A sense of optimism towards the new American administration dominates policy circles in the Arab Gulf states. Officials are realistic about Washington’s priorities and capabilities, but they also believe the new administration’s geopolitical world view aligns with theirs.
Iran is an obvious example. Several officials in the new administration are profoundly suspicious of Iran and its role in the Middle East. Some of those officials have also expressed the need to deepen ties with traditional allies, after nearly a decade of an unstable relationship.
Militant Islam, of both Sunni and Shia extractions, is another example. Anti-Islamic sentiment emanating from the United States is a source of worry for the Gulf, although viewing Islamist movements with suspicion is a shared ground between the new administration and some of the Gulf states. Some Arab countries hope that this signals a departure from the decade-long tendency, since the latter years of George W Bush’s administration, to engage Islamist groups as mainstream representatives of Muslim communities.
In Syria, Donald Trump’s pledge to establish safe areas for displaced Syrians adds to the optimism about a new American approach, which they hope will involve a policy to separate Russia from Iran. The Gulf states were hoping that the growing Russian leverage in Syria runs counter to Iran’s long-term vision for Syria, so they see no issue with suggestions of American-Russian cooperation in the country.
“The United States needs to emphasise to Russia the negative role Iran often plays in meeting these goals and the destabilising influence it can have on Syria and throughout the Middle East,” Rex Tillerson, the new secretary of state, told a member of Congress in unpublished wide-ranging remarks obtained by The National. “I would work closely with our allies in the region to ensure that any political settlement in Syria does not place their security in jeopardy, nor leave Iran in a dominating position.”
The problem with the way the previous administration acted towards Iran was two-fold. Not only did the Obama White House not restrain Iran’s behaviour, but it also systematically avoided some necessary decisions – notably in Syria – precisely because it did not wish to upset Tehran. The Trump administration sees itself as under no obligation to appease Iran and wants to actively reverse its dominance in the region.
“The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States is one of the key elements of stability in the Middle East,” Mr Tillerson added. “Saudi Arabia currently feels itself besieged by a hostile and revolutionary Iran.” He also described the threat of Iran as “one of the gravest national security challenges”, a statement echoed by Gen James Mattis, the secretary of defence, who called Iran the world’s “biggest state sponsor of terrorism”.
Such views are widespread in critical circles in the new administration. In a presentation last year, Mr Tillerson’s deputy, Elliot Abrams, highlighted the troubled relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US. He indicated, though, that the two countries overcame crises and that the US-Saudi relationship is “thicker” today, on a military-to-military, intelligence-to-intelligence and ministry-to-ministry level instead of the traditional “king to president” relationship.
There seems to be a widespread belief in the need to revitalise the US-Gulf relationship.
On Saturday, Foreign Policy cited current officials indicating that Yemen will be the first place where the new administration demonstrates its support for its Gulf allies and counters Iranian influence.
Increased American support is hoped to bolster the Saudi-led coalition’s targeting capabilities and, equally important, ease the political pressure the countries are facing because of the prolonged campaign there.
Besides being a priority for the Saudi-led coalition, it is easier to counteract Iran in Yemen than in Iraq and Syria. Stabilising the situation in Yemen will be necessarily if the Gulf states are to reduce Iran’s influence elsewhere.
Last week, the coalition-backed forces in Yemen made a breakthrough when they took control of the port city of Mokha. The advance helps the coalition target the Houthis’ weapon supply routes near Bab el Mandeb, an objective hinted at in the statement by Gen Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, when he announced on Thursday that the US government was putting Iran on notice.
Apart from Yemen, the policies the new administration will pursue over the next four years will probably focus on weakening specific aspects of Iran’s hold in countries such as Iraq and Syria, for example by disrupting the work of proxy militias or political blocs strongly beholden to Iran or empowering rivals.
The change in Washington is badly needed for the Gulf states, but it will be up to them to benefit from it.
Tehran will not stand idly by and allow the reversal of the gains it has made in several Arab countries, and the new administration will discover that Iran is much more entrenched and in more countries than a decade ago, the last time a Republican president was in the White House.
The Gulf states have a rare opportunity that may not last. The onus is on them to pursue a robust strategy to counter Iran with the help of an American administration that values Washington’s traditional allies and regards Iran as a particular threat. Such a strategy should capitalise on the can-do attitude the Gulf states adopted over the past few years in facing the security challenges around them.
Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
On Twitter: @hxhassan