February 23, 2018

Tougher U.S. Policies on Iran Reassure Gulf Arab Allies

Mohammad Javad Zarif
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif prepares for a donor's summit at Bayan Palace in Kuwait City, Feb. 14. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

The Trump administration emphasizes its differences with its predecessors, particularly the Obama administration, and claims to be pursuing radically different policies across the board. On foreign policy, in many cases the distinctions are primarily rhetorical rather than practical or are limited in scope. However, regarding Iran, new policies are emerging that could herald a new strategic approach, and in several key instances they are being put into practice. For most of the Gulf Arab countries, a willingness to combat Iran’s regional agenda is the most important aspect of U.S. regional policy and a litmus test of each administration. From their perspective, a series of improvements has already been made on a range of crucial issues.


Gulf Arab countries have long believed that the outcome of the struggle in Syria will do much to shape the balance of power with Iran in the Middle East. The Obama administration did not appear to share this perspective, but the Trump administration seems to, which helps explain why the recent trajectory of U.S. policy in Syria appears largely positive to Washington’s Gulf Arab allies.

Several of these countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, shared a rhetorical commitment with the Obama administration to the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That goal was shaped by a mutual recognition that Iran would be the big winner should the Syrian regime survive the uprising, and that this was neither in the interest of Washington nor its Gulf Arab partners. However, President Barack Obama never fully committed to funding, equipping, and organizing the kind of armed opposition that might have been capable of forcing regime change. In fact, during Obama’s second term doubts and hesitation, in some cases tied to the U.S. experience in Iraq, began to shape U.S. policy in Syria.

This was most dramatically demonstrated when Obama drew a “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria, strongly implying that the regime’s use of chemical weapons would be met with force. Yet he did not follow through when, in August 2013, the regime committed yet another chemical weapons atrocity against civilians. Instead, the Obama administration entered into an agreement with Assad that, while purporting to strip him of his chemical weapons capability, also lent his regime a measure of diplomatic recognition and was predicated on continued regime control of key areas. Moreover, Washington began to significantly reduce its direct support for rebel groups engaged in the uprising against the regime and focus instead on the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, despite entreaties from Gulf countries and others to pursue both aims simultaneously.

The Trump administration does appear to be notably increasing U.S. engagement in Syria. One of numerous reported chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime early in President Donald J. Trump’s first year was met with a dramatic, although largely symbolic, cruise missile strike against a regime airbase. This appears to have been a one-off gesture, however, designed to communicate that chemical weapons use is still unacceptable to Washington rather than significantly impact the strategic equation on the ground. Trump acted where Obama did not. However, it’s still not clear that the Trump administration has substantially changed U.S. policy regarding chemical weapons in Syria.

The battle against ISIL was pursued, and has, in effect, been successfully concluded under Trump but according to a strategy and timetable laid out by the Obama administration. Moreover, following the collapse of the self-declared ISIL caliphate headquartered in Raqqa, the Trump administration announced that it was formally suspending U.S. military support for Kurdish-led Syrian rebels, that were the primary ground forces against ISIL under both Trump and Obama.  Both administrations anticipated transforming them into a broader, stable pro-American armed force in northern and northeastern Syria.

Predictably, as soon as ISIL was effectively defeated, Turkey greatly increased its military intervention in Syria to reverse the accumulation of power by Syrian Kurdish groups and prevent the unification of their three areas of control along Turkey’s southern border. Even though these militias have been armed and funded by Washington and work in close coordination with U.S. special forces, Turkey did not hesitate to attack them and threaten areas in which U.S. forces themselves operate. While the Trump administration has warned Turkey to avoid or limit such attacks, it also announced it would phase out all support for these Kurdish groups. Unless they are replaced by other armed Syrian factions, fully carrying out that policy would virtually complete the U.S. disengagement, begun during the Obama administration, from armed Syrian rebels.

However, U.S. policy in Syria appears to be undergoing expansion and mission creep under Trump. The most dramatic indication has been a powerful U.S. military response to an attack by pro-regime forces reportedly killing numerous Russian mercenaries that were threatening U.S.-supported fighters in northern Syria. The Obama administration claimed the number of U.S. military personnel in Syria during its last two years was around 500. Toward the end of Trump’s first year, the official figure rose to about 2,000, though there are indications the actual number is much larger and growing.

A key U.S. military mission in Syria remains preventing any resurgence of ISIL. However, there is a new emphasis on a second goal, which is containing and eventually rolling back the power of Iran and its proxies, particularly Hizballah, in Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have pledged a long-term presence by U.S. forces in northern and northeastern Syria explicitly to contain Iran’s influence there, suggesting that a broader, long-term agenda is taking shape. The expanded deployment of U.S. forces in Syria, even when it means potential confrontations with other major powers like Russia or fellow NATO allies, like Turkey, indicates the stakes and determination involved.


Riyadh, in particular, has made its extreme frustration with Lebanon abundantly clear, most recently and dramatically during the resignation rumpus regarding Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries seem determined to pressure the Lebanese on Hizballah’s role as a vanguard of pro-Iranian militias in Syria and beyond. Riyadh could collapse the value of the lira by withdrawing approximately $1 billion from the Lebanese central bank, and greatly disrupt remittances from the 400,000 Lebanese citizens working in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia is seeking ways to communicate this message while avoiding such drastic actions, which would cause indiscriminate economic devastation throughout the country. Still, having placed Hizballah on all terrorism lists in the Gulf, and secured a similar designation of the group by the Arab League, Riyadh has run out of its own sharply targeted options. The campaign by the Trump administration’s Treasury Department to pressure Hizballah through a range of new or intensified sanctions and other financial and legal tools provides Gulf Arab countries with aspects of the targeted leverage they lack.


The unfolding Saudi diplomatic initiative in Iraq, which buttresses much longer-standing and intensive outreach, particularly in southern Iraq, by Kuwait, seeks to promote Iraqi national identity, and incentivize Iraqis of all types to pursue their own national interests, rather than Iran’s. The goal is not to try to eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq, which is not plausible. Rather, the aim is to foster an Iraq that avoids taking sides between Riyadh and Tehran, and which sees itself as part of the Arab world, rather than an Iranian client state. The U.S.-led campaign to defeat ISIL was an essential prerequisite for this outreach, and much will depend on reconstruction efforts in formerly ISIL-occupied, Sunni-majority areas of the country. At a recent donors’ conference, Saudi Arabia joined Kuwait and others in pledging significant funds for reconstruction. The United States is brokering this effort, but Washington under Trump has signaled it has already spent enough money in Iraq and is insisting other countries, particularly from the Gulf, bankroll Iraqi reconstruction. Cooperation on these efforts will be an important aspect of Washington’s relationship with Gulf Arab countries and an essential means of countering Iranian influence.

Moreover, Saudi and other Gulf outreach to Iraqi Shia politicians like Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Muqtada al-Sadr, and others will also depend, in part, on an ability to align interests and coordinate efforts with Washington. Gulf countries will seek to avoid any repetition of the scenario in which both Washington and Tehran, for their own reasons, threw support behind former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who proved to be fully in the grip of Iran as well as damagingly sectarian toward Iraqi Sunnis. Both Saudi Arabia and the United States have made considerable progress of late in Iraq, but Iran remains a decisive player. Tehran is particularly influential among some parts of the Shia power structure, and, above all, the Popular Mobilization Forces, militias that are closely aligned with Iran and operate largely beyond the control of the Iraqi government. Gulf countries and Washington will have to work together to promote a more constructive political atmosphere inside Iraq that can balance other interests, including those of Sunni and Shia Arabs as well as Kurds, with those of Iran and its sectarian clients. Both have a strong interest in working to curb the independent power of PMF militias by integrating them into existing military structures, disbanding them, or in some other way preventing them from emerging as a kind of Hizballah-style state-within-a-state power block beholden to Iran.


The Trump administration has increased the tempo of U.S. military activities in Yemen, including the number of U.S. drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations. Moreover, the administration has expressed fewer reservations about weapons sales to Saudi Arabia than the Obama administration, although Washington has once again begun to openly pressure Riyadh regarding humanitarian concerns arising from its conflict with the Houthi rebels. Meanwhile, there still appears to be strong support in Washington for the Emirati-led counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the south.

The Gulf countries operating in Yemen may be hoping that Washington can help craft a political solution that would allow them to begin to wrap up their military commitment, which has taken on aspects of a quagmire as well as an unmitigated humanitarian disaster. There are strong indications that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would welcome a formula to allow them to draw down in Yemen, but that, under current circumstances, the Houthi rebels and their Iranian backers have little incentive to join such an effort. U.S. engagement could be an important factor in finding a way out, especially for Saudi Arabia, in the long run just as continued U.S. support will be crucial to Riyadh’s ability to sustain its military campaign in the short and medium terms.


Pursuit of the international nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, with Iran apparently affected a wider range of U.S. Middle East policies during Obama’s second term than many analysts believed at the time. Striking a bargain with the Assad regime over chemical weapons rather than responding with force to the crossing of the announced red line appears to have been prompted, in part, by a desire not to destabilize the negotiations with Tehran. Similarly, credible reports suggest that the Obama administration overlooked criminal activities by Hizballah in order to avoid disruptive tensions with Iran. Now that the agreement has been concluded – with any hopes that it might lead to a broader opening with Iran thoroughly dispelled, and the new administration frankly hostile to the agreement – the JCPOA no longer functions as a restraint on Washington’s approach to Iran. This was reflected in the cruise missile strike in Syria and new sanctions aimed at Hizballah, neither of which were likely to have been undertaken during the Obama-era nuclear negotiations.

To the contrary, the JCPOA is now a major irritant in the relationship, given the strong condemnation, not only by the Trump administration, but also by hard-liners in Tehran. Administration threats to abandon the agreement have also become a source of tension with the other five signatories to the JCPOA. How this issue unfolds greatly depends on whether the administration is actually determined to abandon the JCPOA in the near future. If Washington does that while Iran is essentially fulfilling its obligations and hasn’t committed any material breach of the JCPOA, it could backfire badly. Most blame, even from close U.S. allies like Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, would surely be attributed to Washington. Such a scenario is unlikely to be welcomed by most Gulf Arab countries, despite their deep-seated concerns about Iran’s ambitions, questions about the long-term efficacy of the JCPOA, and lingering doubts about the reliability of U.S. commitments to their security.

After expressing serious reservations when the nuclear talks with Iran began, and then when the nuclear agreement was signed, the Gulf Cooperation Council unanimously endorsed the pact. In part this is because there was little the GCC states could do about decisions that had already been made, but also because they were satisfied with Washington’s reassurances, and saw some benefit in restraints on Iran’s nuclear agenda. Unlike Israel, however, the nuclear issue was never uppermost in their mind. Rather, they were, and are, more concerned about Iran’s destabilizing regional conduct. But, despite these reservations, and unlike some Israeli leaders, Gulf Arab countries have not been encouraging unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.

Instead, the Gulf Arab position essentially boils down to urging Washington to use the nuclear issue to put additional pressure on Iran’s regional activities. Gulf Arab interests would not be served should Washington, which they are relying on to lead the pushback against Iran, end up taking the blame for ending the agreement, especially if no alternative strategy is in place. Under such circumstances, Iranian hard-liners would have negotiated an end to the international sanctions that brought Tehran to the table, with no real prospect of their revival, while being effectively released from constraints on their nuclear program. It’s an almost ideal scenario for Iranian hawks, and therefore not helpful to a Gulf Arab agenda.

Insofar as the Trump administration is using threats about abandoning the JCPOA as leverage to strengthen it, or as part of a broader campaign to curb Iran’s regional policies, that will be welcomed by Gulf Arab states. But if it is a quixotic and self-defeating attack on an agreement mainly because it is a signature achievement of Trump’s predecessor, that would not serve their interests.

When Trump was elected president, the Gulf countries were optimistic that his administration would prove more sympathetic and helpful to their interests than the Obama administration. Such hopes were encouraged by many of his early statements, such as Trump’s remarks that while during the Obama administration there had been a strain in relations with Bahrain due to human rights concerns, “there won’t be strain with this administration.” Thus far, there have indeed been no new strains with Bahrain, and few with the other Gulf Arab countries for that matter. Even Trump’s strong criticisms of Qatar in the context of the boycott launched in June 2017 by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt do not seem to have negatively impacted the substance of Washington’s relations with Doha, which appear as strong as ever. The same is true, however, of U.S. relations with the boycotting countries.

The centerpiece of concerns about Obama and hopes regarding Trump among Gulf Arab countries has been U.S. policy toward Iran. While there is no comprehensive and integrated new U.S. strategy toward Iran yet, some of the building blocks seem to be in place. However, how far Washington will be willing to go, and what price it might pay, to challenge Iran regionally, and how such a major and sustained commitment will be balanced with an evolving “America First” agenda, are still largely to be determined.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.