a final deal on the Palestinians.
Relying on Saudi Arabia and Israel will prove to be shortsighted, especially as the Trump administration has already alienated European allies by threatening all those dealing with Iran with sanctions.
Fast-forward a few months, and watch the US expand its already numerous drones attacks, naval presence and exercises, military bases, covert operations, and bellicose activities against Iran and its allies – who have taken control of cities and regions in Syria and Yemen and are winning elections in Iraq and Lebanon.
A confrontation with Iran will not end with more US sanctions, certainly not without secondary sanctions against European, Chinese and Russian companies dealing with Iran. That will pave the way to a full-blown international crisis; one that could leave the US, not Iran, isolated.
L for linchpin
It was perhaps wishful thinking to ask Donald Trump to leave the Middle East alone, as I wrote on the night of his election last year.
Leaving aside his total ignorance of the region apart from airports, golf courses, and rich Arab tenants residing in his golden towers, the man didn’t show an interest in shaping or transforming the region as some of his predecessors did. In fact, he expressed a desire to get out the business of nation-building and bullying.
To no avail.
Every American administration since World War II has considered itself indispensable to the wellbeing and security of the region. And Trump now shares this vision of indispensability, which devolved from liberal illusion to dangerous delusion since Iran’s revolution nearly five decades ago.
The US has become entrenched deeper in the Middle East with each and every crisis, as Andrew Bacevich argues brilliantly in his book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East.
But today we seem to have come full circle as the Trump doctrine meets up with the 1980 Carter Doctrine, which can be summarised by the following declaration: “Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
Trump, like his predecessors, will make sure that no other power or entity but the United States has final say about the resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the proliferation or use of weapons of mass destruction, Gulf security, the flow of oil, etc. Not even the UN.
Especially not the UN.
Trump’s America will not walk away from the Middle East. If you thought the Obama doctrine envisioned US disengagement from the Middle East, think again. The US will not leave a volatile region for Russia and Iran to dominate.
Like his predecessors, Trump will fret and frown about his predecessors’ mistakes and failures and the intractable problems of the region, yet still walk in their evangelical path of righteousness to save the region from its demons.
And like his predecessors, he won’t consider, let alone admit, how US strategies and policies have only made the region more chaotic, dangerous and violent.
All of this begs the question: What relation is there between Israel and the I.S.R.A.E.L-isation of US foreign policy? But that’s a question for another day.
To be continued.