Sabahat Khan is a senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).

  • Is a US-Iran confrontation under Trump inevitable?, On: Sun, 25 Jun 2017

  • Iran’s economic challenges after election , On: Sun, 18 Jun 2017

  • Riyadh summit a watershed moment in regional landscape , On: Sun, 28 May 2017

  • UAE to develop new fighter jet with Russia , On: Sun, 02 Apr 2017

  • If NATO is not obsolete, what does that mean for Arab states?, On: Sun, 05 Mar 2017

  • Trump’s strategy against ISIS takes shape: The good, the bad and the ugly, On: Sun, 05 Feb 2017

  • Will Russia play ball with the US on Iran’s ballistic missile programme?, On: Sun, 22 Jan 2017

  • Israel and Hezbollah’s Golan calculations, On: Sun, 18 Dec 2016

  • What does Trump’s emerging team signal for Iran?, On: Sun, 11 Dec 2016

  • Trump to face multiple challenges in Syria , On: Sun, 27 Nov 2016

  • Is Turkish military intervention in Syria and Iraq inevitable?, On: Sun, 06 Nov 2016

  • The ideological affinities of the Houthis with Iran, On: Sun, 30 Oct 2016

  • How have Iran’s military capabilities developed since 1979?, On: Sun, 16 Oct 2016

  • UAE launches pioneering programme to promote tolerance , On: Sun, 04 Sep 2016

  • Why are Russian operations in Syria being conducted out of Iran?, On: Sun, 21 Aug 2016

  • How important is Turkey to the Russians after all?, On: Sun, 14 Aug 2016

  • Lessons learned from Arab military contributions to the war on ISIS, On: Sun, 07 Aug 2016

  • Turkish coup likely to strain relations with EU, On: Sun, 24 Jul 2016

  • Why Russia remains crucial to Turkey’s future, On: Sun, 17 Jul 2016

  • Questions about ISIS’s origins spark conspiracy theories, On: Sun, 26 Jun 2016

  • The motives behind the newly announced UK naval base in Oman , On: Sun, 29 May 2016

  • Naval modernisation crucial for Saudis , On: Sun, 08 May 2016

  • Israel’s self-serving view of the Syrian war, On: Fri, 08 Apr 2016

  • Can NATO model help Saudis build an Islamic alliance?, On: Fri, 25 Mar 2016

  • US targets ISIS chemical weapons capability, On: Fri, 18 Mar 2016

  • The stakes in Saudi moves against Hezbollah , On: Fri, 04 Mar 2016

  • How significant are sanctions against Iran’s ballistic missile programme?, On: Fri, 19 Feb 2016

  • Iranian surveillance drone targets a US carrier, On: Fri, 05 Feb 2016

  • Early warning capabilities remain strategic for GCC , On: Fri, 05 Feb 2016

  • Saudi-Iranian tensions and the prospects for mediation , On: Fri, 29 Jan 2016

  • Closer ties between Turkey and Gulf countries, On: Fri, 22 Jan 2016

  • Significance of Iran rocket tests in the Strait of Hormuz, On: Fri, 15 Jan 2016

  • Arab militaries adapt to ‘hybrid’ threats, On: Fri, 08 Jan 2016

  • Russia faces limits of hard power in Syria , On: Fri, 08 Jan 2016

  • Anti-ISIS coalition needs ground troops in Syria , On: Fri, 11 Dec 2015

  • Why defence expenditures by Arab states can only rise, On: Fri, 04 Dec 2015

  • The meaning of Iran’s Fateh-313 cruise missile, On: Fri, 28 Aug 2015

  • The limited appeal of ISIS in the Muslim world, On: Fri, 14 Aug 2015

  • US-GCC security partnership under new pressures , On: Fri, 31 Jul 2015

  • Is a US-Iran confrontation under Trump inevitable?

    Although Trump’s policy on Iran is not a finished package, it is becoming clearer.

    Recipe for confrontation. Iraqi Shia Muslims from Popular Mobilisation Forces hold portraits of Iran’s late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (C), Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani during a parade in Baghdad, on June 23. (Reuters)

    2017/06/25 Issue: 112 Page: 15

    Dubai - During the US presiden­tial elections in 2016, the issue of Iran was pre­dictably a key theme in foreign policy debates among candidates. Donald Trump, out of all his rivals, was arguably the toughest on Iran, going further than charging it as the world’s lead­ing sponsor of terror by promising to dismantle the “disastrous” nu­clear agreement and telling voters he would “stand up” to Iran.

    Under US President Barack Obama, Iran grew its regional influ­ence without facing a significant strategic cost. Iran effectively used the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the nuclear agree­ment between Tehran and world powers — to deflect US pressure to other strategic areas of disagree­ment, arguably achieving a net stra­tegic gain.

    While the United States was not a net loser with the JCPOA per se, time and regional trajectories fa­voured Iran, especially given the low probability of any US-Iranian rapprochement progressing beyond JCPOA, which constituted a tenta­tive step given Iran’s regional strat­egy and goals.

    As a result, the JCPOA survived the full course of the Obama presi­dency but so did multiple unre­solved strategic US-Iran disputes, which were inherited by the White House’s following administration. The most significant threats to American strategic interests in the Middle East have undeniably ema­nated from Iran for many years and the United States has struggled to find a comprehensive policy to con­vincingly address such challenges.

    Under Obama, much of the Arab street — especially in the Gulf — was convinced that an American-Iranian conspiracy was under way against Sunni Arabs. It was that difficult for Arab leaderships to understand why the world’s only military su­perpower was unable to wrestle a much smaller power to protect its regional interests or those of its partners. Confidence in the United States’ ability to reliably dispense the functions of a regional security guarantor is only now being rebuilt.

    The election of Trump provided a much-desired break from the policies and approach of the Obama administration towards Iran for American partners in the Middle East. Iran is a challenge that Trump needed a strategy for sooner or later but his strategy is unlikely to resem­ble the type of scattered approach employed by Obama.

    Trump was quick to fire warning shots at Iran over the JCPOA and its ballistic missile programme after taking office before Iran seemingly became a backburner issue. The FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials and the deteriorating se­curity environment on the Korean Peninsula shifted the United States’ focus away from Iran. However, the tough-line rhetoric on Iran was sus­tained and while the United States under Trump has not abandoned the JCPOA, it has left much room open for renewed economic sanc­tions that relate to issues other than Iran’s nuclear programme.

    The Trump administration has taken longer than usual to set­tle into office. However, as Trump works through the process of filling key posts, especially in the US State Department, positions relevant to the new US policy towards Iran are largely being filled by individuals far more hawkish on Iran.

    US Secretary of Defence James Mattis is a highly qualified expert on Iran and will have strong views on the level of urgency and US military means necessary to counter Iran. Having served as commander of US Central Command, which oversees an area of responsibility covering the entire Middle East, during the height of US operations in Iraq, Mat­tis has seen Iran’s regional footprint go deeper into Syria and Yemen. Mattis has retained relationships with regional leaders and is keen to cap Iranian influence by reversing its regional gains and supporting the development of a regional coun­terbalancing force.

    Perhaps a recent turning point was the Arab Islamic American Summit hosted by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh, which provided an international forum for Trump to share his new approach towards Iran and religious extrem­ists. Trump met Riyadh’s expecta­tions, once again calling out Iran as the leading sponsor of terrorism in the world and reiterating his ultima­tum to Iran to change its behaviour.

    Trump’s rhetoric is slowly tak­ing real shape. Since the summit, Riyadh has gotten to work on driv­ing a new, proactive approach to regional developments as it looks to win back lost ground from Iran. Its break-off from Qatar, though not entirely motivated by the Iranian factor, demonstrates how serious Riyadh is about building strategic momentum for confronting Iran. American partners in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, especially, may well find greater success in influencing US regional policy vis-à-vis Iran than ever before.

    US Secretary of State Rex Till­erson told the US House of Rep­resentatives Foreign Affairs Com­mittee about the administration’s “support” to “elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” The comments, suggesting the United States has not dropped its pursuit of regime change in Iran, drew the ire of Tehran. Tillerson also spoke about designating the Islamic Revo­lutionary Guards Corps as a terror­ist organisation, a move that would significantly raise the geopolitical stakes.

    Although Trump’s policy on Iran is not a finished package, it is be­coming clearer. In the meantime, intensifying anti-US rhetoric from Iran is more than tit-for-tat and points to Iran’s growing unease at the prospect that Trump, despite his business instincts, may not be looking to cut deals with Tehran the way his predecessor did. Given the extent of US-Iran disputes and the stark divergence in views on which way the region should move in the future, Trump has little incentive to engage with Iran.

    On the contrary, Trump and his core team are likely to find that there are far greater political gains to be made by taking on Iran in ways the United States has been reluctant to in the past. Though a military con­frontation is not in the cards, broad­ened economic sanctions are and the United States is likely to seek op­portunities to punish Iran indirectly, possibly targeting its proxies more strongly than previously.

    Editors' Picks

    The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

    From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

    Published by Al Arab Publishing House

    Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

    Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

    Deputy Editor-in-Chief: Dalal Saoud

    Senior Editor: John Hendel

    Chief Copy Editors: Jonathan Hemming and Richard Pretorius

    Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

    Opinion Section Editor: Claude Salhani

    East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

    Levant Section Editor: Jamal J. Halaby

    Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

    Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

    Senior Correspondents:

    Mahmud el-Shafey (London)

    Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)


    Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

    Dunia El-Zobeidi (London)

    Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

    Rasha Elass - Thomas Seibert (Washington)

    Published by Al Arab Publishing House

    Contact editor

    Subscription & Advertising:

    Tel 020 3667 7249

    Mohamed Al Mufti

    Marketing & Advertising Manager

    Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

    Direct: +44 20 8742 9262

    Al Arab Publishing House

    Kensington Centre

    66 Hammersmith Road

    London W14 8UD, UK

    Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

    Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

    Follow Us
    © The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved