World & Nation

By throwing America’s lot in with Sunni Arabs, does Trump miss opportunities with Iran?

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, from left, and Saudi King Salman join First Lady Melania Trump and President Trump for the opening of the World Center for Countering Extremist Thought during Trump’s visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, this week.
(Saudi Press Agency)

On his first official trip to the Middle East, President Trump has resoundingly thrown America’s lot in with Sunni Arab states and cast Shiite Iran as a global pariah, even as Iranians reelected a president who has offered to work with the West.

During his two days in Riyadh, Trump’s full-throated support for the autocratic monarchies in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, as well as his fierce denunciation of Iran, allowed him to claim an historic new coalition of interests.

In the next two days, in Jerusalem, he doubled down and argued that Israel and the Arabs should join forces against Iran and along the way, resolve Israel’s conflict with Palestinians in a grand bargain that has eluded diplomats for decades.

But as he departed for Rome on Tuesday, Trump had little to show beyond lofty rhetoric, symbolic visits and a shower of flattery from kings, potentates and a prime minister.


When it comes to the Middle East peace, the devil is in the details, and Trump steadfastly refused to provide any during his visit.

While visiting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem early Tuesday, Trump avoided mentioning the long-standing, internationally accepted proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: creation of an independent Palestinian state beside a Jewish Israeli nation.

Palestinian leaders were bitterly disappointed.

“There’s not much detail there, as usual,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization. “He’s still on a learning curve and peacemaking is not a business deal.”


On Sunday, Trump used a speech to a summit of Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh to make his case against Iran, urging “nations of conscience” to isolate the Islamic Republic. For decades, he said, Iran has “fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.”

But cutting off Iran, the second most populous nation in the Middle East after Egypt, won’t be easy.

The White House has signaled that it will not tear up the 2015 nuclear deal that Iran signed with six world powers , as Trump vowed during the campaign, unless the nation is caught cheating by resuming nuclear development.

So far, international monitors say it is in compliance. Quitting now would alienate U.S. allies and could lead to precisely what the accord has successfully blocked: an Iranian race to build a bomb.

So Trump has used Iran as a verbal punching bag while his administration has levied mostly symbolic sanctions on Tehran’s ballistic missile program, which was not part of the nuclear deal, adding to those left in place by the Obama administration.

“Iran should be grateful to the United States,” Trump said sarcastically in Jerusalem. “Iran negotiated a fantastic deal with the previous administration … unbelievable from my standpoint.

“We gave them wealth and prosperity” by lifting economic sanctions, Trump continued, “and we also gave them an ability to continue with terror. No matter where we go, we see the signs of Iran in the Middle East.”

Iran’s newly reelected president, Hassan Rouhani, an architect of the nuclear deal and a moderate in Iranian politics, held out an olive branch of sorts. He invited the Trump administration into dialogue even as he mocked the president’s anti-Iran speech in Saudi Arabia, a country that he noted did not allow elections.


Some diplomats worry the new White House is taking sides in the bitter Sunni-Shiite divide without fully understanding the history or implications. The rival factions split over who would lead Muslims after the Prophet Muhammad’s death in the 7th century.

Trump has made fighting terrorism a keystone of his domestic and foreign policy so far, focused on eliminating the threat from Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other extremist networks that directly attack the West. Both groups are Sunni Muslims.

The U.S. and its allies continue to see Tehran as a malign force, chiefly because it supports a series of militant groups in the region: Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as President Bashar Assad’s government in Syria.

Trump has restored or expanded military aid and intelligence sharing to Riyadh that the Obama administration trimmed because of reports of indiscriminate bombing by Saudi warplanes in Yemen, where it leads a military coalition against the Houthis.

Trump also agreed during his visit to sell $109 billion in U.S. warships, fighter planes, an anti-missile system and other high-tech weaponry to the Saudis, which view Iran as their primary enemy.

”The Saudis have [Trump] right where they want him,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who now is a Middle East fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington. “He has divided the Muslim world into good and evil, white and black. The Saudis are the good and white, Iran is the black and evil. It’s exactly the script the Saudis wanted, and it’s the script Trump gave them.”

Several experts see flaws in Trump’s evolving strategy. First, they say, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to openly cooperate with Israel unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes key concessions to the Palestinians, a move that is probably politically untenable in Israel.

Second, Iran is too big and too important to ignore, they argue, especially because the easing of sanctions and Rouhani’s reelection means it is reengaging with the outside world.


“The durable solution for peace in the Middle East has to have the buy-in of every country that has the capacity to wreck the solution,” said Reza Marashi, research director for the National Iranian American Council, a Washington policy and educational organization. “Excluding Iran only incentivizes Iran to destroy the process set up to exclude it.”

Ahead of Trump’s trip, U.S. officials spoke of forming a military alliance with the Arab world similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In fact, something similar already exists: the 41-member Islamic Military Alliance, which Saudi Arabia convened in December 2015 to fight terrorism.

Although the organization is primarily Sunni, several member nations have large Shiite populations, making the coalition’s ability to coordinate actions an open question. The same question would haunt any effort sponsored by Washington.

Ray Takeyh, a former State Department expert on Iran who now is at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that despite the absence of specifics in Trump’s public statements, it was important for him to voice support for peace in a region replete with war and failed or failing states.

“It was psychological assurance. It was practical assurance,” Takeyh said. “Now there has to be a process to fill in all the blanks.”

Times correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed from Tel Aviv.

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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