The US president's real focus is not on Iran, but on a peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis. Can he do it, asks Alan Philps?
Can Trump’s ‘ultimate deal’ come to fruition?
The principle of democracy is that every now and again the voters get a chance to dismiss the government and bring in a new bunch of politicians. This rarely yields root and branch change, as shown by the problems experienced by Donald Trump in implementing his campaign promises – such as to suspend Muslim immigration or start a trade war with China. But there is one exception – relations with Iran.
Mr Trump’s speech in Riyadh was a textbook example of him being the anti-Obama. When in 2009 Barack Obama offered “a new beginning” in foreign policy, he spoke, via an audience of Egyptian students, to the youth of the Arab world; Mr Trump spoke to leaders of 50 Muslim countries. Mr Obama did not mention the word terror; Mr Trump used it 31 times, and elevated it to the great challenge of our age. The former president spoke of universal human rights. His successor said he had not come to lecture the leaders, nor would he in future.
But most significantly, Mr Obama offered an olive branch to Iran; Mr Trump blamed Iran’s adventurism for provoking the bloodshed which racks the region. Iran, he said, has “fuelled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” for decades, and left his audience in no doubt that he favoured regime change.
It was inevitable that there would be a reassessment in Washington of Mr Obama’s determination to pursue engagement with Iran. He took it as a badge of honour that he was going against the followers of the Washington consensus – what he called “the blob” – who were appalled that the focus on containing Iran’s nuclear programme had allowed its expeditionary forces to extend their power in Arab lands. In Mr Trump’s speech, his Saudi Arabian hosts heard the 180-degree turn they were waiting for.
The one true point of contact between the Obama and Trump administrations is that they both see Iran as central in the Middle East. For the former, a power which needed to be brought in from the cold in order to achieve stability; for the latter, one of the roots of evil in the region which must be confronted.
The generals who advise Mr Trump have historic reasons to be wary of Iran. It was the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who showed the militias in Iraq how to make explosive charges to blow up US vehicles, with loss of many American lives, and paved the way for the current Iranian ascendancy in Baghdad.
But nothing is simple: the US military is working alongside Iranian-trained militias in Iraq to defeat ISIL in the city of Mosul. Also, Mr Trump’s verbal assault on Iran came at the same time as Iranians voted to give a second presidential term to Hassan Rouhani, who is the public face of engagement with the West.
Even if real power lies beyond the reach of Mr Rouhani, this is a sign that the voters have had enough of isolation.
There was inevitably a degree of showmanship and wishful thinking in Mr Trump’s performance. He hoped his meeting with Muslim leaders would be “remembered as the beginning of peace in the Middle East – and maybe, even all over the world”, a grandiose claim indeed.
While in Israel, on the second stop of his tour, he said that the nuclear deal signed with Iran two years ago had saved the mullahs’ regime from collapse. It was six months away from total failure, he said.
This cannot be true. Russia and China would not have let US sanctions destroy the Islamic republic. The historical record shows that almost 40 years of US attempts to undermine Iran have only strengthened the regime’s hold and bolstered its foreign military and intelligence adventures.
So what is Mr Trump’s goal? There are as many opponents of the Iran nuclear deal in Tehran as in Washington. But neither side wants to take the blame for torpedoing it. Indeed, Washington has just confirmed that Iran is carrying out all its obligations under the deal. It is far from certain that the Trump administration has sufficient control of the media narrative to be able to engineer the collapse of the arrangement that Mr Obama, with the support of US allies and Russia and China, put so much effort into.
The goal seems to be elsewhere. As a dealmaker, Mr Trump’s has set his sights on what he calls “the ultimate deal” – peace between Israel and the Palestinians in this the centenary year of the Balfour Declaration.
The dealmaking logic is that Israel and the Gulf states share the same distrust of Iran. This is undoubtedly true, but there are limits to the applicability of the old foreign correspondent’s cliché, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
A shared concern does not an alliance make. Not surprisingly, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is promoting the idea of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours, as well as the Palestinians, “because of the common danger that the Arab world and Israel face from Iran”.
The problem is that there is a peace plan dating from 2002, put forward by the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which calls for exactly that. Mr Netanyahu has said he accepts the general idea of the Arab peace initiative, but not the details. In other words, Israel does not accept the principle of peace with the Arab states, and by implication with the Muslim world, in return for withdrawal from the occupied territories.
The outlines of Mr Trump’s ultimate deal are clear to see. Any new push for peace is to be welcomed, but this is actually the least promising time since 1993; there is no peace process at all, after the failure of the efforts of John Kerry, the former secretary of state, to make any headway. It will take more than a change of government in Washington to change that.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs
On Twitter: @aphilps