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Tackling Iran: Trump Fuels the Fire

The Trump administration risks fueling sectarianism across the Muslim world.

Credit: yeowatzup


  • Saudi Arabia is welcoming of the rise of Trump – expecting that he will be eager to fight some of the kingdom's battles.
  • Tackling only specific players threatens to fuel the fire rather than extinguish it.
  • Saudi Arabia drives much of the sectarianism and political violence that has gripped the Muslim world.

The Trump administration risks fueling sectarianism across the Muslim world. By singling out Iran, it exacerbates multiple conflicts that are ripping the Middle East and North Africa apart — rather than doing what would the sound way to proceed, tackling root causes.

In Trump’s firing line

Iran moved into President Donald J. Trump’s firing line when his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, an anti-Iran hawk, put the Islamic republic “on notice” for testing a ballistic missile.

The test was likely a provocative probing of U.S. policy towards Iran – and the new U.S. government evidently took the bait.

Iran is not just one of seven countries whose nationals are temporarily banned from travel to the United States.

Mr. Trump has also repeatedly denounced the nuclear agreement concluded with Iran by the United States and other world powers as a bad deal.

Trigger-happy America?

It remains unclear what Mr. Flynn’s notification entails. A resolution circulated in the House of Representatives before Mr. Trump’s inauguration would authorize U.S. military action against Iran if the president believes it is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Most analysts, including supporters of Mr. Trump, believe that Iran has largely honored the international agreement curbing the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. That would suggest that an immediate military response to the missile test unlikely.

At the same time, Israel and the Gulf states have urged Mr. Trump to adopt a tough approach towards what they see as belligerent Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries and support for terrorism. Still, the Gulf States stop short of wanting to see an annulment of the agreement.

Mr. Trump was expected to move away from his campaign pledges to tear up the agreement. However, after Mr. Flynn’s warning, one cannot be so sure.

Boosting Saudi Arabia

A Saudi read out of a phone conversation last weekend between King Salman and Mr. Trump said the two leaders agreed to counter “those who seek to undermine security and stability in the region and interfere in the affairs of other states.”

The White House said there was also a meeting of the minds on the “importance of rigorously enforcing” the nuclear deal.

The consensus notwithstanding, Mr. Trump’s travel ban, despite including Iran, puts King Salman in a bind. He needs to balance the kingdom’s foreign policy objectives with its self-proclaimed leadership of the Muslim world.

Saudi Arabia has so far refrained from commenting on the ban despite pressure from some of its allies to do so.

Saudi Arabia’s predicament and its welcoming of the rise of Mr. Trump – obviously in the expectation that he will be eager to fight some of the kingdom’s battles — creates the opportunity for the new president to put disruption to constructive use.

If Mr. Trump were smart, he would not only tackle Iran, but also Saudi Arabia. After all, Saudi Arabia drives much of the volatility, sectarianism and political violence that has gripped the Muslim world. That means reining in the rise of supremacist, intolerant, anti-pluralistic ultra-conservatism.

An opportunity missed?

There is little to suggest that Mr. Trump recognizes the opportunity. A failure to exploit the opportunity and exclusively target Iran is however likely to backfire.

It will embolden Saudi policies that create problems rather than offer solutions, and fuel sectarian and other cycles of violence.

A four-decade long, $100 billion global Saudi effort to box in, if not undermine, a post-1979 revolution Iranian system of government has contributed to the rise of supremacism, intolerance and anti-pluralism. It has created potential breeding grounds of extremism.

Tackling symptoms or only specific players rather than root causes threatens to fuel the fire rather than extinguish it.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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