Gulf Emirs Mistrust Trump’s Iran Policy after His Inaction on North Korea
US President Donald Trump may not like everything he hears on May 22 when he meets a number of Arab rulers at a summit in Riyadh. The hosts will be Saudi King Salman, Defense Minister Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Also in attendance, he will find the rulers of most of the the Gulf emirates, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaf Sharif.
(Egyptian President Abdul-Fatteh El-Sisi will be absent out of considerations outlined in a separate article.)
Trump may sense a chord of dissatisfaction among the gathered rulers over his administration’s policy of isolation for containing Iran’s belligerency, which they maintain is a non-starter. No one can tell how he will respond to this complaint.
His audience has had to accept that the US president has turned away from his campaign pledges to “rip up the nuclear deal with Iran” and deal forcefully with North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, because, since entering the Oval Office, he is loath to allocate American troops for reining in either of those rogue states.
But the Trump administration’s handling of the Korean crisis left them deeply worried. They gained the impression that Trump chose to play for time until Moon Jae-in was elected president of South Korea on May 9, knowing he would embark on a policy of dialogue with Kim Jong-un combined with economic largesse.
The US president therefore dragged his feet on direct action against Pyongyang – diplomatic or military – until he could pass the ball to Seoul – after turning to Beijing.
The Gulf rulers see this pattern being re-enacted in the administration’s policy on Iran – this one in relation to Moscow. They believe that Trump is counting on the re-election on May 19 of President Hassan Rouhani, chief negotiator of the nuclear accord, with whom the administration appears to want to do business – not too different from Barack Obama.
Riyadh takes strong exception to a US policy on those lines. The Saudis reject any analogy between potential reconciliation between Seoul and Pyongyang and any prospect of the Gulf resolving its feud with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Defense Minister Prince Muhammad protested in a recent interview that Iran was still expecting Al-Mahdi al-Muntazar – the Awaited Imam Mahdi (the Shiite version of the Messiah) – to return and dominate the entire Islamic world. “This very logic closes all doors to dialogue with Iran,” he said. “There can be no negotiations with a country which espouses a diehard theological ideology.”
The Saudi prince added furthermore that Iran does not respect its promises or pledges, as demonstrated in former experience.
The Saudi prince raised the stakes when he said that Riyadh may even contemplate moving the “battle” to Iranian soil, indicating that, just as Iran backs Yemen’s Houthi insurgents and Shiite terrorist networks in the oil emirates, Saudi Arabia could stir up trouble among Iran’s mixed minorities.
In response to this scarcely veiled threat, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan issued a flat warning: “Iran will leave no part of Saudi Arabia untouched,” he said, “except holy Muslim sites of Mecca and Medina if Riyadh "does anything ignorant.”
It was noted in the region that the Trump administration had nothing to say about this Saudi-Iranian exchange. Riyadh was scarcely reassured by the language used in mid-April by US Defense Secretary James Mattis in reference to Iranian belligerence: “Our goal is for that crisis [in Yemen], that ongoing fight, to be put in front of a UN-brokered negotiating team and try to resolve this politically as soon as possible. It has gone on for a long time.”
So when President Trump arrives in the Gulf region in ten days time, he will find that the honeyed words of welcome overlay a subtext of skepticism and mistrust on the Iranian question, with ISIS taking center stage.