Trump wants to put the clock back in the Gulf; it won’t work

Iran demands to be recognized and treated as a prominent leader of the region. This is not acceptable to Saudis and Israelis. So to Trump too.

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“Containing” Iran, which was the central piece of American policy from 1979 to 1990, has again come to the forefront of US diplomatic efforts under the Trump administration.

Late Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in 1979 had not only ended Iranian alliance with the US but also threatened Saudi leadership of the Islamic world. US had found a willing partner in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to contain Iran. He had his own axe to grind against his northern neighbor.  Gulf funding to the project was an irresistible `bonanza’. After enduring a decade-long war that crippled Iraq, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait largely due to American diplomatic “inertia” and broken promises of Sheikdoms.

The US policy towards the region has since been one of “fire-fighting” with devastating consequences for the Middle East.

Today, Iran has grown much stronger than it was and is on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power.  Islamic Jihad, created and nurtured by the US, Saudis and Pakistan, has transformed itself into a “Caliphate”, threatening not only its creators but also the world at large.

Iran is no more a Khomeini’s Islamic Republic. It is willing to be a responsible partner to maintain regional stability, although it demands to be recognized and treated as a prominent leader of the region.

This is not acceptable to Saudis and Israelis.  So to Trump too.  Thus, begins revival of “contain Iran” policy.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flew into Riyadh on 22nd October, as part of his tour to the region to “gently” push Saudis and its allies to resolve their disputes with Qatar and revive Saudi-Iraq relations.  Both the tasks are aimed at creating a unified front to confront Iran.

The inaugural session of the Saudi – Iraq Coordination Council was jointly opened by King Salman and Prime Minister Haider al Abadi in the presence of Tillerson.  Saudis and other Gulf countries had earlier frozen their coordination council with Iraq, following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait twenty-seven years ago.

Senior American officials have been working behind the scenes for better relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq to take on Iran.  Brett Mc Gurk, the American envoy to the international coalition fighting the ISIS, and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones played a key role in promoting the revival of the coordination council.

Iraq is considered central to the policy of containing Iran, “then” as well as “now”.  Why then Washington and Riyadh allowed the alliance with Iraq to break up in 1990 leading to the “misadventure” by Saddam, who had his own reasons to do what he did.

Poor Saddam had found himself pushed to a corner after the much-promised financial bonanza from three Sheikhdoms, Saudi Arabia, Emiratis and Kuwait, for Iraqi efforts to neutralize Khomeini’s Islamic revolution did not materialize.  Iraq’s economy was devastated from the long-drawn war with Iran.

In one of the coordination council meetings, Iraqi pleadings for financial aid received heckles. An official, who was present in the meeting, later revealed to an Arabic publication that Kuwaiti representative derisively said, “send Saddam’s wife and daughters to earn money for him”.  Enraged Saddam Hussein interpreted US Ambassador April Catherine Glaspie’s statement that “Washington had no opinion on Iraq-Kuwait relations” as a nod to go ahead and teach Kuwait a lesson.

Rest is history.

The clock has since turned full circle.  The US and Saudis again want Iraq to be the bulwark against the “ambitious” Islamic Republic.

The old policies, however, are unlikely to work.

Iran is not the same any more. Iraqi Shiites are in power now in Baghdad and they are closely aligned with Iran to stabilize the country and the Levant.  Russia has returned to the region to take the mantle of its predecessor, the Soviet Union.

Several new players are in the fray. Kurds tasted power and demand bigger pie.  Re-alignments among the regional powers have shaken up strategic plans of the big powers. Iran, Iraq, and Turkey “ganged up” to nip in the bud Kurdish dream of an independent state.  Notwithstanding the defeat of the Caliphate of the ISIS, the Jihadi groups continue to be a formidable force to reckon with.

The region cannot afford any further ill-conceived policies as any further instability would only serve as a fertile ground for Jihadi groups.  There are other ways to keep Iran bound by rules. Middle East needs a more nuanced and well-considered policy from the US.

This was earlier appeared in The Economic Times on 26th October 2017.

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