Analysis

Trump's Gulf Standoff Is Chipping Away at the Arab anti-Iran Alliance

Trump's decision not to retaliate after a U.S. drone was downed, seen by some as a thoughtful move, appeared to many in the Gulf to be a show of weakness

Donald Trump pumps his fist as he speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 29, 2019.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Nearly two months after the crisis between the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf intensified, it seems that there are real cracks developing in the Arab coalition that had been supporting harsher American sanctions on Tehran. From conversations with Israeli and American intelligence experts, it emerges that the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to avoid military action against Iran, along with a host of other considerations, is weakening the Gulf states’ commitment to the tough line against the Iranians. The most blatant signs of this change can be seen in the United Arab Emirates.

The crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, had in recent years pushed Washington to take a more militant stance against Iran. For some of this period is seemed they were secretly coordinating positions with Israel on this issue. But in recent weeks the emirates have been conducting themselves differently.

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In Yemen there has been a lethal civil war going on for years in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the local government have been battling against the Houthi rebels, who are being aided by Iran. The UAE’s military contribution to the war has been significant. But last month the emirates began to reduce their military activity there. Bloomberg News reported last week that the emirates in June rejected a request by the Yemeni prime minister for additional financial assistance, and that the UAE plans to reevaluate its position in the region. The Gulf states, it was claimed, fear for their position given the Iranian threat and the increased tensions between Tehran and the United States.

The UAE denies that it is planning a complete withdrawal and claims it is only changing the deployment of its forces, but the impression in Israel is that the UAE does indeed want to halt its involvement in the war in Yemen. The Houthis have already announced that they will stop attacking UAE targets in response to its change of policy. It now appears that Saudi Arabia will be left to fight in Yemen alone, with the help of a few units of mercenaries it managed to recruit from various countries, including Sudan.

In an unusual development, the commander of UAE’s coast guard visited Tehran last week and met with his Iranian counterpart. The parties signed an agreement to formulate understandings regarding fishing and sailing arrangements in the Persian Gulf. Earlier, the UAE had avoided explicitly blaming Tehran for blowing up its oil tanker, after a series of other attacks that, according to Western intelligence agencies, were initiated by Iranian Revolutionary Guards against tankers and oil industry sites. In a no less unusual development, last week a Saudi minister went to Tehran to hold talks with his Iranian counterpart on arranging pilgrimage visits by Iranians to Mecca and Medina. It is not inconceivable that the Saudi attitude towards Iran is also beginning to soften.

This series of developments may indicate a weakening trust for American moves among the Gulf states, particularly the UAE. The key moment was Trump’s decision not to retaliate against Iran for downing an American drone, estimated to be worth $130 million, after a Pentagon assessment said around 150 Iranians could have been killed as a result. What was perceived in the United States as a thoughtful and justifiable decision appeared to many in the Gulf to be a demonstration of weakness, requiring Iran’s neighbors to reconsider their positions.

In general, after its tough rhetoric during the first few weeks of the conflict, Washington has been restraining its tone. Trump has made it clear that he is not interested in another war in the Gulf and that he seeks to resume negotiations with Tehran to restore the nuclear agreement from which the United States withdrew in May 2018, but this time with some new, far-reaching demands upon the Iranians.

Members of Saudi security forces take part in a military parade on Arabia  August 4, 2019.
REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Over the weekend the New York Times reported that Tehran had rejected a proposal last month by Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who is somewhat coordinated with Trump, to invite Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif to negotiations. The report confirmed Israel’s suspicions that the administration was striving to resume talks. At the same time, there were various reports in the Arab media on the possibility that Oman would mediate between the parties. The Omanis were involved in the contacts that led to the interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the international community in 2013.

The United States, meanwhile, is having trouble promoting the initiative to establish an international force to secure passage of oil tankers in the Gulf, following a series of attacks attributed to Iran. Britain, whose tanker was snatched by the Iranians last month (in response to a similar British move against an Iranian oil tanker in the Strait of Gibraltar), has agreed to deploy only two ships in the region, one of which will have to leave the Gulf soon for maintenance. France and Germany have avoided agreeing to the American request. The United States itself, as Trump declared, does not see oil-tanker security as its direct responsibility because the American economy has largely been freed from its dependence on Arab oil.

It is difficult to predict how things will develop in the Gulf in the coming weeks. Much depends on the next steps taken by the Iranians and on the U.S. administration’s unstructured policy. But the president’s reluctance to engage militarily has already left a rather sweeping impression.

As in many other areas of the current administration’s foreign policy, there is a big gap between rhetoric and execution. The administration makes lots of announcements, but they usually aren’t followed up on to produce real results. These recent events reinforce the impression in Israel that despite repeatedly threatening Iran, the U.S. president prefers the path of negotiations and doesn’t want to use extensive military force. The main question is whether either America or Iran will soften its positions in a way that will allow the talks to resume. At present, the gap between their positions still looks wide.

Iran speaks up on alleged Israeli attacks

Recent days have brought the Iranians’ first responses to two attacks in Iraq attributed to Israel, which were aimed at the missile caches and launchers held by Shi’ite militias in the western part of the country. An essay published last week on a website identified with the Iranian Foreign Ministry criticized the government in Baghdad for not protesting the Israeli attacks.

The website editor hinted that the Iraqis had given up their neutrality and were working in coordination with the United States. Tehran, he wrote, is disturbed by the proximity of the Israeli attacks to its border (compared to the attacks in Syria, which were more distant). He threatened that the Iranians could respond aggressively against American sites in Iraq. That’s a tangible threat from the perspective of the Baghdad government, which is treading a thin line because it is still getting American military assistance and is relying on the continued presence of a few thousand U.S. soldiers on its soil.