Cracks are beginning to emerge in the regional alliance the United States had hoped to harness against Iran. Insofar as it is possible to talk about a coherent Trump policy, the American president seems to be pursuing a fairly clear line on the Iranian question.
In May 2018 he pulled out of the nuclear agreement, after having attacked it consistently since it was signed. He then ratcheted up the pressure of economic sanctions on Tehran, threatening to take measures against international companies trading with Iran (and accordingly, many of them had stopped doing so). In Trump’s view, this move was aimed at bringing the Iranians back to negotiations and forcing them to accept a new, more demanding agreement.
In the meantime, Iran has been unbending. It is responding with controlled pressure via attacks on oil industry interests in the Gulf – and occasionally on American assets. Although officials close to Trump (particularly National Security Advisor John Bolton) support imposing a regime change in Tehran, something which could spiral into war, this is not the line taken by the president himself. Trump has also avowedly refrained from a military response to the downing of the American drone by Iran two months ago.
American restraint is apparently leading Gulf States to reconsider their policy with respect to Iran. There have been many indications of this, among them an unusual agreement signed by the commander of the Emirati coast guard and his Iranian counterpart during a visit to Tehran. The most important development to date is the decision by the Emirates to reduce (and perhaps cease entirely) its participation in the fighting in Yemen, a war which has engendered many casualties and few achievements.
Without military support from the Emirates, it seems that the Saudi ambition to defeat Houthi rebels will fail conclusively. The rebel’s military grip on the northern part of the country will continue. From the perspective of Israel, this is not good news, as Houthi presence in the region makes it easier for Iranians to smuggle arms via the Red Sea, one of the final destinations being Hamas in the Gaza Strip. (A few weeks ago a Palestinian was killed in Yemen, believed to have been a Hamas member connected to smuggling effort.) Iran is also capable of using the Houthis to threaten the freedom of civilian Israeli ships and Israeli naval vessels through the Bab al Mandeb Strait.
The Iranian support for the vagabond Houthi army has achieved results: Oil sites in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have been attacked by drones and Saudi airports have been targeted by Scud missiles operated with help from Hezbollah.
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The apparent outcome is that the Emirates has abandoned the war in Yemen, the Saudi effort has failed, Yemen remains divided and mired in its misery and the Iranians can chalk up a considerable achievement. This is bad news for the anti-Iranian alliance and possibly indicates a trend that should concern the American president and his close friend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
From the get-go, the moves against Iran were no simple matter. Now it appears they are becoming even more complex – and there is doubt if Trump’s strategy will succeed. Pessimism is trickling into Jerusalem, even if nothing has been said of it in public.