In his landmark speech last month in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, President Trump called on all “responsible nations” to “work together to end the humanitarian crisis in Syria, eradicate ISIS and restore stability to the region.” While all three are desirable goals, the strategy for achieving them that Mr. Trump outlined in that same speech will achieve precisely the opposite. “Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace,” Mr. Trump said, “all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran.” The president then called for a U.S.-backed pan-Arab coalition aligned against Iran, which, he says, is stoking “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.” While that is certainly true, the same could be said of several other states in the region, including the one in which the president delivered his speech.
The president’s proposal is deeply flawed. What is happening in the Middle East today is largely a regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The conflict in Syria is a proxy war, not between the United States and Russia, as some American commentators have suggested, but between the two major powers vying for regional hegemony. By taking sides in the struggle, the administration will only prolong the agony. What is required instead is a kind of détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, one that would rob their proxies of their reasons to keep fighting. The timing may be right for such an effort. Jean-François Seznec, a Middle Eastern expert at the Atlantic Council, told Voice of America late last year: “Having low oil prices is making life much more difficult for Saudi Arabia and Iran…. If there were a major military conflagration, it would ruin both of them, and I think they realize that.”
Does President Trump realize that? He says so, but his proposal says otherwise. President Obama recognized the need to reduce tensions between Tehran and Riyadh even if, ultimately, he lacked the courage of his convictions. But the current administration has conviction without understanding. Once again, in the neverending Middle Eastern quagmire, the United States has taken careful aim and shot itself right in the foot.