By Vali R. Nasr
Nov. 12, 2018
The Trump administration is not ready to admit it, but its Middle East strategy is in deep trouble, now compounded by the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey last month. The administration’s recent pressure on the Saudis to seek a truce in their war in Yemen is a clear signal of just how much the credibility of Saudi Arabia, which is at the heart of that strategy, has shrunk, perhaps even in President Trump’s eyes.
The strategy’s goal was to work with the Saudis to contain Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Instead, we can now expect a growing sense of ease in Tehran about exerting its influence, even as it adjusts to the tough economic sanctions that were re-imposed last week. That freedom is more likely to be used through manoeuvring and deal-making, rather than through aggressions.
It’s not as if Iran expects a change in American policy toward it in the aftermath of the Khashoggi affair. Instead, the weakening of confidence in Saudi Arabia throughout the region is more likely to confirm to Iran’s leaders the wisdom of their own current strategy — manage pressure from America by mobilizing domestic resources; rely on Europe, China and Russia to keep economic channels with Iran open; and consolidate Iran’s alliances and positions of influence politically.
Over the past year, Iran has been able to avoid escalating tensions with the United States, in part because it has confidence in Russia’s commitment to stay its course in Syria. Iran shows no sign of ever abandoning Syria, even as it stays surprisingly quiet in the face of repeated Israeli strikes on Iranian bases there.
Similarly, expectations of a confrontation in Iraq after the Iranian consulate in Basra was torched in September proved unwarranted. Instead, Iran quietly helped Iraqis forge a political alliance that formed a government reliant on Iranian-backed militias that the United States wants disbanded.
Now, the leaders in Tehran may well expect that a weakened Saudi Arabia could be compelled to end both its military campaign in Yemen and its blockade of Qatar. All along, the Iranians have sought talks with the Saudis, who may be ready to talk to them — especially if the Saudis take American advice and decide to end the Yemen war. The government in Riyadh may also find it necessary to mend relations with Iran to rebalance its relations with Turkey, which has been aligned with a buoyant Qatar and was further angered by the Saudi assassination on Turkish soil.
Remaining calm, in turn, might give Iran’s leaders greater confidence in their own bargaining power, perhaps to the point of talking to the United States about its nuclear and missile programs. The ruling circles in Tehran already seem confident that the economy has absorbed much of the shock of American sanctions and that Iran can sell enough oil and have enough trade with Europe, China, Russia and India to keep its economy afloat. Conservatives and moderates have formed a united front to rally the population to the flag and to fend off any popular discontent that the United States might hope economic hardship would bring.
The Trump administration has derided the nuclear deal, asserting that it was failing to curb Iran’s regional influence and claiming to want a new deal strong enough to do just that. But Mr. Trump will now find it even more difficult to deliver on his promise of forcing Iran to come to the table on his terms. If Iran comes at all, it will not be in a position of abject weakness. All it needs to do is remain committed to the deal it signed with Barack Obama and let Mr. Trump recognize that his “maximum pressure” strategy falls short. Then Tehran might be ready to talk.
From the start, the Trump administration thought it could rein in Iran’s regional influence by forging a close partnership with Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. But a series of heavy-handed Saudi missteps, culminating in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, have backfired, leaving Iran with much more room for strategic initiatives.
Relying on Saudi Arabia to contain Iran was always questionable. Saudi Arabia has never been truly successful at rolling back Iran’s regional presence, and in recent years Iran’s influence in the region has only grown. For example, Saudi Arabia has for all practical purposes washed its hands of Syria, leaving it to the United States to deal with Iran and the endgame of that conflict.
The greatest missteps started in 2015 with the ill-conceived war in Yemen, followed last year by a blockade that failed to ostracize Qatar and then a weeks-long detention of the prime minister of Lebanon that failed to lessen his reliance on Hezbollah. All were clumsy attempts to make other Arabs afraid to deal with Iran and its allies. All had the opposite effect, with the region’s principal players — America’s friends among them — seeing Saudi Arabia as a greater menace than Iran.
The Khashoggi affair has been a watershed event. It brought into sharp relief the weakness at the core of Mr. Trump’s strategy, even as it weakened the crown prince himself, along with support for his partnership with America. The ability of Saudi Arabia to help Israel contain Iran and provide political cover for a final deal with the Palestinians now looks far-fetched. Israel’s hand has been weakened, while Turkey — which also wants greater regional influence and has shared Iran’s concerns about the budding alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia — has gained stature.
It is now clear that Saudi Arabia will not be able to lead a regional coalition to force Iran out of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and then Yemen. Unless Mr. Trump plans to send large numbers of troops to do that, and then have them stay on to make sure Iranian influence does not return, he can hope for regional stability only by focusing on first bringing the Middle East’s wars to an end. Then he would have to set aside his high hopes that “maximum pressure” can successfully deal with Iran on regional issues. Accepting those truths would not eliminate Iran’s influence, but it could set limits on it and provide time for the Arab world to recover and rebuild — which ultimately is the best way to check Iranian power.
As for Iran, it doesn’t need to flex its muscles. It just needs to wait for the Trump administration to fully appreciate the balance of power in the Middle East. As Mr. Trump’s mirage of an Arab order evaporates, a stark reality emerges: There is no credible Arab challenge to Iran’s regional influence, nor is there any prospect of reducing it with American threats and bluster.
Vali R. Nasr is the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.