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Why the Trump admin is trying to create an anti-Iran alliance in the Middle East

Ramin Jahanbegloo | Updated on: 19 December 2017, 18:33 IST

It is a fact: the Donald Trump administration is trying to create an anti-Iran alliance in the Middle East.

New US accusations against Iran’s involvement in the war in Yemen demonstrate a determination by Washington to forge an international alliance against the Iranian government. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said there is “absolute and undeniable” proof that Iran supplied weapons to Houthi rebels in its proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

However, the UN experts have drawn no firm conclusion as to the specific origin of the missile, though arms seized by the US in Yemen in 2016 were identical to Iranian weapons found previously.

Haley said the suspected Iranian involvement in proxy conflicts in the Middle East have to stop. The US Ambassador added, “You will see us build a coalition to really push back against Iran and what they’re doing…I can tell you we are not going to sit back and watch this.”

Creating a united front

Along this line of thought, there have been several meetings between Saudi and Israeli top officials concerning the formation of anti-Iran alliance.

Recently, the Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz accepted the fact that he had invited Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to Israel.

Surprisingly, the two countries have no diplomatic relations but are reported to be cooperating on a united front against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Meanwhile, the US Ambassador in Iraq, Douglas Silliman, who arrived in Baghdad in September 2016, underlined the fact that “Iran does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbours. The Iranians have - to some extent - assisted the government of Iraq in defeating ISIS using an alternative acronym for IS. But frankly I have not seen the Iranians donating money for humanitarian assistance, I have not seen them contributing to the UN stabilisation programme.”

The civil war in Yemen

As for Yemen, with former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh dead and the Houthis increasingly dominant on the ground, the future of Yemen's conflict looks grim.

The Saudis must now decide whether or not to engage in a new military campaign that has had few successes over the past two-and-a-half years.

Few are likely to mourn the assassination of Saleh. His decades-long rule over Yemen witnessed his failure to deal with his country's desperate levels of poverty. As early as 2002, the UN warned that Yemen was one Arab state whose population growth was critical. Saleh did nothing meaningful to address this population growth or its impacts.

Moreover, Saleh's failures left Yemen vulnerable to al-Qaeda and ISIS (Islamic State), led to serious tension and some fighting between his government and the Yemenis who were part of the former separate state of South Yemen, and laid the ground work for much of the misery in Yemen.

Strategy and perception

This said, if Iran’s provision of ballistic missiles to the Houthi rebels is confirmed, it could be seen as an indicator of Tehran’s full implication in a distant conflict theatre, one in which it has sought to weaken Saudi Arabia by any means possible. This stresses the offensive nature of the Islamic Republic’s military capacity.

Few weeks ago, on 3 December, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei addressed Iran’s top military brass by affirming: “Today, the armed forces are in need of the best human resources…to save the nation from vulnerability against the enemy.”

This shows that the Iranian leaders are quite conscious about the strategic and weaknesses of Iran in case of war with the Saudi-Israeli alliance. In addition, Iranian officials know well that in case of a confrontation, Russia will never be a protecting power for Iran like the US is to its regional allies. This is why Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, who fought in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, are convinced that the Islamic Republic must boost its ballistic missiles and its asymmetric warfare capabilities in order to be defend itself.

But what is considered by Iran’s military strategists as a defence policy is not necessarily perceived as such by its arch enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Also, things are not for the best for Iran on the US front. In a sign that the Trump administration is pursuing its harder line against Iran, the state department confirmed last week that Iran director Chris Backemeyer was replaced by Andrew Peek, a Trump loyalist who worked on the transition. As such, there is a significant risk that Trump boycotts the deal for the rest of his presidency.

Catch 22

As for those diplomats striving to save the deal, they're caught in a Catch 22 situation. The reason is simple: President Trump is required every 90 days under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (Inara) to recertify the Iran nuclear deal. Republican senators Bob Corker and Tom Cotton developed a legislative proposal with the White House that would amend Inara, relieving President Trump of certifying the deal every 90 days. But Republicans’ efforts to introduce draft legislation to amend Inara have so far come to no result.

Donald Trump has threatened to pull out of the agreement if Congress fails to address the agreement’s perceived shortcomings within 60 days. Last, but not least, President Trump wants Congress to ensure that Iranian compliance involves accepting restrictions on its ballistic missile program and support of regional proxies.

Let us not forget that Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem is actually a way for him to pave the way for a more explicit cooperation with Israel and with the Saudis in confronting Iran, whom they accuse of destabilising the Middle East.

In that case, the next missile attack against Saudi Arabia or any of the Gulf Emirates would no doubt provoke a harsh response against Iran rather than against the Houthis, from a joint US-Saudi-Israeli-UAE alliance.

First published: 19 December 2017, 18:33 IST