Trump’s Policy in the Middle East: Gunboats at dawn?

“Speak softly and carry a big stick” was a favourite saying of President Theodore Roosevelt, used to describe his style of using intelligent, subtle diplomacy combined with decisive action to promote the foreign policy interests of the United States.

President Trump’s approach has been a little different.

Not known for his subtlety, the new President has shown in his first 100 days that he is willing to adopt a more obvious approach, using shows of brute force to match his threat-laden rhetoric.

This has been particularly prevalent in the Middle East. As one of Trump’s main foreign policy concerns, Iran has borne the brunt of the President’s vitriol. It should not expect the forgiving treatment of the Obama Administration to continue.

This is no surprise. Iran’s support for terrorists and rogue regimes – many of which expressly oppose the US and its allies – make it an easy target. Wherever you look in the burning conflicts in the region, more often than not Iran is working to fan the flames of sectarian division and instability.

In Syria, perhaps most catastrophically, Iran has supported the sadistic regime of Bashar al-Assad as he crushes his opposition and murders his own people. In Yemen, the Iranians are training and arming the Houthi rebels whose overthrow of the Yemeni government has led to a humanitarian crisis and famine of near biblical proportions.

Elsewhere – in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia – Iran backs the insurgent efforts of divisive militant proxies to destabilise existing regimes.

Unlike his predecessor in the White House, President Trump appreciates Iran’s malicious actions for what they are, and he does not believe that the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism should get away with this behaviour unpunished.

The US Administration is currently reviewing the status of Iran and may impose further sanctions on the Islamic republic. Although many sanctions relating to its nuclear programme were lifted after the nuclear deal in 2015, the US is considering unleashing a new round of restrictions because of Iran’s support for terrorists and its human rights abuses. For instance, testing and developing inter-continental missiles, Trump believes, does not constitute friendly behaviour.

Few would argue with this view, and few in Washington are arguing for Iran to be given more chances. The clerics, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have long ignored the West, confident in their ability to delude their counterparts with diplomatic niceties while pushing their revolutionary agenda throughout the Middle East. An alliance with Russia has lost much of its public support in the West, while its actions in Syria and Yemen have alienated any former allies.

Now, faced with a President whose own grasp of diplomacy is questionable and whose unpredictability is unprecedented in the Oval Office, Iran is struggling to work out how to react to Trump’s aggressive rhetoric. If it continues with its current destructive foreign policy and further aggravates the international community, the clerical regime will not be able to say that it had not been warned about its behaviour. If it is not careful, the Iranian gunboats that regularly harass US warships in the Gulf may be in for a surprise.