Trump may be doing the right thing siding by Saudi instead of Iran
Political pundits around the world are trying to analyse the impact of President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his speech to the leaders of some 50 Muslim countries in Riyadh.
Some are saying that it is full of contradictions as compared to his pre-election rhetoric against Muslims. Others say that his clear tilt towards Sunni’s and his siding with the Saudis on their stand vis à vis Iran is illogical and counter-productive to the USA’s fight against ISIS. On one hand, the fountainhead of the theological underpinnings of ISIS is the Saudi Arabian sponsored Wahabi/Takfiri ideology and its main support comes from prominent Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, while on the other hand, people who are most active in fighting it are the Iranians and the Shias. Not because they love the US and the west, but because they figure prominently on the ISIS hit list as the main enemy.
All these are correct assertions when viewed in the context of logic, consistency and morality. However, they miss the point. They are using the wrong lens to analyse Trump’s actions and words.
The question to ask here perhaps is whether Trump’s words and proposed actions would be beneficial to the US in the near to medium-term in his efforts to revive the US economy and to reduce the threat from ‘radical fundamentalist Islamic terrorists’; his words not mine. The answer to this is perhaps yes – in the near to medium- term.
In fact, Trump may have unintentionally – I say unintentionally since I do not believe he is capable of very convoluted and complicated thinking – hit on a very astute policy to do so.
First let us look at the simpler economic question.
Clearly large arms sales to Middle Eastern countries and others has been the backbone of many a western power’s economy. The Saudi’s probably view the $350 billion in arms and other deals as protection money given to the US against Iran and other perceived threats over the next 10 years. Do we not remember the $35 plus billion paid out by Saudis after the Iraq war?
An injection of this large amount into the US economy would surely be beneficial in the near term – and nobody is looking for its longer term effects and other questions of morality.
Now let us turn to the question of the threat to the west from ISIS and other ‘radical fundamentalist Islamic terrorists’.
Let us start by analysing who these people are. ISIS was born after the US invaded Iraq and threw out Saddam Hussein, and in its aftermath killed Musab Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.
By doing so, the US inadvertently inserted itself on the side of the Shias in the 1400-year-old problem between the Shias and Sunnis in Islam from the times of Muawiyah and Yazid on the one hand, and Imam Ali and Imam Hussain on the other – this was the view of Zarqawi and most of the Sunni tribes in Iraq.
As the Shia led and US supported government in Iraq gained strength, the Sunnis who had lost their pre-war predominant role, got increasingly disaffected and supported a Zarqawi, and later ISIS led insurgency in Iraq. Major Sunni countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, while not sad at losing Saddam, were also not happy with the rise of a Shia led Iraqi government and with Iran gaining a foothold in Iraq.
This was followed by continued support of the Iraqi government by the US in crushing the insurgency and we found Iran and the US on one side fighting the insurgents. Strange bedfellows indeed!
Remember that candidate Trump had in fact noted this alliance and said that we should let the Iranians, the Hezbollah and Syria take care of ISIS instead of getting involved ourselves.
The conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal by President Barack Obama and the 5P+1 western alliance done in parallel to these developments put the US in the eyes of the Sunni powers squarely on the side of Iran. This was all the evidence that the ‘radical fundamentalist Islamic terrorists’ and their supporters needed to declare war on the US and the west.
Therefore, it is clear that the only way to undo this would be to demolish this ‘perceived’ defence architecture in favour of one in which the US was clearly on the side of the Sunnis and against Iran. This is exactly what President Trump has done.
Instead of trying to convince the major Sunni countries that supporting radical fundamentalist Islamic terrorists is not good for anyone, he has clearly singled out Iran and not the ‘radical fundamentalist Islamic terrorists’ as the major threat in the region and assured them that they need not fear any US invasion against them. By doing so, he hopes to have removed/reduced the hatred of ISIS against the west and hopes to replace them as the main ally in the US’s fight to bring down the ‘Shia’ Bashar al Assad regime supported by Iran and Russia.
The new defence architecture is now in place.
It is back to the Ayatollah Khomeini times, when Iran was the main enemy and the Saudis and the Gulf countries – Turkey, Jordan and Egypt – were viewed as moderate countries and all is good and hunky dory in the Middle East.
So, I think what President Trump is doing is very logical and may actually work. As a matter of fact, this has a greater chance of working than the time when this construct was first used in the Khomeini era, since the government in Iran is no longer the revolutionary Islamic regime. But the Iranians have clearly shown their preference for a moderate regime which is looking for more, and not less, relations with the west.
Furthermore, the view on the Iranian street no longer supports the Palestinian struggle as it did earlier, since the Iranians have seen that despite their support to them, the Palestinians sided with the Saudis when it came to taking sides. Their support for Hezbollah and Syria is also not popular amongst the young Iranians, who form the backbone of the support for the moderate regime. They would like to project their image more along the lines of Iranian culture rather than as a base of Shia Islam.
This change could also be good for the region. Israel would feel less of a reason to view the Iranians as their prime enemy. However, this is a variable that needs to be monitored closely since Israeli behaviour, unlike that of the US, is not based on short-term but very long-term thinking.
However, to gain the benefits of this environment, the US should make sure that it does not replace its rhetoric with actual action when it comes to its policies vis à vis Iran – i.e. talk tough, but do not follow up. Let the nuclear deal stay in place. If the US actually acts against Iran it will unify the Iranian moderates and radicals and create more danger and trouble in the region.
There will be some casualties as this new architecture is put in place, but this is only collateral damage.
The people of Yemen will pay a bloody price as the Sunni military alliance under the leadership of Pakistan’s Raheel Sharif moves against them.
Hezbollah will not be affected very much since they are basically a defensive outfit against Israel and they have survived worse situations. In 2005, it was their blood, not Iranian blood, that thwarted the Israeli offensive in Lebanon. The Palestinians will do what they have done from time immemorial – make wrong decisions and pay the price for this. Syria will continue to be under pressure – perhaps more so now then earlier – but this may not be all that bad since Assad is no saint.
Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
For more information, please see our Comments FAQ