The China-Iran deal may be a stepping stone to increased ties between Tehran and Beijing, but the Gulf Arab states remain integral to Beijing’s economic projection in the Middle East.
With less than four months to go before the November election, President Donald J. Trump is behind in most polls, trailing former Vice President Joseph R. Biden. However, Trump is a formidable populist politician and, in a relatively brief political career, has established a strong track record as a remarkable survivor. In 2020, he enjoys the considerable advantages of presidential incumbency, rock-solid support among Republican base voters and party leaders, and a substantial financial war chest. Therefore, there remains a significant chance that the president will be reelected and enjoy another four years in the White House.
What will that mean for Gulf Arab countries, almost all of which have had strong relations with the Trump White House? For some Gulf leaders, especially Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Trump has been an especially valuable ally in troubled times. But for many others, while they may appreciate his “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions on Iran, skepticism about the United States’ regional role has only deepened under Trump. Even those, and there are many, who prefer him over his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, have not been reassured over the past three years about U.S. intentions. Obama was viewed as unreliable because of his nuclear agreement and flirtation with Iran, his abandonment of longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak when he was ousted as Egypt’s president, and his refusal to enforce his own chemical weapons “redline” in Syria. Trump has added unpredictability on top of unreliability.
None of that means there is a strong constituency in the Gulf states for Biden over Trump. To the contrary, concerns that Biden might revive key elements of Obama’s policy alone temper any such impulse. However, given serious questions regarding some of Trump’s first-term policies, and huge uncertainties about what his second term intentions might be, the preference for the current president in most cases also seems limited at best. Gulf leaders know they’ll have to work with whomever the U.S. system yields. However, it is important to begin trying to conceptualize what a second Trump term might mean for the Gulf states.
Yet Trump’s well-established quality of mercurial unpredictability makes forecasting his next moves extremely difficult. He relishes doing the unconventional and unexpected, arguably without due consideration that it may be unwise. Nonetheless, U.S. interests and assets in the region remain unchanged, and there are therefore limits to what even an unconventional approach might achieve in light of constraints that will face the next administration no matter who wins in November.
The most obvious example of the unpredictability factor could be linked to a potential Trump second-term Iran policy. It is, perhaps, precisely because hostility toward Iran has been among his most consistent first-term policies that the potential for a sudden and dramatic shift arises. Trump has repeatedly insisted that the goal of the repudiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with Iran and the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign has been to force Iran to the table for new negotiations to achieve a bigger and better deal – a comprehensive grand bargain with Tehran.
Most of the Gulf Arab countries were alarmed by negotiations between Tehran and the Obama administration. And, at least at first, most of them thought the JCPOA was inadequate, particularly failing to deal with Iran’s ballistic missiles and its support for a network of armed sectarian militia groups in neighboring Arab states. However, all the Gulf countries eventually endorsed both the negotiations and the agreement after reassurances from Washington. They were nonetheless concerned about the potential for a broader rapprochement between the United States and Iran involving a new relationship that would, in effect, push them and their interests aside.
The initial response of several key Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to Trump’s presidential victory in 2016, given his denunciations of the nuclear agreement, was to urge Washington to use the JCPOA as leverage with Tehran to secure additional policy changes limiting Iran’s ballistic missiles and support for nonstate armed groups in the Arab world. Nevertheless, these countries generally welcomed Washington’s withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018 and the reimposition of sanctions. Yet the perception that countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE were urging the United States into a war with Iran was misplaced. Concerns that they could find themselves on the front line of any such conflict were strongly reinforced when, after May 2019, Iran shifted from an effort to diplomatically isolate the United States to a campaign of “maximum resistance,” in which Gulf Arab interests and assets were repeatedly targeted.
If a second Trump term were to proceed along the lines of the first, it would almost inevitably involve intensified pressure on Iran, including: more sanctions; more pressure on its allies and assets, such as Hezbollah and Lebanon and some of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq; and a sustained campaign to further isolate Iran internationally. If Trump is reelected in November, then, Tehran will face a difficult decision: It can hunker down for a 4-year virtual siege; intensify “maximum resistance” at the risk of outright war; or prepare to seek terms for negotiations with the administration. This third option might be politically difficult in Iran, but Iranian officials could try to replicate the North Korean strategy of gaining space by engagement without giving up anything crucial, playing to Trump’s vanity and love of intrigue, drama, and spectacle.
Gulf leaders have long understood that no matter how pleased they have been with the tougher U.S. stance toward Iran under Trump, they could easily wake up to see him hobnobbing with Iranian officials in some “dramatic breakthrough.” That risk becomes more acute in a second term when foreign policy victories become both increasingly sought after, given the desire for a lasting legacy, and harder to achieve for most presidents. Another risk is that Gulf leaders could awaken to find that the United States and Iran have, perhaps even inadvertently, stumbled into a conflict in which Gulf states will be swept up and over which they have no control.
Either way, it’s hard to imagine another three or four years of “maximum pressure” versus “maximum resistance” as sustainable. Even in the run up to the election, tensions seem to be escalating. A series of explosions at key Iranian military and nuclear facilities have been widely attributed to Israeli and/or U.S. sabotage. In coming weeks, therefore, the Iranian government may feel significant pressure to retaliate against U.S. interests in the region, most likely in Iraq or a Gulf Arab country, or in the waters of the Gulf itself. It is possible, then, that Gulf countries won’t have to wait for the next administration to be reminded of how exposed the current impasse between Washington and Tehran renders them. Under such circumstances, and building on their experiences with former administrations, the unpredictability of the Trump administration must make many Gulf leaders extremely nervous about the likely trajectory of Washington’s Iran policy.
Iraq poses a related conundrum for Gulf countries in a second Trump term. Trump has long been a vociferous critic of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, though he publicly supported it at the time. Moreover, Trump’s “America first” foreign policy orientation has been to denounce “endless wars” and to seek to remove U.S. forces based overseas. This has included an impulse to remove all U.S. troops from Syria, which the president has often expressed the intention of doing but never actually done, and Iraq, where the counter-Iranian push has served to rationalize a continued U.S. military presence in his eyes. Other administration officials have expressed the determination to prevent Iran from establishing a controlled military corridor across the northern Middle East from Iran, through Iraq, into Syria, and down into Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast.
Trump has been willing to confront Iran in Iraq. The killing of Major General Qassim Suleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, the primary Iranian expeditionary unit in the Middle East, and de facto commander of Tehran’s armed militia network in Arab countries, was a stunning blow and a major escalation to which Iran, presumably fearing an outright war, did not respond in kind. Also killed in the attack were several other senior officials, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the founder and leader of the pro-Iranian Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah. But Muhandis was also the leader of the PMF, and so technically, he was an Iraqi government security forces official. The U.S. attack was politically damaging to the Iraqi government and U.S.-Iraqi relations.
In the wake of the killings, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was besieged by Kataib Hezbollah cadres and sympathizers, and, in a series of tit-for-tat strikes, the United States and Iran came as close to war as they have been in decades. Moreover, the Iraqi Parliament demanded the expulsion of all foreign forces from the country, a resolution aimed directly at the U.S. presence, but the Parliament left it up to the executive branch to carry out the demand. Since then, the new Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has attempted to bring the PMF groups, and Kataib Hezbollah in particular, under greater state control, but he does not appear to have yet succeeded.
If Tehran decides to retaliate for the recent series of explosions at its facilities, it is most likely to do so by attacking U.S. interests in Iraq, or by attacking Gulf Arab interests or targets. The continued U.S. presence in Iraq, Washington’s willingness to support Kadhimi’s efforts to control the PMF groups, and the promotion of U.S. interests in the region, which generally coincide with Gulf Arab countries’ agendas, depend on Washington not walking away from Iraq as many U.S. voters and politicians would like to do. Trump is probably in that group in the abstract, but both warnings from his security officials and his interest in continuing to confront Tehran have thus far convinced him not to radically downgrade U.S. hard and soft power roles in Iraq.
Gulf countries have a strong interest in rebuilding the Iraqi state and reviving independent Iraqi nationalism as a counterbalance to Iranian influence. Yet welcoming Iraq back into the Arab fold and promoting an independent Iraqi national decision-making process that is, at least, equidistant from Tehran and Arab capitals, requires a complex set of carrots and sticks. Iran cannot be driven out of, or made irrelevant in, Iraq. Yet the United States and Gulf countries bring complementary qualities to the table that, if combined in a sustained and coordinated manner, could more than counterbalance Iran’s largely religious and ideological appeals. Still, each side has reason to doubt the commitment of the other. Many Americans, Trump included, appear weary of Iraq. Most Gulf Arab countries, except for Kuwait, appear hesitant and uncertain about their ability to effectively make progress. Both need each other to be successful. A second Trump term, depending on the approach to Iran, could prove effective in combining with Gulf Arab efforts to help woo Iraq away from excessive Iranian influence. Or it could herald the final military withdrawal of the United States from what many Americans regard as one of their country’s greatest foreign policy blunders.
Military and Other Commitments to Gulf Arab Countries
Trump is nothing if not a salesman. He views Gulf Arab countries as, above all, customers for U.S. military goods and services. He has never shown any interest in restricting military and other commitments to Gulf countries, particularly in terms of sales. He has on multiple occasions blocked congressional efforts to restrict weapons sales and, in a second term, would no doubt aim to continue that practice. It is extremely difficult to gain a bicameral supermajority that can overcome a presidential veto. Therefore, despite an unprecedented effort by both the House of Representatives and the Senate to limit U.S. support for the war in Yemen, including an effort to invoke for the first time the War Powers Resolution, vetoes have persistently rebuffed these initiatives. Insofar as Gulf countries view the United States primarily as an arms supplier, Trump is close to an ideal president. Insofar as he views them primarily as customers, they are close to ideal allies. Therefore, on these grounds, little change and little tension can be expected.
One of the more unsettled questions from the Trump presidency’s Middle East policy has been the attitude toward the boycott of Qatar by three of its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council partners – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain – along with Egypt. Initially, the president appeared to side strongly with the boycotting countries while the Pentagon quietly backed Doha in seeking an early resolution, and the State Department sought to mediate. Over time, Qatar managed to reinstate itself into the good graces of the White House, and the Defense Department perspective that emphasized the value of the U.S. air base and other military assets in Qatar greatly superseded any ideological or political qualms about Qatari policy and influence.
Yet at no stage did the Trump administration press firmly for a resolution to the dispute by making bilateral relations with any or all of the parties contingent on a specific outcome. Therefore, U.S. imperatives about the urgency of ending the impasse and on what terms have taken the form of friendly suggestions rather than demands. As a consequence, the boycott persists. It is hard to imagine what could happen, short of a buildup toward a full-fledged war with Iran or some other massive crisis, that could change this dynamic in a second Trump term. UAE officials from the outset have described this as a new normal within the GCC. And so it is proving, at least for now.
U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition that has intervened in Yemen has persisted, despite enormous domestic political pressure throughout the Trump presidency. There has never been, however, political pressure to curtail or end U.S. cooperation with the UAE in counterterrorism efforts in southern Yemen. Under both Obama and Trump, the United States has urged Saudi Arabia, in particular, to work toward a political solution. Yet the Houthi rebels have lacked much incentive, and arguably still do, to facilitate a dignified Saudi withdrawal. For at least a year Riyadh has been looking for such an exit but requires various assurances, particularly regarding the security of its southern border, Iranian influence in Yemen, and the potential for continued Houthi attacks on its own territory.
If Washington views Yemen primarily through an Iranian lens, considering the Houthis as Iranian assets and Hezbollah protégés, that suggests continuing strong support for the Saudi intervention from Washington in a second Trump term. The same is true if the framework is primarily a question of selling military goods and services to Riyadh. But if broader strategic goals and interests of the United States and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are brought to bear, support may become more conditional and additional political and diplomatic help to resolve the conflict may be more forthcoming. Whether the solution in Yemen is facilitated by yoking it to, or decoupling it from, broader regional considerations, outside facilitation will be required to reach a sustainable arrangement between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.
Israel and the Palestinians
Often considered a side issue for Gulf countries, U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians in a second Trump term could in fact be exceptionally disruptive to their interests. Thus far, the Trump presidency has been devoted to extricating the United States from its commitments under the 1993 Declaration of Principles and its concomitant commitment to a two-state solution. In addition, the administration seeks to create a U.S. policy and mainstream political constituency in favor of large-scale Israeli annexations in the occupied West Bank, even though most observers agree such actions would effectively foreclose the creation of a viable, independent Palestinian state.
It seems evident that Trump, who is urging Israel to proceed cautiously and whose administration has not decided yet what its position on immediate annexation should be, either gave no thought to the practical implementation of its own Peace to Prosperity proposal in January or, more likely, viewed it as a second-term project. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears unlikely to act in brazen defiance of warnings from the Trump administration not to immediately go forward. For all the talk of a July 1 turning point, when Israel’s new government authorized itself to begin considering potential large annexations of Palestinian land, nothing has happened or even been decided by mid-July.
While it is possible that the administration and the Israeli government will insist on at least a modest annexation of some of the larger settlement blocs, annexation of all settlements, let alone the strategically crucial Jordan Valley, is unlikely before the end of the year. Moreover, annexation is likely to take the form of the extension of Israeli civil law into these areas, which is more easily rescinded than a formal act of annexation. In other words, the furthest the administration is likely to want the Israelis to go for the rest of this year is an attenuated de facto annexation of a limited area.
However, a Trump victory in November would make large-scale Israeli annexation in the West Bank in the following years a virtual certainty. That will be a huge problem for several of the Gulf countries. All of them have sought to build closer relations with Israel since the 1990s and, especially, in recent years. Yet all have warned Israel that wide-ranging annexation in the occupied territories will make closer ties, especially at the diplomatic and political level, almost impossible. This was explicitly communicated by the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, who in July published an article in Israel’s leading newspaper in Hebrew and posted a video in English saying that his country seeks better relations with Israel but that this would be impossible in the event of annexation. Yet many on the Israeli right seem to have focused on the recognition and respect communicated by the appeal rather than the blunt warning it attempted to convey.
Annexation is the biggest threat to closer ties between Israel and Gulf countries. And while some progress on cultural, athletic, and scientific areas may still be possible, real political, diplomatic, and military relations cannot be pursued in the context of Israel annexing Palestinian territory. It will stop diplomatic and military progress between Gulf countries and Israel at a time when both sides are highly motivated to pursue constructive ties because of mutual deep suspicion of Iran and, to some extent, Turkey (Qatar being an obvious exception to this). It could easily prove a fleeting historical moment that is not easy to recover should the regional and strategic circumstances change. The Trump administration is unlikely to pay more attention to this pitfall to its policies in a second term than it has in its first.
The broad concerns Gulf countries have about U.S. judgment, reliability, and predictability are likely to persist no matter who wins in November, although a greater degree of predictability might be restored by a Biden victory. On the other hand, there are aspects of Trump’s approach to foreign policy that correspond with Gulf countries’ imperatives, particularly concerning Iran, as long as war or, conversely, a sudden rapprochement, are avoided. But Gulf states also must worry about the scope of Israeli annexation during a second Trump term.
For Gulf countries, in the coming election Trump constitutes the devil they know: There are many problems with their relationship with him but many advantages as well. The biggest disadvantage is also, ironically, one of his most well-established qualities: his unpredictability. A Biden administration, by contrast, is effectively an unknown quantity, particularly because it is unlikely to implement a revival of the Obama administration’s approach to the region. Too much has changed, too many lessons have been learned, and, in any case, no two presidencies are alike. And, as a second Trump administration would likely demonstrate, no two terms of a two-term presidency are all that similar either.
The IRGC’s military exercises are little more than ineffective political propaganda.
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