The Trump administration’s non-strategic role in the Middle East and Iran’s “controlled democracy” plays into Winston Churchill’s narrative: “If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”
From the beginning relations between Trump’s administration and Iran were plagued with suspicion. Trump opposed the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran, calling it “terrible” and saying that the Obama administration negotiated the agreement “from desperation.”
In April 2017, The Trump administration temporarily banned Iranian citizens from entering the United States by the executive order “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”.
In July 2017, Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American graduate student and researcher at Princeton University, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “infiltration” in Iran, further escalating an already conflicted scenario.
The Trump administration’s lack of a Middle East policy can be summed up to be naive at best in addressing key challenges, yet the administration has constructed directives of change despite frustrations from its own allies.
The administration has been slow to understand that Shia-Iranian success fuels Sunni-Saudi reaction. Rather than diplomacy it has taken a confrontational role in decertifying of Iran’s nuclear deal and arming the Saudis and their allies with quality weapons to battle Iran in their proxy war.
It has also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, serving to the administration’s own evangelical base at home, but dangerously not working to eradicate key U.S. threats in the Middle East or for its allies.
The administration may not comprehend that Iraq is more pro-Iran today than it was when liberated in 2003. It takes no notice that the pro-Western political block in Lebanon is getting more entrenched in the pro-Iranian camp. The administration’s continuous military support of a very inexperienced and incompetent Saudi Arabia, aided now with some intelligence assistance from Israel, is struggling very poorly in the proxy war against Iran.
Under the present circumstances, the administration must pay careful attention to not finding itself alienated from its own Middle Eastern allies.
It cannot afford what happened in the summer of 2017 to Qatar. A rich tiny Gulf state and traditionally staunch U.S. ally that began to lay the groundwork in its cooperation with Iran after its neighboring Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia followed by United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan placed sanctions against them. The underlying message was that a relationship with Shia-Iran has no place amongst the Sunni-Arab kingdoms.
In response Iran, for its part, has found considerable success in its foreign policy in Middle East.
In the emergence of its alliance with Russia and Turkey, it has found success aiding Hezbollah in Syria and its Houthi benefactors in Yemen. This has translated to key battle victories on the ground.
Further stabilizing Assad’s regime and opposition to the Saudi-backed regime in Yemen. Compared to the U.S.-Israel and Saudi alliance, Iran’s policy appears to be the dominant in the region.
For Iran, despite domestic protests, inflation, unemployment and flagrant corruption, it has been able to work to a clear Middle East policy of its own: to consolidate a “pro-Iranian corridor” through Iraq and Syria connecting to Lebanon.
The recent Iran protests in its northern and poorer provinces strike a challenge to the Islamic Republic’s 38-year rule.
Reliance on the clerics and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards may protect the regime for now, but protests in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2017 against the regime are signaling that the seeds of discontent are growing rapidly.
But so too is the support for the ayatollahs in their response to Trump’s assertive policies in the Middle East, which is only aiding and adding to their lifeline.