By Nathan Field
Wednesday, 15 March 2017
President Trump’s hard-line but pragmatic approach to Iran is paving the way for the restoration of a semblance of order and regional stability. That’s a significant accomplishment for an administration still in its first 100 days.
Effective foreign policy is not necessarily a matter of complicated treaties that take years to negotiate or opaque theories on international relations that only Ph.D.s can understand. A simple message and tone set at the top is often all that’s needed.
By making known that under his watch, the U.S. will be taking a more traditional, “realistic” and conservative approach to the Middle East, Trump has already restored a stronger sense of order. The message is clear to everyone from Gulf monarchs to illiterate conscripts in the Iranian army, and marks a clear improvement in two big elements of Middle East policy.
First, Trump’s position makes Iranian adventurism throughout the Middle East far less likely. It also decreases the temptation of U.S. allies to engage in counter-productive and destabilizing unilateral military operations of their own out of a perceived need to project strength in the face of Iran.
Not only does the deal negotiated by John Kerry fail to guarantee that Iran will never obtain nuclear weapons, in the process of negotiating it, Iranian leaders, sensing that the U.S. wanted the deal more than they did, felt emboldened throughout the region in countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
One telling example was the American non-response to a series of Iranian cyberattacks on U.S. banks because, as one official noted, “If we had unleashed the fury in response to that DDoS attack, I don’t know if we would have gotten an Iran deal.
Traditional U.S. allies certainly did not see the U.S. rapprochement with Tehran benefiting their security. Nor did they feel the U.S. was listening to their concerns. And they responded accordingly by going their own way.
The Saudi war in Yemen is the best example of this. Heavily criticized by U.S. liberals supportive of the Iran deal, it can not be separated from the context of Saudi Arabia feeling abandoned by the U.S. and needing to “act on its own” to project strength toward Iran.
Under Trump these same U.S. allies feel that the U.S. has their back again, reducing the temptation for Yemen-style operations. For example, just this week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week approved the resumption of weapon sales to Saudi Arabia. And Tehran gets the message that certain antics will no longer be tolerated.
Second, by restoring alliances with traditional allies in the Middle East, Trump’s approach is far more likely to get significant contributions from them, furthering his America First agenda.
The Obama administration, by contrast, alienated nearly every traditional U.S. Middle East ally. Having thrown all of its prestige into a nuclear deal with Iran, opposed by most of the countries of the region, Washington had no leverage.
Traditional allies had little incentive to help on issues important to the U.S. For example, none of the Gulf countries have lifted a finger to help with the Syrian refugee issue. Nor did Israel have any reason to make conciliatory gestures on the settlements or the peace process.
But under Trump, Saudi Arabia for example is volunteering to send more troops to Syria, and has shown a strong willingness to work with the Trump administration in setting up safe zones for Syrian refugees to receive shelter in the short-term.
President Trump’s approach won’t fundamentally solve the Middle East’s problems, but by restoring a clear sense of balance between Iran and everyone else, and a sense of clarity about where the U.S. stands, it is a major improvement from the Obama administration.
Nathan Field is the founder and former CEO of Industry Arabic, a translation company that provided services to over 300 high-profile customers throughout the Middle East. He worked for two years as a consultant in Saudi Arabia for the U.N.-sponsored Gulf War environmental remediation program. He holds a master’s in International Security from Georgetown University.