President Donald Trump chose to make his first visit abroad – or rather to start his first foreign tour- in Saudi Arabia, instead of neighbouring Canada or Mexico.
This decision clearly fits the making of his image as an unpredictable leader who is capable of doing big things in contrast to his predecessor. After all, he announced in Riyadh that the US had reached colossal arms sales and trade deals with the Saudis, which —like with the wave of a magic wand–- raised the value of American defence corporations’ shares on the New York Stock Exchange, and which purportedly will create “tens of thousands” of new American jobs. However, these deals were actually years in the making, with the groundwork long ago prepared by the Obama administration. Reports stated even in September 2016, that the US was prepared to sell anything from small arms to attack helicopters, missile defence systems and warships to the Saudis in a $115 billion (€103 billion) package. Nevertheless, Trump could not acknowledge Obama’s role in the making of the US-Saudi deals.
The first distinctive part of President Trump’s trip included also Israel and Palestine, whereas this time the omnipresent elephant in the room -both in Riyadh and Tel Aviv- wasn’t Russia, as discussions seemingly did not focus extensively on Syria, but instead Iran or rather the “Iranian threat”. It is worth recalling that the incumbent President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, was re-elected to his post in a Macron-Le Pen-style election (with similar results) just a couple of days before Trump boarded Air Force One to make his way to the Arabian peninsula. Rouhani defeated hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, who –if elected president of Iran- would have surely become a real and very tough headache for most actors involved in the Middle East. Remarkably, the re-elected Iranian secular leader was congratulated by many major international actors–except for the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The “Iranian threat” is the central argument of the US-Saudi Arabian arms deal, and was echoed equally in Israel. Trump clearly puts an emphasis on containing Iran by the military might of the US and its most valuable allies, which in this context are Israel and Saudi Arabia. The US would wish to achieve a breakthrough on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with strong support from Saudi Arabia, in order to consolidate this alliance against Iran. However, even if the Arab League seems now to be largely disoriented, with its weakened traditional leader –Egypt– seemingly “replaceable” by Saudi Arabia, the Saudis would find it very hard to abandon their proposals from 2002, and meet the rather different Israeli demands. Furthermore, Tel Aviv is visibly anxious, because no one can foretell who is going to control Saudi Arabia—now equipped with better weapons thanks to the arms sales—in 10 to 15 years. On top of that, Saudi Arabia could also become a nuclear power –within that same timeframe- if the situation vis-à-vis Iran so requires, whereas the US (and Israel) would have quite limited non-nuclear leverage to stop that from happening.
Therefore, the centre of gravity of international crisis management for the Trump administration has clearly shifted to Iran, as it overshadowed even the 55-nation “anti-terrorist summit” in Riyadh. We should recall that Iranian president Rouhani was very instrumental in warming up relations with the West since 2013 and achieving a nuclear deal (the so-called 5P+1) in 2015. America’s Western allies continue to praise the deal and hope that it will be implemented, as they see no better choice. However, President Trump, who has changed many of his previous opinions and beliefs, remains adamantly negative on Iran. In fact, he shows a total lack of confidence towards Rouhani and the Iranian leadership, and continues to claim that the Obama-sponsored nuclear deal is “bad”. He doesn’t seem to have any better ideas than arming Saudi Arabia to the teeth and antagonizing Rouhani. Furthermore, Trump’s approach to the Iranian nuclear issue will profoundly affect future developments concerning North Korea – and not necessarily in a de-escalatory manner.
President Trump has made a huge deal with the Saudis, and he has forcefully made the point that the US is back in business in the Middle East, after the “defeatist” Obama, who overly preferred diplomacy to military might, chose to pull out. Nevertheless, neither the Iranian nor the North Korean nuclear issues can be fully and permanently resolved by force, and Trump will have to engage in bilateral and multilateral negotiations involving those countries. The 5P+1 deal made with Iran can still be useful, both in itself and as an example for North Korea—provided that Trump does not prematurely decide that it is “obsolete”.