For Trump, as for Arab leaders in the region, confining Iran is top priority
It will not be the settlement of the almost seven decade old Arab-Israeli struggle (now essentially reduced to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) that will top the agenda for leaders of the Middle East, including Arab leaders, when they start to meet with US President Donald Trump throughout March and April. Rather, it will be containment of Iran and rolling back its expanding regional influence.
“This is the priority for Trump as he announced it during his electoral campaign and of course in statements he made following his inauguration 20 January, especially during the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a few days ago,” said a senior and informed Arab diplomat.
This too, he added, is the priority of leading Arab states – certainly Saudi Arabia that is very open in qualifying Iran as the number one threat to stability in the Middle East.
“Saudi Arabia secured the support of Turkey on this matter and that of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the rest of the Arab countries will join the Saudi call,” the diplomat stated.
During his participation in the annual and high-profile Munich Security Conference this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir could not have been more direct in associating regional instability and terror, on the one hand, with Iran, on the other.
Only Israeli Minister of Defence Avigdor Lieberman matched the statements of the top Saudi diplomat.
Lieberman called the leader of Al-Quds faction of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard the “number one terrorist” in the world.
While Al-Jubeir, speaking to reporters at the Munich conference, declined to make direct reference to the eye-to-eye on views that he shared with Lieberman, the Israeli minister of defence announced “the good news”: For the first time since 1948, moderate Sunni Arab leaders agree with Israel on who is the main threat to regional stability.
Lieberman’s statement was much more forthcoming than any previous one made by an Israeli official in the past few years, including the controversial statement that former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni made during a joint press conference in Cairo in 2009 with her then counterpart and now Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit that divided the region into “moderates and extremists”.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry criticised the statements of Al-Jubeir and Lieberman. Bahran Qassem, spokesman of the ministry, said that coordination against Iran “is not coincidental”.
The statements of both Al-Jubeir and Lieberman came at a time when US Congress members are promoting tough sanctions against Iran for its recent ballistic missile tests and for destabilising the Middle East.
“I think it is now time for Congress to take Iran on directly in terms of what they’ve done outside the nuclear programme,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the Munich Security Conference.
He added that he and other US senators would be pursuing measures to hold Iran accountable for its acts.
On a parallel track, during a visit to the region, new US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis discussed with the Iraqi prime minister during a visit to Baghdad Monday containing Iranian influence in Iraq, a visit that was also designed to follow up on Iraq’s efforts to combat the Islamic State group (IS) – the second top Middle East priority for the Trump administration – and to reassure Iraqi leaders that the US, contrary to Trump’s rhetoric, is not planning to seize Iraqi oil.
The containment of Iran was also on the agenda of talks that US Vice President Pence held with European Union and NATO leaders.
According to a Washington-based Arab diplomat, who said “I think it is safe to say that the US is acting to make it very hard for Iran to maintain its current regional influence. This is precisely what two leading Middle East countries, Saudi Arabia and Israel, have been working for.”
The good rapport between Moscow and Washington, the same diplomat said, is not diverting the Trump administration from pursuing “putting Iran in a corner.”
In Cairo, informed sources admitted that in talks with Egyptian officials, at all levels, members of the Trump administration have made it very clear that they expect Egypt to be party to what is projected to be a collective effort to limit the regional influence Iran has had, especially in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
According to one official, any plans that Cairo had to explore further cooperation with Tehran have been suspended. According to another source, Washington is already making it clear that it expects Egypt to have a leading role, “political and otherwise” in “handling Iran.”
“Of course, the Trump administration expects Egypt to have direct involvement in managing the situation in Syria and Libya, but it is also expecting a clear role for Egypt in a plan that it is discussing with the Saudis and the Israelis to ‘limit’ Iran,” he stated.
He explained that this is not just about Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, but about the rest of the GCC, Jordan and also about “Turkey, that the Trump administration is really counting on when it comes to Iran and IS as well, especially in Iraq and Syria”.
None of the officials or diplomats— Egyptian, Arab or Western — who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly confirmed with certainty the news of a potential joint Arab military force to be designated, essentially, the task of halting Iranian regional hegemony.
One of these sources, based in the Middle East, qualified this plan as “a bit far-fetched in my opinion”. “I don’t think there is a way for Trump to get Egypt to join military efforts with Turkey and Saudi Arabia today to take action against Iran or any other target, including IS, either in Syria or Libya.”
He added that what is likely “and what is already happening is intelligence cooperation and of course political cooperation”.
Another source, based in Washington, said that it would be possible to “envisage something along the line of peacekeeping forces in Syria to which Arab armies could possibly contribute, along with other participations”. He added: “However, it is too early to tell, given that the presidential level talks have not taken place yet. So we will have to wait to see the outcome of the talks that Trump would have with regional leaders.”
According to sources in Washington there is no final timeline for the Trump meetings with Middle East leaders. The likelihood is that the Jordanian monarch might be back to Washington for thorough talks at the Oval Office before his country hosts the regular Arab Summit on 28 and 29 March.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose NATO member country is seen in Washington as a key regional power, especially when it comes to curbing Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria, is also expected to meet Trump during the next month.
Meanwhile, Cairo and Washington are still working on a date for a meeting of Trump and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, with Washington saying to Cairo through different executive and legislative channels that it is expecting Egypt to be “at the forefront of efforts to secure stability in the region”.
The visit of Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri to the US capital, which starts Saturday, will focus on fixing the time and agenda for the expected Trump-Sisi talks.
Egyptian diplomats say that Shoukri is expected to stress that regional stability cannot be secured without pursuing a settlement for the Palestinian cause.
While not necessarily putting settlement of the Palestinian cause ahead of combatting IS and managing the scope of Iran’s regional influence, the top Egyptian diplomat is expected to stress that “it would be a very big miscalculation to overlook the state of Palestinian frustration and the potential outcome of this frustration should the situation get worse,” said the diplomat.
He added that, “from the point of view of Egypt, one of the things that could make the situation get worse, or in fact much worse, is for Trump to decide to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem while simultaneously dropping the hope of a Palestinian state, as he had suggested during his joint press conference with Netanyahu,” earlier this month in Washington.
While Arab countries have not made public announcements against the plan of Trump to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem prior to a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most concerned Arab capitals — including Cairo, Amman, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi — have been trying to convince the US administration to put this decision on hold for a while.
Technically speaking, the waver that former US president Barack Obama had used in December to defer a 1995 Congress decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will expire. Arab countries are hoping Trump will renew this six-month waver, at least for one time to delay the decision pending initiation of a process to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Jordan, in its capacity as host of the next Arab Summit, is particularly keen to encourage the US president to take this path.
Jordan and Egypt are considering the outline of a potential political process they could offer to the US to restart the Israeli-Palestinian settlement process in view of three facts: Netanyahu will not negotiate a two-state solution; Trump will not pressure Netanyahu; and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has been declining all initiatives proposed by Cairo and Amman to pursue alternate scenarios — either open or secret talks with Netanyahu.
The Jordanian monarch arrived in Cairo Tuesday for talks with Al-Sisi on the matter. The meeting of Al-Sisi and King Abdullah comes less than two days after Israeli daily Haaretz leaked information on a four-way meeting that brought the two Arab leaders together with Netanyahu and former US secretary of state John Kerry in Jordan to consider a potential deal that could be offered to the Palestinian Authority.
An informed senior European diplomat admitted that the deal currently being discussed is less than a “viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital”. “I don’t think that this is on anymore. I don’t think even that Arabs are keen to pressure Israel, or the US, to take this path. It is very unfortunate, we think, for the long-term stability of the Middle East and also of the Mediterranean, but this Palestinian state is not happening,” he said.
What could be happening, he added, is a semi-state essentially in Gaza and a few enclaves of the West Bank that “unfortunately would not have any congruous link with one another”, with both Egypt and Jordan offering “a breathing space” for this Palestinian “entity”.
This, he said, is not about the repatriating Palestinians to Sinai, “from what I know,” but rather making Sinai a potential space for free movement, whereby “Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians could be coming and going.”
“All of this is of course very tentative and we are not sure that this is something that Abbas would agree to,” the same senior European diplomat said.
He argued that this matter “would take time to settle”. “Of course, Mr Trump would not put his Middle East priorities— Iran and IS — on hold to start first with the Palestinian cause, which is not a priority now, not even to Arab capitals, which are either worried about internal issues or worried about IS or Iran.”
Arab diplomats said that handling the future of the Palestinian cause under Trump would be subject to discussion in Amman during the Arab Summit. One said that it is expected for Abbas to come under considerable pressure to show flexibility.
Abbas missed the last Arab Summit that convened in Mauritania for one day, giving the excuse of grieving the loss of a brother. A Palestinian source at the time asserted that Abbas was simply avoiding coming under Arab pressure.
During a meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo a week ago, Abbas, according to the same Palestinian source, made it clear that there are “clear limitations” to what he would be able to accept as a final settlement.
“We know we are not in a position to be confrontational and we know we are not the priority today for Arab countries, but we also know how our people would react to some of the scenarios that are currently being promoted as a possible final settlement,” the source said.
He added that it is up to Arab countries to agree with Trump and Netanyahu about prioritising Iran, but this would not mean that the Palestinian leadership “would succumb to suggestions that defy basic Palestinian rights”.
“We have been suffering for close to 70 years and our people would rather continue suffering than to settle for humiliating set-ups,” he stated.
According to this source, who is very close to Abbas, it is unlikely that the Trump administration would be able to pursue a final settlement for the Palestinian cause or bring stability to the Middle East.
This sounded similar to the assessment of another senior European diplomat. Trump, he said, might be able to reduce the space of influence that Iran has and to cause IS to retreat in Iraq, “but it is a tough fight there and not a walk in a park” and Syria, while the tug of war between Saudi Arabia and Iran would continue.
He added that the Saudis would secretly go for the help of Israel and the Iranians would count on Russia in this bras de fer that would continue to happen around the Red Sea and the Arab Mashreq.