As a follow up to my February Gulf News column, ‘The Way forward for the GCC states and the Trump administration’, I argued that the GCC states must welcome President Trump’s tough talk and bombastic threats (to Iran), which represent a clear departure from the hands-off, retrenchment and cosying up of the Obama administration with the country in its obsession of striking a nuclear deal at any cost.”
The New York Times notes “Mr Trump’s more muscular approach has been hailed by Gulf leaders, who felt betrayed by Mr Obama’s outreach to Iran and who hope that they now have an ally in the White House to help them push back against their regional foe. Two months after the inauguration of President Trump, indications are mounting that the United States military is deepening its involvement in a string of complex wars in the Middle East that lack clear endgames...”
The hawks in the Trump administration have been upping the ante against Iran to force it to change its behaviour. The latest tough rhetoric came from General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command. Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee at the end of March, he branded Iran as the “greatest long-term threat to stability in the region.” He called for steps, including military action, to disrupt and undermine Iranian influence and destabilising role and activities in the region. ”We need to look at opportunities where we can expose and hold them accountable for the things that they are doing.”
It is reassuring from the GCC perspective, to see at least on the surface, a welcome shift of the Trump administration, with the tough rhetoric and warning shots against Iran and its proxies, which apparently have impacted Iran’s behaviour in recent months. That is evident in Iran’s approach to the crises of the region, where the country seems to be more responsive and accommodating to GCC initiatives. The thaw in frosty relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq can also be seen in this context.
However, GCC states do not necessarily see eye to eye with the Trump administration’s policy regarding its approach to Middle East crises, for example, its move to bar the citizens of six Muslim countries from entering the US — a move that has been blocked twice by federal judges. Not to mention the Trump administration clearly changing course — due to facts on the grounds — from the long-held US and European stance on the legitimacy of Bashar Al Assad’s role in Syria’s future!
Although, there are divergent views between the GCC states and the Trump administration, nevertheless, there are many convergent issues on which both sides see eye to eye, mainly to revive the strategic partnership between the two allies, push back against Iran and its proxies — in their attempt to destabilise the region — while instilling trust and confidence which the Obama administration undermined.
President Trump, after two months in office, has exhibited more assertive leadership in dealing with the regional crises more than his predecessor in years. The US has carried out 49 air strikes, drone attacks and commandos raids across Yemen in two months, more than an entire year’s tally under the Obama administration against Al Qaida in Yemen.
GCC states hope the Trump administration weighs a deeper involvement in the Yemen war, which is at a stalemate after over two years of the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm. Especially with the urgent need for the US to assist Arab coalition offensive to capture the Red Sea port of Al Hodeida. It should also lift Obama’s freeze on precision-guided missile munitions, and resume the refuelling of US allies’ aircraft...
From the GCC perspective, this move by the US is essential to safeguard the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and Bab Al Mandab, in addition to dislodging Iran proxies, Al Houthis, while pushing back against the Islamic republic. Yemen represents major testing grounds for the Trump administration to rebuild the lost confidence of America’s GCC allies.
Moreover, the Trump administration is playing a leading role in the fight against Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in northern Syria and in the battle to retake Mosul in Iraq. Such bold moves by the Trump administration have been received favourably in GCC states.
Trump’s phone calls to GCC leaders, in particular with King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia last January, his pledge to reaffirm the long-standing friendship and strategic partnership between the two countries, and to strengthen joint efforts to fight the spread of radical Islamist terrorism, resonated well within the region.
Both leaders agreed on the importance of rigorously enforcing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and of addressing Iran’s destabilising regional activities. That was followed in March by an important visit by the Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, to the White House, where the Deputy Crown Prince hailed the relationship with the Trump administration as a “turning point.”
It seems the tough talks by Trump and the hawks in his administration have had an effect on Iran’s elites. Iran now seems to be more calculating and rational vis-a-vis regional issues, evidenced by its positive response to an initiative by the GCC Summit in December 2016 to initiate dialogue with the Islamic republic — with Kuwait mediating.
This potentially could lead to a real change in Iran and its proxies’ calculus and could lead to real politic thinking in Iran. It reacted positively to the GCC extending a hand across the Gulf, to a letter calling for a dialogue between the GCC states and Iran based on the UN Charter and principles of international law and non-interference in other countries internal affairs, representing GCC collective views and delivered to Iran’s leadership in January by the Kuwait Foreign Minister on behalf of the Emir of Kuwait who in turn was acting on behalf of GCC leaders. That was followed a month later by a one-day visit by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Oman and Kuwait.
Last week the GCC foreign ministers held their biannual meeting in Riyadh and discussed the holding of strategic dialogue with Iran. Will this bear any fruit towards a rapprochement between the GCC states and Iran?
And what kind of impact will it have on the Cold War atmosphere prevailing over regional crises. Does this force Iran to change its strategy? Will there be a move from Cold War to Cold Peace?
We judge Iran by deeds, not just rhetoric and slogans. It now all depends on the Trump administration ratcheting up the pressure on Iran and translating its rhetoric into a coherent comprehensive strategy, and an Islamic republic’s that’s not behaving like an opportunist laying low, waiting for the Trump storm to pass!
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is a professor of Political Science and the former chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@docshayji.