As Donald Trump saunters into the sunset of his presidency – unlamented, unhonoured, unsung – it is already possible to assess the carnage he is leaving behind, not just in his own country, but in several parts of the world which experienced the hammer-blows of his virulent attention. West Asia is the one region that he gave the most attention to, and it is here that we see the worst aspects of his legacy.
Even during his election campaign, it was clear that there would be serious problems in his interactions with the region. At a 2015 rally in New Hampshire, he robustly agreed with a supporter who said: “We have a problem in this country: it’s called Muslims.” In November 2015, he assured his supporters that he would “certainly implement” a database to track Muslims in the country.
In his first week as president, he signed Executive Order 13769 which banned entry into the US of Muslims from selected Muslim countries –Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Following this order, more than 700 travellers were detained, and up to 60,000 visas were cancelled. But he was selective about the countries he targeted; about Saudi Arabia he gushed: “They [the Saudis] buy apartments from me. They spend $ 40 million, $ 50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
“Trump Doctrine” for West Asia
In May 2017, Trump broke tradition: instead of visiting neighbouring countries and allies in Europe, he made Riyadh his first foreign destination as president. Here, he experienced the best hospitality the desert kingdom was capable of offering and, apparently giving up his negative perceptions about Muslims, engaged with the rulers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and leaders of selected countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – Iran was not invited.
He offered the assemblage “closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce”, but also insisted that they “drive out” from their societies those who claim inspiration from Islam as they commit terror around the world. The visit to Saudi Arabia set out the broad principles of the president’s foreign policy in West Asia, which the US media began to dub the “Trump Doctrine” for the region.
The doctrine had five prongs: one, close relations with Saudi Arabia; two, visceral hostility towards Iran; three, full support for Israel’s maximalist agenda; four, encouragement to Saudi Arabia and Israel to build a bilateral strategic partnership, and, five, the promise of a settlement of the Israel-Palestine issue through a “deal of the century”.
Iran: ‘maximum pressure’
Through Trump’s term, the Islamic Republic remained the object of sustained attention on the part of the administration. The president’s principal effort was to undermine the nuclear agreement with Iran, an important achievement of the Obama administration, and triumphantly replace it with a “better” deal. A year into his presidency, in May 2018, Trump withdrew the US from the agreement, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and reinstated all earlier sanctions on Iran, buttressed by fresh constraints.
These included reducing Iran’s oil imports to zero and denying Iran access to global banking facilities. After this, the sanctions regime became farcical – every other day, fresh sanctions were announced and embraced different Iranian institutions, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and even prominent leaders personally. The US’ confrontation with Iran took a diabolical turn when the head of the Al Quds Brigade, General Qassem Soleimani was assassinated in a US drone attack in Baghdad in January this year.
This sanctions regime was referred to as a policy of “maximum pressure” in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table to conclude the “better” deal promised by the president. Most commentators doubted that the US, having unilaterally withdrawn from a solemn agreement which Iran was fully complying with, would get Iran back to negotiations.
Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo in May 2018 spelt out “12 points” that Iran would have to comply with before fresh discussions could begin; these included: complete termination of Iran’s nuclear programme and its ballistics missiles development; end of support for “terrorist” groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and total withdrawal from Iraq and Syria.
No one believed this list could be the basis for negotiations. After a detailed analysis of Pompeo’s demands, Joseph Trevithick, writing in The War Zone Wire, concluded: “All told, the vague strategy Pompeo outlined … seems to be a prelude to an argument for military action rather than a realistic approach to negotiations.”
Given the extreme nature of these demands, it became clear that the administration’s senior officials had no expectation of a new agreement; their sole motive was regime-change. They hoped to inflict so much pain on the common people that they would express anger against the government through mass protests and thus bring about a change of regime, replacing the Islamic order with a new political order on western lines that would serve US interests. While there were public demonstrations in different parts of Iran, they were put down by security forces, with no threat being posed to the ruling authority at any time.
In response to these pressures, Iran initially exercised what it called “strategic patience” so as to give time to its European partners in the JCPOA to help relieve sanctions. However, the US’ secondary sanctions that penalised any entity that did business with Iran deterred European corporations from engaging with Iran either to participate in projects or invest in the country.
This led Iran to combat the US and its regional allies through low-key confrontations: there were instances of tit-for-tat hijackings of oil tankers and even small skirmishes in the Gulf waters. These included the shooting down of an American drone that had come into Iranian airspace and an attack in September 2019 on Saudi oil facilities that stopped half of Saudi oil production for a few days. It was blamed on the Houthis in Yemen and, while there were suspicions that Iran might have been behind the attacks, this could not be conclusively proved. There was no US retaliation for this assault.
Similarly, after the Soleimani killing, Iran responded through Shia militia with rocket attacks on US assets in Iraq – not so lethal as to evoke a major US attack, but sufficient to signal that Iran was undaunted, was capable of striking back and remained in control of the levers of power in Iraq.
Iran has also expressed its displeasure with the US and the poor support it has received from the Europeans by deliberately and incrementally reducing its compliance with the JCPOA provisions relating to uranium enrichment and by starting centrifuge development, thus reducing the breakout time for weapons production. By mid-November, Iran was said to have increased its stockpile of enriched uranium to more than ten times the amount allowed under the JCPOA. On 18 November, the director general of the IAEA said that Iran was now using the next-generation centrifuges that can enrich fuel faster.
After the recent US presidential election results, two reports have affirmed that the Trump administration’s obsession with Iran has not abated: one, Trump has contemplated a military assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but has been dissuaded by his officials; and, two, that the administration would announce a new sanction on Iran every week till Inauguration Day.
It is clear, as Marco Carnelos has noted, that Trump would like to use his last weeks in the White House “to leave his own legacy in the form of poison pills to his successor”. These sanctions are linked not to Iran’s nuclear programme but to its human rights violations, support for terrorism and its ballistic missiles programme and hence will not be easily overturned by the incoming Biden administration.
Israel and the “deal of the century”
Trump’s ties with Israel offer a sharp contrast from the situation relating to Iran. Here, the US interest is not just in Israel’s security; Trump is personally committed to the political fortunes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At crucial moments, Trump has taken decisions to benefit Netanyahu’s election prospects.
These have included: the shifting of the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognising that the occupied Golan Heights as part of Israel, and accepting Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as legal. All these decisions have overturned US positions of several decades and have been clear violations of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 242 and international law which reject co-option of occupied territories by the occupying state.
Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights was approved by Trump in March 2019 as a “quickie” in response to Netanyahu’s specific request for support in the forthcoming election. Trump issued a presidential proclamation declaring that the Golan Heights were part of Israel. He later told the Republican Party’s Jewish Coalition: “I went, ‘bing’! – it was done.” He boasted he had done something no previous president had done, but, as Martin Indyk points out, no previous Israeli government had wanted to do this as it violated a core principle of UNSCR 242.
These presidential initiatives, with wide-ranging implications, have neither benefited Netanyahu electorally nor have they promoted the settlement of the Israel-Palestine issue through the much-vaunted “deal of the century”. Trump’s peace plan, officially titled “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People”, was formally unveiled at a White House press conference, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on 28 January 2020.
It has been rejected by the Israeli settlers as it envisages a Palestinian state. It has also been rejected by the Palestine Authority due to its one-sided character; the conditions the Palestinians have to fulfil before obtaining statehood are: total demilitarization, recognise Israel as a Jewish state, not join any international organisation without Israel’s approval, abandon all international legal action against Israel and the United States, and comply “with all the other terms and conditions” in the 180-page plan.
The plan also requires that the administration of Gaza come under the Palestine Authority or any other entity acceptable to Israel. The plan rejects a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, and proposes instead a Palestinian capital on the outskirts of the city.
A day after the plan was released, Jeremy Bowen of the BBC wrote: “Essentially the Palestinians … are being given a surrender document, told to accept that Israel has won, and with its American friends will shape the future. … There is a chance Palestinians will be afflicted by more anger, despair and hopelessness.”
Saudi Arabia: principal ally among the Arabs
The kingdom has been the US’ principal ally in the Arab world and central to the realisation of US interests in the region. Bilateral ties have been transactional, but very substantial and of mutual advantage — for the Trump family in the US and for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia.
Trump has frequently trumpeted the billions of dollars the US would earn from defence sales and the investments its companies made to realise the prince’s grandiose dreams. In return, MBS obtained political support from Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner as he sought to consolidate his position in the country, particularly within the royal family. Trump’s backing for the prince was crucial and ensured that he could ascend the ladder to the monarchy by elbowing out two senior princes, one of whom, Mohammed bin Naif, was very close to the US security establishment.
With Trump backing him, MBS could also take harsh action against domestic dissidents and human rights activists, as also break the clout of senior royal family members and prominent local businessmen. Trump also extended full support to MBS in the context of the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist and dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in October 2018.
Two other initiatives of the prince have been more problematic: the siege of Qatar and the war in Yemen. Initially, Trump seemed to buy the Saudi narrative that Qatar was supporting terrorism, but later realised that Qatar was a valued US ally in that it housed a major US air base at Al Udeid and was also a big buyer of US weaponry. Since then, US efforts have been directed at bringing the estranged neighbours together, but the divide has not been bridged.
Trump has been subjected to some domestic pressure in regard to the war in Yemen, mainly on account of the wanton destruction wreaked by Saudi forces, the humanitarian crisis the country faces, and the rather limited progress Saudi Arabia has made against its Houthi enemy. But Trump has remained with the prince and shrugged off all attempts at imposing an arms embargo from the Congress. MBS has sold the war to Trump by shaping it as a conflict with Iran, with Iran seeking to expand its “baleful” regional influence through its sectarian allies in Yemen by arming them with weapons and lethal rocketry.
For this support from the White House, MBS sought to back his mentors in two areas that were important to them: the “deal of the century” and “normalisation” of ties with Israel. In 2017, MBS assured Kushner that he would get the Palestinians to support the deal. He got Mahmoud Abbas to come to Riyadh and insisted he back the peace plan prepared in Washington, in return for $ 10 billion in Saudi funding. Abbas rejected this offer and, on return, publicised the pressures to which he had been subjected.
This was also one occasion when the Saudi monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, disagreed with his son: the ruler summoned a meeting of Arab leaders to reject the American plan for Palestine and the decision to change the status of Jerusalem.
To be continued…
Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.