by Shireen T. Hunter (Georgetown University)
During his Middle East trip, President Donald Trump is reportedly planning to pursue an ambitious list of objectives. Paramount among these is to strengthen regional cooperation in defeating the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Islamist terrorism in general. He will also try jump-starting the effort to build peace between Israel and the Palestinians that, if successful, could eliminate a major source of tensions in the region. He wants to convince those Arab states that so far have not established political and trade relations with Israel to do so, to reassure the Persian Gulf Arab states of America’s continued support, and to forge tighter regional military ties that some observers see as a sort of Middle East version of NATO.
Most if not all of these are worthy goals, consonant with US interests. Defeating Islamist terrorism is a common objective. It is also past time that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were resolved and that all Arab states acknowledged the reality of Israel by establishing diplomatic and trade relations with the Jewish state. There is value in reassuring the Gulf Arab states of continued US commitment to their security—provided that this does not include accepting wholesale their narratives about regional politics or helping them to achieve their own narrow interests where incompatible with US requirements. And the idea of greater Middle East defense cooperation, under the right circumstances, can help to promote regional security and stability.
A key difficulty, however, is that President Trump and leaders of his administration clearly seek to achieve these ambitious goals by (mis)representing Iran as the world’s leading exporter of terrorism and a threat to Israel and Arab states, especially those in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, Washington’s focus on Iran has become a fixation, far beyond anything that evidence of Iran’s actual behavior can support. Furthermore, a major element of this effort is to try building on the current “alliance” between Israel and some of the Sunni Arab states. This effort focuses not only on Iran but on achieving an outcome in the Syrian civil war that marginalizes Iran and, for the Arabs, creates Sunni primacy there over the ruling Alawite minority.
For several reasons, however, making opposition to Iran a mainspring of American efforts in the Middle East, in effect scapegoating it, will not help the US to achieve its regional goals.
Viewing Iran Clearly
The terrorism that deeply concerns the United States and other Western states is Sunni-based, emanating from Arab states, not Iran. Thus, efforts to contain Iran might help meet the political objectives of some regional states, but it will do nothing to defeat IS or al-Qaeda. Likewise, even if Iran were marginalized in Syria and President Bashar al-Assad were deposed, the resulting Sunni primacy over the Alawites would not bring that conflict closer to resolution or offer any promise for broader stability, either in Syria or in the region more broadly.
Moreover, Iran’s impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict is minimal. Stymying its resolution for so many years have been the conflicting aspirations of Israel and the Palestinians. The latter want an independent, even if truncated, state with its capital in East Jerusalem. They want an end to Israel’s settlement-building in the West Bank and permission for the return of at least a symbolic number of Palestinians (or their immediate descendants) who were expelled in the course of Arab-Israeli wars.
But these objectives are precisely what Israel or at least its more hardline politicians do not accept, and that would still be true even if Gaza, dominated by Hamas, were left out of the equation. For example, these hardline Israelis argue that the issue of Jerusalem, as Israel’s undivided capital, is non-negotiable, which also means that there can be no option for two capitals in the one city. Further, Israel’s continued building of settlements in the West Bank makes establishment of an independent Palestinian state politically impossible, since dismantling even some of them would be extremely costly to any Israeli government.
In reality, the best the Palestinians can hope for is some form of autonomous entity, even if it were called a state. It would have a flag and a president, but its disconnected territory would be dotted with Jewish settlements.***