After four months in office, U.S. President Donald Trump is beginning to hone his policy on the Middle East. As the weeks have worn on, his priorities for the region have started to emerge, and for the most part they seem to be focused on matters of security. Combating terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, and containing Iran’s “destabilizing” activities in the region will be at the top of the agenda during his visit to Saudi Arabia this weekend – his first trip abroad as the leader of the free world. From there, he will travel to Israel, where he will raise the prospect of making a fresh (albeit ill-fated) attempt at reopening the country’s stalled peace negotiations with Palestinian leaders.
Luckily for Trump, many of these priorities align with those of the Middle East’s most prominent leaders. The president has already met with Jordanian King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nuhayyan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But his ability to maintain those relationships, all while balancing their interests with his own and nudging them toward cooperation rather than conflict with one another, will shape his success in putting his regional policy into practice. And based on his decision to dust off ties with Israel and Turkey and to encourage greater coordination among the Middle East’s powerful Arab states, Trump appears determined to undo the changes his predecessor wrought on Washington’s strategic relationships in the region.
Shifting the Sectarian Balance
Prior to former President Barack Obama’s tenure, the balance of power in the Middle East had been upset. The removal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein under the administration of George W. Bush left the country – and its Shiite majority – open to Iran’s influence. As Washington remained distracted by growing instability in Iraq after 2003, Tehran seized the opportunity to build up its nuclear program. Iran was then able to leverage its newfound capabilities to pull the United States into negotiations, demanding that Washington recognize Tehran’s prominence in the region.
By the time Obama entered office in 2009, pressure was mounting to ease back on military operations overseas. Overextended and hoping to shift its attention to other emerging foreign policy priorities, such as growing tension with Russia and a much-touted “pivot to Asia,” the administration worked to minimize the risk of clashing with Iran, particularly in the critical Strait of Hormuz. After much haggling and a change of leadership in Tehran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was developed. Of course, Washington wasn’t the only party that needed the nuclear deal; Tehran, too, hoped it would lessen the chance of war with the United States and allow it to concentrate on defending its interests in the region. After all, the Middle East’s Sunni powers had begun to push back on Iran’s attempts to meddle in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. The Iranian economy had also begun to founder under the weight of sanctions related to its nuclear program, and lifting them became a top priority.
Trump assumed the presidency on the one-year anniversary of the nuclear deal’s implementation. By then, the JCPOA had become a policy fixture that neither the Iranian government nor the West intended to upend. And from a strategic perspective, the United States has little to gain from walking away from the deal and ramping up the risk of conflict once more. It’s no surprise, then, that Trump is trying to rein in an increasingly unrestrained Iran by bolstering its Sunni rivals in the region, rather than by scrapping the nuclear agreement outright.
Adjusting the regional balance of power is not without its own risks, however. Cozying up to Iran’s fiercest competitors will doubtless ratchet up tension between Washington and Tehran — a relationship that has already been visibly strained since the start of Trump’s presidency. And in a region where inertia often supersedes intention, there will be limits to the White House’s success in keeping Iran in check.
Aligning Against Iran
The Trump administration’s distrust of Iran has been on full display from the start. The White House has openly expressed concerns about Iranian-funded Shiite militias in Iraq, Iranian-equipped militants in Yemen and Bahrain, Iranian-backed fighters in Syria clashing with U.S. allies, and Iranian-linked Palestinian groups in Gaza threatening to attack Israel. When Washington looks at the Middle Eastern instability, it often sees Tehran at its center.
Despite the steady finger-pointing, though, Trump has approached his relationship with Iran more cautiously than his campaign pledge to rescind the JCPOA might suggest. While the president could still make good on that promise if Tehran chooses to resume the development of its nuclear program — and reneging on the deal first would almost certainly encourage that — he will likely seek to contain Iran in other ways. Chief among them will be combating militias throughout the region that Iran supports and slapping new sanctions on Iranian entities for human rights violations.
The United States will also look to crack down on Iran by targeting designated terrorist groups throughout the Middle East. Operationally, Washington’s counterterrorism efforts won’t mark a significant departure from Obama-era policies but would instead be an augmentation of them. This has already become clear in Trump’s approach to fighting the Islamic State: Military operations to retake Mosul and Raqqa from the jihadist group have followed the blueprints laid out by his predecessor. Trump’s White House has, however, granted additional decision-making power in Iraq and Syria to the Pentagon and has put more pressure on al Qaeda in Yemen.
There is a more notable strategic difference in the Trump and Obama policies. The current president’s hard-line stance on Iran has created more room for the United States to call on its Sunni allies – and Tehran’s adversaries – for help. Over the past few months, the White House has pushed its Middle Eastern partners, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, to step up their roles in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State. Of course, Obama endeavored to do the same, but he lacked the common cause that Trump’s renewed hostility toward Iran has created between its Sunni rivals and the U.S. administration. As Washington’s ties with these states have warmed, they have proved more willing to coordinate with the United States.
Some of these allies, such as Saudi Arabia, have even positioned themselves to lead the fight against terrorism in the region – and promote their own Sunni allies in the process. Trump’s presence at a Saudi-led counterterrorism summit this weekend will signal the White House’s trust in these states to shape the dynamics of their own neighborhood. To that end, the administration has also encouraged the formation of a NATO-like structure among Sunni Arab states, echoing proposals Riyadh has already floated in hopes of tamping down on Iranian meddling in its backyard. Trump, who arrives in the Saudi capital today, is expected to oversee the signing of $100 billion in deals for U.S. defense firms to supply the Saudis with a variety of weapons. That would come just days after Saudi Arabia created its own state-owned defense company.
Though initiatives such as the Sunni anti-terrorism alliance will no doubt encounter familiar problems with cooperation caused by a lack of trust among Arab states, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have already signaled their willingness to work with the United States against the Islamic State and Iran. Other Sunni states, including Jordan and Egypt, have shown their commitment to regional counterterrorism efforts as well, in large part through their participation and deep military ties with the United States.
Amman and Cairo will also be critical partners to Washington on another pressing Middle Eastern issue: maintaining a balance of power between Arab states and Israel. Both have firmly rejected any interference in the political status of Jerusalem and have continued to support a two-state solution to Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty. Egypt, for its part, also stands as an example of the Trump administration’s early diplomatic successes. After a year of tension between Cairo and Riyadh, Washington was able to cajole the two into mending ties. Though no amount of wheedling will persuade Cairo to abandon its position of neutrality and send troops to aid the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the presence of a military power of Egypt’s caliber in Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism campaign would lend it added weight. The United States is also rumored to have mediated a reconciliation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in their long-standing dispute over two Red Sea islands and has encouraged Riyadh to resume sending energy supplies to Cairo.
Downplaying Human Rights and Aid
With the new administration in Washington have come other small shifts in policy that will ease tension in some of its Middle Eastern relationships. Chief among them is the lower priority placed on human rights, state-building and the promotion of democracy. Trump, for instance, is wary of being bogged down in Libya’s political quagmire, despite calls for greater U.S. involvement by key allies such as Italy. Meanwhile, the president called his Turkish counterpart, Erdogan, to congratulate him two days after Turkey held a constitutional referendum granting the leader greater power — a vote many of the United States’ European partners have questioned as being neither free nor fair. Trump’s attempt to set a positive tone with Ankara could create room for greater cooperation in the future, though it will not help bridge the divide on some issues, such as Washington’s support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.
The White House’s decision to quietly lift human rights restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain will likewise smooth its historically bumpy relationship with Manama. The same can be said of Trump’s unequivocal praise of al-Sisi, whose government has grown tired of being chastised for human rights abuses in the wake of the Arab Spring. But the White House’s outreach hasn’t been warmly received by every Middle Eastern state. The administration’s emphasis on conflict above all else has shone through clearly in its proposals for slashing foreign aid. The proposed cuts in assistance offered by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development would deal a heavy blow to the economies of many U.S. partners in the Middle East, including Jordan and Egypt. (The two are facing possible cuts of 22 percent and 47 percent, respectively, in Economic Support Fund money.) Countries deeply threatened by the Islamic State, on the other hand, are not on the list of suggested cutbacks. Though this list is just a proposal, it communicates the importance Trump has placed on targeting terrorist groups — at the expense of state building and economic development. And if the president follows through with his plan for belt-tightening, it will not go over well with the countries that are poised to lose funding.
Pursuing an Elusive Peace
Ironically, the partnership Trump’s administration has touted as the most important in the Middle East – that with Israel – may also be the least fruitful. Aware of the security risks that Israel’s recent assertiveness poses, the White House has adopted a more neutral position on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank. And though Washington has hinted at its intention to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a controversial move sure to trigger international outcry – the administration has said it will not announce the measure during Trump’s trip to Israel on May 22-23.
The United States has indicated that it wants its Arab state allies to help bring Palestinian political parties to the table to negotiate a long-elusive peace deal with Israel. But moving its embassy to Jerusalem would risk shuttering the talks before they even begin and alienating countries with sizable Palestinian populations, like Egypt and Jordan. These states would then be forced to choose between appeasing their restive citizens and acquiescing to Washington’s demand for their support in pursuing peace talks. Already facing instability at home, Jordan and Egypt may well choose internal calm over their external ally.
Relying on regional powers to corral feuding Palestinian factions, moreover, hasn’t proved to be an effective path toward peace in the past. In fact, divisions within the parties on either side of the talks have only deepened over the past few years. Faced with a polarized ruling coalition in Israel and a fragmented leadership in the Palestinian territories, it is clear that finding a peace deal acceptable to all will be the most difficult goal to achieve among those at the top of Trump’s regional agenda. And like many U.S. leaders gone before, he may not be able to surmount the many obstacles to peace that exist in the Middle East.