Analysis

Trump's 'Arab NATO' Push Against Iran Comes to a Head, and He's the Biggest Obstacle

Next month, Washington will convene 70 world leaders in Warsaw in an attempt to form an alliance against Iran. But they all remember Trump's zigzagging policies

File photo: President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office on March 20, 2018.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Very quietly, without the furor that has accompanied the resignations of senior officials in the Trump administration, Gen. (ret.) Anthony Zinni resigned last week from the U.S. State Department, saying his services were no longer needed. Actually, his services are greatly needed, but he has failed in the difficult diplomatic assignment Trump gave him.
 
About 18 months ago, Trump sent him to end the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and try to form an “Arab NATO.” The schism, which led Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to impose harsh economic sanctions on Qatar in 2017, has to be healed before any such strategic alliance can emerge.

Peace process veterans will remember Zinni from the days when President George W. Bush asked him to work a miracle on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and he’s still considered one of the most talented diplomats to emerge from the armed forces. But he threw up his hands after realizing that Riyadh, despite the damage it incurred from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, still refuses to reconcile with Qatar, even for the sake of a coalition against Iran.

Zinni has no complaints about the Trump administration, which supported his mission. But the poisonous relations among the Gulf States defeated him. Now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is trying to use the scaffolding Zinni built to revive the idea of a strategic alliance.

>> The Qatar dilemma: When even a supporter of terrorism can be an Israeli ally | Explained ■ How Qatar is warming ties with both Trump and Iran – at the same time | Explained  

In less than a month, officials from 70 countries will come to Warsaw for the anti-Iran show Pompeo is staging. It’s not clear what the conference is meant to achieve, since the administration has already taken the most important step – withdrawing America from the nuclear deal. Efforts to persuade the European Union to follow suit have failed, renewed sanctions have already been imposed, and even if their full implementation has been postponed until May, the message has gotten through.

Usually, such a conference is convened prior to some diplomatic or military move. But this time, it seems to be an effort to maintain the anti-Iranian momentum, given that threats and pressure haven’t persuaded Iran either to reopen the nuclear deal or negotiate a separate deal on its ballistic missile program. 

Israel is predictably happy over the conference, especially since it may give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a chance to be photographed shaking hands with Arab leaders. The anti-Iranian statements that will be made there are just a bonus. 

Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine this conference persuading the rival Arab states to take practical steps against Iran.

America’s diplomatic strategy, to the degree that it deserves that term, is operating on two main tracks. One is aimed at persuading as many states as possible to join the sanctions on Iran, thereby narrowing the gaping holes created by Iran’s ties with Russia, China and Turkey. The second is aimed at building an effective Arab coalition to block Iranian influence in the Middle East.

The State Department’s efforts against Iran can be seen from a classified cable sent by the Lebanese Embassy in Washington to Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry. It said Washington was urging Lebanon and other Arab League members not to invite Syria to the Arab economic summit in Beirut on January 20, and also urging Lebanon not to do anything that could provide the Syrian regime with funds, like investing in Syria or sending money for its reconstruction. The cable warned that any financial or material aid to the Assad regime or its supporters would be subject to American sanctions.

This cable, reported this week by the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar, was the State Department’s response to Beirut’s question about American policy on cooperation with Syria. 

Lebanon has no power to invite or disinvite Syria; that decision will be made by the Arab League, which is also still debating over whether to invite Syria to the league summit in Tunisia in March. But the very fact that Beirut asked this question shows that Lebanon and other Arab states are confused over America’s policy.

The request that Syria be barred from the economic summit, and perhaps also from the Arab League summit, is ostensibly meant to prevent Arab states from normalizing relations with Iran’s ally and to force Lebanon itself to decide whether it’s with America against Iran, or whether it obeys orders from Hezbollah and Tehran – which could result in Washington cutting aid to Lebanon’s army. 

David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, made this explicit during his visit to Beirut this week, saying that while Lebanon’s government is a matter for the Lebanese alone, the type of government it chooses will affect the country’s economy and stability. That was a warning against giving Hezbollah representatives senior posts in the still unformed government. 

But as Hale, a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, knows quite well, there’s no chance of Lebanon complying with this demand, given the balance of political forces in the country.

Nevertheless, his demand sparked a political outcry in Lebanon against U.S. intervention in the country’s internal affairs. Ministers vied with each other to denounce Hale’s chutzpah.

Lebanon has been spared one difficult decision, since it wasn’t invited to the Warsaw conference. But America’s demands of the Arab states pose a dilemma for it.

The State Department’s request/order that Lebanon not help rebuild Syria also raises concerns that in this administration, one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing. Just two weeks ago, Trump announced that Saudi Arabia would take on the burden of Syria’s post-war reconstruction. But who would Riyadh assist if not Syrian President Bashar Assad, to whose continuation in power Washington has already acquiesced? And if Riyadh helped Assad, would that stop the flow of money from Iran?

But quite aside from this internal contradiction, it’s interesting that the administration has said nothing about Bahrain and the UAE reopening their embassies in Damascus, and was also mute about Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s visit to the Syrian capital. One can safely assume these steps were taken with Washington’s consent, or at least its knowledge.

All these countries claim their moves are meant to bring Syria closer to the Arab world and thereby distance it from Iran. But if that argument holds water, why haven’t these countries resumed diplomatic relations with Qatar for the same holy purpose? Evidently, even in the war against Iran, the Arabs have different priorities than America does.

In any event, Iran gave the Arab rapprochement with Syria its own headline – “The defeated return to Syria,” as one Iranian newspaper wrote. And judging by its statements, Iran has no intention of giving up its presence in Syria as long as “the Syrian government hasn’t asked it to leave.”

Trump has only himself to blame if he discovers that his Gulf allies haven’t forgotten the tweet in which he announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, or his subsequent statement that the Iranians “can do what they want” in Syria. Nor is an archives search needed to see the fire sale this tweet forced on the Kurds.

The flowchart for U.S. policy against Iran in the Middle East requires it first to effect a reconciliation between the Arab states, then persuade Iraq to reduce its ties with Iran, push Lebanon to decide whether to make Hezbollah a partner in the government, see what can be done to end the war in Yemen and persuade Turkey to abandon its alliance with Iran. So far, each of these tasks has proven impossible, and accomplishing all of them would evidently require replacing all the Arab states’ leaders.

In December 2018, six months after Trump fired him, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the president “doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things.”

Trump, like Martin Luther King Jr., has a dream – that Iran will disappear. And of course, he knows how to make this happen. But the details, as Tillerson said, aren’t really important.