BERLIN – Donald Trump completed his first Middle East tour this week – if it’s appropriate to call visiting Saudi Arabia and Israel a tour – and a few things about his intensions seemed to clarify. He now likes Muslims, but only a certain type. Namely, the Saudi variety, particularly the royals, who are among the few people in the world who live as opulently as he does.
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Trump’s warm embrace of Saudi Arabia, sealed with a sword dance, a gold medallion for Trump’s neck, and a Strategic Vision Document with a $110 billion weapons-deal attached, came with a particularly caustic condemnation of Iran. No need, apparently, to blur this black-and-white map of the world according to Trump, to acknowledge that as the U.S. president landed in Saudi Arabia, 75 percent of Iranians had voted to reject hard-line conservatives and award another term to their moderate president, Hassan Rohani.
No reason to consider engagement with the Islamic Republic and treat the 2015 nuclear deal as a sign of an Iran looking for a way back to the international community without losing too much of what it views as its autonomy, as its right to become a nuclear power. To do so would be to fail at smashing the legacy of former U.S. President Barack Obama, which Trump is as dedicated to as almost anything else.
While no honest observer of the region should pretend that Iran isn’t meddling in regional affairs and funding problematic actors, it’s not clear what if anything is achieved by staging a virtual return to George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” rhetoric of 15 years ago. Indeed, pointing the finger at Iran did little to curb its enthusiasm for tossing funds and arms at Hamas and Hezbollah, or suddenly convince Iran that it’s time to roll back all dreams of exporting the Islamic Revolution.
Questioning Tehran’s legitimacy
Judging from Trump’s speech and everything that led up to it, it doesn’t seem likely that the president or even the “experts” he has surrounded himself with know or care much about the Sunni-Shi’ite divide in the Muslim world. To embrace Saudi Arabia while urging regime change in Iran – in Sunday’s speech he called on the world to isolate Iran and “pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they so richly deserve” – is essentially to tell the entire world that the Iranian regime has no legitimacy.
It also tells the Middle East that Wahhabism, one of the more extreme forms of Sunni Islam, is fine, but Shi’ism, rooted in Iran (and Iraq) and serving as the core identity of more than 200 million Muslims, is not. It sweeps under the rug the fact that Wahhabism spawned Al-Qaida as well as ISIS. And if Trump is all about destroying ISIS, as he has promised to do, the group’s address, he should know, is not in Tehran.
While Shi’ites are a minority among Muslims, in many corners of the world where it counts they are major players with whom America should want to remain engaged and to whom Washington should ideally appear to be a fair broker. America is still entangled in Iraq, where Shi’ites are the majority and trying to walk a fine line between Washington and Tehran, maintaining relations with both. Although it might seem like the sectarianism there is out of America’s hands, actually the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and the bungled post-Saddam period unleashed it like never before – a matter for which Washington is at least partly responsible.
Shi’ites are also major players in Lebanon and have sizable minorities in countries such as Pakistan, India and Turkey. The Houthi rebels in Yemen are Shi’ite, and the efforts to quash them is a good deal of what U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia will go to. More than 10,000 civilians have already died in that conflict, according to a recent UN count, but that war gets even less empathetic, less frequent coverage than the war in Syria. (The Shi’ite connection of the Alawites, it’s worth remembering, is also an important thing that connects Iran to the Assad regime.)
Legacy of the travel ban
Although it’s problematic to generalize, Shi’ites tend to identify with Iran and view an attack on Iran as an attack on the spiritual mother ship. To be sure, for some Shi’ites, geography, language and even ethnicity put the Farsi-speaking Persians of the Islamic Republic quite far from them. But ultimately, for Shi’ites the world over, it’s likely to look like Trump isn’t even going to try to level the playing field in his administration, although that should come as no surprise.
Trump has never shown much interest in nuance when it comes to the Islamic world, making utterances on the campaign trial like “I think Islam hates,” not to mention his travel ban and the original proposal he made in the fall of 2015. He called for a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
Now that a ban has been rolled out – to somewhat humiliating effect, as Trump can’t get it past the courts – it’s fascinating to see whom it targets. It includes Iran, even though no major attack on American soil has been committed by an Iranian or an immigrant from Iran. The ban doesn’t include Saudi Arabia, even though 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were from the kingdom, as of course was Osama bin Laden.
Clearly the president is on a learning curve and has been brought into line with previous U.S. presidents, Republican and Democrat, who view Saudi Arabia as a trusted ally. But if only the Saudi royal family and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are doing the teaching, Trump is likely to end up with a Middle East policy that’s no more successful than his predecessor’s, and very likely much worse.