Trump’s Gulf Geopolitical Approach: Whither the Middle Eastern Balance of Power?

It’s all fine and good “to officially put Iran on notice” as Michael Flynn has affirmed. The rapidly escalating American punitive anti-Iranian measures came in response to both; an Iranian – missile test and in reaction to Houthi attack on a Saudi warship in Yemen. However, the main critical question centers on Trump’s Gulf geo-political approach whether it can embolden or disrupt the Gulf-Middle Eastern regional order? Washington under Trump will have to frame the main measures to counter Iranian security threats to prevent any destabilizing behavior in the Gulf or across the Middle Eastern region?

The recent Iranian missile test was conceived as a hostile act to the UN resolution barring Iran from taken the essential steps to advance its ballistic missile program capable of launching nuclear weapons. Despite the difficulty of accepting the feasibility of such a prospect, what’s surmise to be a déjà vu spectacle for successive US Administrations the new Trump administration didn’t rule out using “all necessary options” including military. Admittedly using the latter option to dismantle Iranian ballistic missile program has not yet taken a crystallized form, and in the words of Ali Vaez (an Iranian expert at the international crisis group in Washington) such a drastic option if enacted would be perceived as “either an empty threat or a clear statement of intent to go to war with Iran. Both are reckless and dangerous…” Equally true from the Iranian perspective any escalation in tune or rhetoric by Trump’s administration will always be reciprocated. Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asserted that Iran will defend itself against potential US security threats. Moreover, the Iranians have characterized Trump’s administration as run by “amateurs” with critical implications at the larger Gulf-Middle Eastern region.

Thus, Trump will have to learn at his own peril the intricacy of world’s affairs. Accordingly, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani indicated that Washington will have to pay high cost ramifications if Trump’s approach were to endure across time. Regardless of the mutual opposing rhetorical points of view by pro- and anti-Trump’s groups, Trump has continued to re-emphasize that Iran is still posing a very serious threat to regional and world’s security order. But if the day of reckoning with Iran in resorting to military intervention has not come yet the Treasury Department has taken further financial sanctions against 25 individuals and companies connected to Iran’s nuclear ballistic missile program. As a state within a state the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard (ISRG) has substantively benefited from a fragile state of US – Iranian interactions in extending its influence across the Gulf – Middle East.

Ironically the new sanctions weren’t designed to abrogate the Iranian nuclear deal known as JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), though Trump has clearly described the ongoing Iranian deal with the 5+1  as the “worst ever negotiated”. Admittedly “Crossing the security Rubicon” meant that Iran is determined to test technologically advanced missiles carrying nuclear weapons regardless of the recurrent fear of US re-imposition of economic and financial sanctions on Tehran. In the meantime, the geo-political polarization between the Iranians and the Saudis has increasingly taken hold in Syria and Yemen adversely affecting the regional balance of power. What of interest is that the Saudis and other GCC states seem to read from a similar script in line with what Trump, his entourage and the Israelis are arguing for.

Lausanne, 2 April 2015

A script that pinpoints Iran as a major source of instability and insecurity of the entire Gulf region and beyond.  In the Greater geopolitical setting, the implications of [JCPOA DEAL] has mainly emboldened Iran across the Fertile Crescent and the Gulf region.  The Russians under Putin for their part are playing a decisive role in combating anti- Assad forces including ISIS as well as looking forwards for Trump’s encouragement and for an American limited role to dismantle ISIS and other likeminded terrorist organizations. Thus, the Russian geo-political approach will embolden not just the Assad regime, but also strengthen Iranians and their closest allies (the Shi’ites militias- Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’ites, and Houthis etc.) in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Under such volatile serious circumstances further disruption is expected affecting the entire Middle Eastern regional balance of power.

Moreover, despite Iraq’s inclusion within Trump’s controversial seven majority Muslim – Arab countries travel ban order, the recent Iraqi- US contacts including the phone call between President Trump and the Iraqi Premier Hader al-Abadi has created a relatively conducive environment for enhancing Washington and Baghdad efforts to end ISIS presence in the region and the world at large. Admittedly, from the perspective of Trump’s administration there is a need for confronting Iranians growing influence in Iraq, and across the plateau of the Gulf – Middle Eastern region. The complexity and enormity of the Iraqi situation has approached a critical level due to Trump’s reiterated declaration that Washington may consider having another chance of military intervention in Iraq to possess the country’s substantive oil resources as part of the “victor’s entitled war spoils”. This kind of expansive attitude has no chance of being implemented if Iraqis were to create a united national front against any kind of external intervention.

As time passes real-politic will increasingly rein on Trump’s geo-political approach in the Gulf – Middle Eastern region. This is why real-politic become a valid proposition for resorting to pragmatic deal solutions across the Middle Eastern region covering the prominent players. Trump’s Gulf geo-political approach has to take into account the objective of finding negotiated deals to settle various conflictual crises at the broader MENA, a difficult task to achieve. Furthermore , it is important to realize that reading in- depth of the indigenous crises in the Gulf and the at the larger Middle East or even at the MENA level there has to be a greater efforts by US to embolden rather than disrupt regional balance of power.

Ahmad Shikara

Member of the faculty at the EmiratesCenter for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) in Abu Dhabi since 2000. There he works in the Training Department and in Human Resources. He recently published on the ramifications of Iraqi elections. In the past he conducted extensive research at the ECSSR and has conducted graduate and faculty seminars focusing on the effect of resource scarcity on the Arabian Gulf and the United States. Dr. Shikara, and before joining the ECSSR, served on the Political Science Department at the United Arab Emirates University (1980-1994), as an honorary professor at the Institute of Developing Economies in Japan (1994) and as a research fellow in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand (1996-2000).

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