The diplomatic crisis that has seen Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab Gulf states sever diplomatic ties with Qatar rages on. Qatar, which has long sponsored terrorist groups including Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, now faces an embargo by the Gulf states that risks cutting the country off from most of its trade routes and food supplies. The Gulf states, as well as President Trump, are giving the Qataris a sort of ultimatum: clean up your act or face isolation.
This ostracization is also because of Qatar’s long-standing relationship with Iran, another state-sponsor of terrorism. Trump’s backing of the Gulf states is emblematic of his attempt to pivot the United States away from Iran and back toward Saudi Arabia, while the diplomatic crisis itself reveals a fundamental tension between two competing visions for the Middle East among the U.S. foreign policy apparatus.
President Obama’s Team Not Going Down Without a Fight
The first Middle East vision is the one former President Obama proposed and pursued during his eight years in office. Obama sought an off-ramp for U.S. involvement in the endless string of crises in the Middle East. He thought that by luring Iran out of its isolation with a nuclear deal that relieved economic sanctions, and by downplaying—or denying—the country’s destabilizing force in the region, he could finally relieve America of its Middle East burden. An engaged Iran, according to this view, would create stability and peace.
The other vision of the region is the one President Trump appears, at least for now, to hold: Iran is the chief cause of instability in the Middle East, and pushing back against the revolutionary regime in Tehran is a precondition for peace in the region. According to this view, America must hold Iran to account for its sponsorship of terrorism, repudiate the chimerical Iran deal, and shift support back toward America’s traditional allies in the region, most notably Iran’s nemesis, Saudi Arabia. This policy shift was on clear display during Trump’s visit to Riyadh last month.
But while Obama’s tenure may be over, many former members of his administration are still trying to make a case for his policy positions in the region. Two Obama-era officials did just that this weekend in the Wall Street Journal, claiming that Trump is breaking with precedent by stirring the pot:
Responding to a newly adventurous Saudi foreign policy, Mr. Trump has abandoned America’s historic practice of tamping down tensions in the Middle East and lined up behind Iran’s main rivals, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies…The US has been a staunch Saudi ally since 1945 and an implacable foe of Iran since its 1979 revolution, but under both Democratic and Republican presidents, the longstanding policy has been to avoid fanning Sunni-Shiite strains and inflaming regional tensions.
This is just a little bit rich. Of course, no one wants to inflame the ongoing rivalries and sectarian violence in the Middle East, and Trump is the king of inflammatory comments. But Obama’s hands aren’t clean either. He inflamed regional tensions when he chose to pivot toward Shiite Iran, neglecting America’s Sunni allies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In part, that’s because Obama was so keen to see the Iran nuclear deal pass that he turned a blind eye to Iran’s endemic misbehavior in the region.
Put bluntly, Obama’s administration rewarded Tehran for bad conduct with pallets of cash and sanctions relief, all in the hopes that Iran would give up its nuclear ambitions. The deal has contributed to increased tensions in places like Iraq and Syria, where Iranian-backed militias are waging proxy wars against U.S.-backed groups and helping to prop up the Assad regime. Obama was so committed to an Iran nuclear deal that he allowed his chemical weapons “red line” to be crossed in Syria to avoid provoking Iran.
Obama traded a relative stability in the Middle East for the ideological and misguided hope that Iran would prove to be his ace in the hole, allowing him finally to fulfill his dream of divesting the United States from the region.
The Iran Deal Is Not the New Ground Zero
The two Obama-era officials, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, go on to outline other reasons for being “wary” of a close alliance with Saudi Arabia, including the civil war in Yemen. Fair enough: the Saudis are no saints, and Yemen is a quagmire. But they fail to acknowledge that Iran, too, is playing a considerable role in that conflict by sponsoring the Shiite Houthi rebels.
Like all Iran deal boosters from the Obama administration, they also point to Iran’s newly elected so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani as reason not to seek closer ties with Saudi Arabia. But the crux of their argument is that the United States has interests in the Middle East at odds with the Saudis’ priorities—namely the Iran deal:
[…]But Saudi and Emirati interests are not necessarily identical with those of the U.S. The Saudis and the Emiratis, for example, are both cool to the Iran nuclear deal, even though most members of the American and Israeli security establishments have come to see it as a significant boost for regional stability.
The reality is that there are no ideal partners in the Middle East. No regimes in that region have “identical” interests with the United States. Our goal instead should be to find a partner that has the most interests in common and work from there. Iran, as a revolutionary regime, is nowhere near that point. Saudi Arabia is a lot closer—and no, their opposition to the Iran deal does not constitute a fundamental difference in regional interests, as there is still considerable disagreement as to the efficacy and durability of that deal. The authors ignore the fact that the Iran deal is itself the root of the difference in policy, so it cannot also serve as the motivation for maintaining Obama’s status quo.
This view of the region, that the United States can “resolve” its Mideast problem by elevating Iran to the status of a regional hegemon, is persistent even among elements of the Trump administration. But it’s an illusion, betrayed by Iran’s past and present behavior, that shows no signs of changing. Trump will have to push hard in his own government to achieve this pivot back toward Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arabs. He will also need to step (and tweet) carefully in the Qatari crisis to avoid sabotaging his own regional goals.
A version of this article appeared as the lead essay in our foreign policy email newsletter, INBOUND. Subscribe here.