The sigh of relief heard in Middle Eastern countries following President Donald Trump’s decision to begin his first foreign trip with a visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel, after the US lost its position as a leading power in the region during the Obama era, has been replaced with sighs of disappointment and fear that the administration is incapable of creating a fundamental change in American involvement in the region, and is perhaps unwilling to do so.
As time goes by, the “charm” of the unpredictable and threatening president appears to have expired. If at first it seemed that alongside “impressive” declarations we would also witness new initiatives that would allay the US allies’ fears, it soon turned out that apart from expanding military moves to defeat the Islamic State, the administration lacks the motivation and courage to deal with the challenges created by a complex regional reality.
The reasons for this situation may lie, of course, in the administration’s need to deal with internal American crises and with a series of significant challenges in other areas in the world, such as North Korea.
The impression, however, is that the administration gave up too soon in light of Iran’s ongoing presence in the main areas of conflict, primarily in Syria, where the US is also accepting Russian preeminence in determining the country’s security and political agenda. The promises to create a broad Arab front are also collapsing in light of the conflict between America’s allies in the Gulf, which American officials are having trouble solving.
The US administration’s current efforts to form a policy on the nuclear agreement are another reflection of the confusion of professionals who are now forced to come up with ideas for an action plan before mid-October (when the administration must report to Congress whether Iran is complying with the agreement). This brainstorming is required to try to find a way to “square the circle.” On the one hand, it should cater to Trump’s interest in cancelling the agreement, one of the main legacies left by his predecessor in the White House, which he has so far failed to change. On the other hand, it should minimize the potential damages to the US: Being blamed for the agreement’s failure, being isolated and experiencing a further decline in its relations with its European allies.
The US ambassador’s failed efforts to convince UN inspectors to demand a visit to Iran’s military sites, and to use Iran’s expected refusal to declare the agreement’s cancellation, demonstrate the administration is well aware of the fact it has no technological “smoking gun” available. Even if the administration decides to inform Congress that Iran is not complying with the agreement, and launch a 60-day period (as required by law) for an internal American discourse until Congress reaches a decision, the frosty relationship between Trump’s administration and the Europeans and Russians will likely make it impossible to reach agreements on the P5+1 axis (the five permanent Security Council members and Germany), which will help create a united front against Iran.
Such a development likely won’t receive the support of the rest of the countries involved in the nuclear agreement, which made their objection to the move clear in light of economic deals that have already been signed with Iran. It could create a crisis between the US and its European partners, as well as a crisis with Russia and China. The results of this crisis could have far-reaching implications on the international arena.
As far as Israel is concerned, even if the two countries share the same goals and interests in some of the issues, the establishment of a narrative that the American administration is weak and hesitant could harm crucial Israeli interests in the long run and maybe even an important component in the Israeli deterrence, which relies—among other things—on the way its ally’s policy is interpreted by its rivals in the region.
Colonel (res.) Eldad Shavit, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), served as head of the research division at the Prime Minister’s Office and as an assistant for assessment to the head of the research division in the IDF Intelligence Corps.