On Saturday, US President Donald Trump arrives in Saudi Arabia on the opening leg of his first official foreign tour. His visit is highly symbolic and a clear signal of intent to the Middle East as a whole and the Gulf in particular.
Under Barack Obama’s presidency, the US abandoned its leading role in the Middle East. The ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011 threw the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy into chaos; instead of working for the benefit of US interests in the region, Obama opted to back protesters campaigning for democracy against long-term allies of the US, most prominently in Egypt. This was never forgotten by Arab leaders.
Having abandoned America’s regional partners, Obama then worked to bring Iran – a staunch enemy of US allies including Israel and Saudi Arabia – back in from the international wilderness. This concluded in the nuclear deal in 2015, and the loss of a great deal of trust between the US and its Arab friends.
The consequence of Obama’s foreign policy is that the Arab states, left to their own devices, united around the leadership of Saudi Arabia to confront Iran in both Yemen and Syria. This has resulted in a stronger, more organised regional bloc that may prove harder for the Iranians to subvert.
In a worrying development for the clerics, Trump has also now abandoned Obama’s less interventionist stance. Since entering the Oval Office, Trump has been clear about who his friends are in the Middle East. Traditional allies have returned to the forefront of his foreign policy. As if to demonstrate this marked turnaround, Egypt’s President Sisi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump after his election victory. Arab leaders now see that Trump’s presidency will result in more cooperation between America and this coalition, and the opposition to Iran strengthened.
Trump’s outspoken criticism of Iran has caused concern in Tehran, and delighted old allies. In recent months, Trump has launched a review of sanctions on Iran, heavily criticised the nuclear deal and accused it of “playing with fire” by continuing its missile programme. Trump has surrounded himself with critics of Iran, like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who called it the “world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism”.
Both Saudi and Israel have been victims of Iran’s support for terrorists. The Saudis have fought Iran-backed insurgents in Yemen, Bahrain and their own Eastern Province, while Israel has waged several wars against Iranian proxy Hezbollah. Both countries were among the most concerned by Obama’s rapprochement with Iran, which would allow its support for these destabilising forces to continue as its economy recovered.
But now, the US is willing to commit to re-asserting itself in the Middle East. On Sunday, Trump will discuss security and counter-terrorism with a coalition of Islamic states – pointedly excluding Iran – and explain US policy in the Arab world. Rumours abound that he will commit the US to a $350 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, and we will likely see a smaller but equally important strategic commitment to Israel.
Iran will look at these deals and worry. Worry about an increase in US military presence in the region; worry about the gradual unity of an Arab coalition against it; and worry about the threat of more sanctions, crippling its economy once again.
Normal Iranians have had enough of living under sanctions. Economic hardship, long blamed by the clerics on others, is no longer tolerated and is the single most dangerous threat to the existence of the revolutionary regime. If Trump wants to hurt the clerics in Tehran, it will be sanctions, not arms deals, that do the most damage.