Analysis

The Sunni-U.S. Alliance Against Iran Has Weakened, and Trump Is Partly to Blame

It seems the Saudis, too, may no longer want to risk a conflict with Tehran, especially when Trump’s reservations about a military clash are so clear – and Mideast leaders are busy with problems at home

President Hassan Rohani at Tehran's Mehrabad airport, Iran, September 23, 2019.
AP

As is only natural, the coalition talks following the Knesset election are attracting most of the media attention in Israel. And Donald Trump is largely focusing on the complications, of his own creation, after a whistleblower complained about his alleged pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden.

But in between, strategic developments have been occurring in the Middle East; at their foundation is what looks like a major weakening of the pro-American and anti-Iranian alliance. In this too, unsurprisingly, Trump plays an important role.

Since entering office in January 2017, Trump has strengthened ties between the United States and the leaders of the conservative Sunni countries, many of whom still haven’t gotten over the trauma of the Barack Obama era. Still, the past few months haven’t been the best for any of these leaders and have influenced their relations with the current U.S. administration. This is set against the backdrop of animosity between them and Iran, alongside their growing frustration over what is seen in Sunni countries as worsening American feebleness toward Tehran.

>> Iran may exploit Israel's political instability: How Trump must deter Tehran | Opinion ■ Trump clearly wants rapprochement with Iran. Israel can’t let that happen | Opinion

At the beginning of August, the United Arab Emirates retreated from its commitment to the Saudis’ war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran. In the middle of September, Saudi Arabia suffered the worst attack in its history from Iran when its oil production facilities were heavily damaged.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks with reporters outside the White House, September 22, 2019.
Susan Walsh / AP

Without any direct connection, the government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi faces a new wave of protests against the stumbling economy and the repression of the opposition. The demonstrations are still on a small scale but they express a certain piercing of the fear barrier after years of violent repression by the regime. At the same time, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who at least until recently Trump described as his close friend – is experiencing difficulties after last Tuesday’s election.

The bottom line is that all the regional leaders who supported Trump in his hard-line anti-Iran policy are now busy with their own problems and are suspicious about the U.S. president’s devotion to his previous strategy.

In May 2018, Trump announced that Washington was withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal after over a year of heavy pressure from Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Later, the Trump administration applied a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, while reimposing economic sanctions that badly damaged the Iranian economy.

In May, in light of the damage to its oil industry and wider economy, Iran changed its approach and attacked oil facilities and tankers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In June, Iran shot down a very expensive American drone that Tehran claimed had entered its airspace, and in September it attacked two Saudi oil facilities using cruise missiles, though the Iranians have denied any connection. At the same time, Tehran announced steps that would be considered violations of its commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal.

The assumption in the West is that Iran’s leaders want to return to talks on the nuclear agreement but hope to do so on their own terms and transfer the pressure to the Americans and Europeans.

Pompeo shakes hands with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, September 18, 2019.
AFP

For now, the assessments of some intelligence agencies (including Israeli ones) haven’t come true; they thought the Iranian moves would hasten a summit between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rohani at the UN General Assembly in New York next week. This meeting isn’t happening because of the Iranians, who want the sanctions lifted first, among other demands. Trump isn’t halting the process; he has said a number of times he’s willing to negotiate without preconditions, though now he’s trying to deny that.

The attacks on the oil installations exposed the incredible damage the Iranians can cause despite the enormous sums the Gulf states have spent on defense with American support. Saudi oil supplies have been hampered for at least a few months and oil prices have climbed. But as of now, the U.S. response has been limited to just an announcement of further sanctions on Iran and rumors of cyberattacks. Now some observers believe that Iran will launch even more attacks in light of the feeble American and Saudi responses.

On Sunday, The New York Times published an investigative report on Trump’s famous U-turn when in June he reversed his decision to attack military sites in Iran after a U.S. drone had been downed. It turns out that Trump halted the attack when the American planes were already in the air, minutes before the bombs would fall. Trump acted without informing Vice President Mike Pence, his cabinet secretaries and the military leadership.

Trump later justified his decision on the estimate by Pentagon lawyers that about 150 Iranians would be killed. But it seems much broader considerations were at work related to Trump’s justified fear of a regional conflict that would cost many more American lives and dollars. Trump is also wary that another war, which would affect the oil markets, would hurt his chances of reelection in just a little more than a year.

These considerations also limit the nature of the American response to the most recent attacks, but this is joined by the Saudis’ hesitancy. It seems  the Saudis too are no longer sure they want to risk a conflict with the Iranians, especially when Trump’s reservations about a military confrontation are so clear.

Washington’s Iran policy seems to be at an impasse at the moment. U.S. allies in the Middle East have their doubts, as well as their own headaches at home. Iran continues to walk on the edge, despite the danger that at some stage the Americans will respond in force.

Is all this leading to a rethink, in the United States or in Israel, about the wisdom of the U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal – despite the many reservations of senior intelligence officials from both countries? For now, no remorse is being heard – at least not in public – in Washington or Jerusalem.