Trump's Mideast allies duck Iran confrontation

By Nahal Toosi

For years, they urged America to take a harder line on Iran, dissed its decision to ink a nuclear deal with Tehran and cheered when a tough-talking Donald Trump won the presidency.

Now, America’s closest Middle East allies are practically ducking for cover.

In recent days, as the U.S. killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iran fired back with a missile barrage in Iraq, Gulf Arab states and Israel were expressing second thoughts about what they’d helped unleash.

Saudi officials called for “restraint” to avoid “aggravating the situation.” The United Arab Emirates stressed “the importance of dialogue and political solutions.” Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who publicly praised Trump’s decision to take out Soleimani, privately told aides that the killing “isn’t an Israeli event but an American event” according to Israeli media accounts. “We were not involved and should not be dragged into it.”

These U.S. partners’ caution is remarkable given their past calls for America to “cut off the head of the snake” in Tehran, including by attacking Iranian nuclear sites.

It reflects pointed Iranian threats — and the recognition that a war could upend their economies and threaten their governments. But it also reflects uncertainty about whether the famously fickle Trump will stand by them in the long run.

“It’s a reality check,” said Kristin Diwan, an analyst with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

An Arab official stressed that while Riyadh and others sought a hard U.S. line, they’ve never pushed for war. “We’re thinking about ourselves,” the official said. “Iran has been a destabilizing force in the Middle East, but they are still a neighbor we have to live with.”

Concerns from these Middle Eastern countries, some of which spend significant amounts on lobbyists in Washington, might have affected Trump’s decision Wednesday not to take immediate U.S. military action in response to an Iranian missile barrage hours earlier.

In the days after the strike that killed Soleimani, U.S. officials reached out to their counterparts in Israel and Arab Gulf capitals. And this week, Trump quietly welcomed a Saudi defense official to Washington, a meeting the White House did not disclose until Riyadh announced it.

For months, the U.S. has been surging troops to the Gulf region in dribs and drabs as attacks traced to Iran have hit international oil tankers and other targets — an unmistakable signal, U.S. officials say, of the type of carnage Tehran could inflict.

In its latest bellicose threat, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps warned its U.S.-backed neighbors that they would not be immune from further escalation if Washington responded militarily to its missile attacks in Iraq.

“U.S. allies who gave their bases to its terrorist army that any territory that in any way becomes the starting point of hostile and aggressive acts against the Islamic Republic of Iran will be targeted,” the IRGC statement said. “We in no way consider the Zionist regime [of Israel] to be separate from the criminal U.S. regime in these crimes.”

Some U.S. officials and other observers of the Middle East say that, in a way, Israel and the Iran-wary Gulf states can point to silver linings from recent days’ events.

For one thing, by ordering the strike against Soleimani, who was visiting Baghdad when he was killed, Trump proved he was willing to make a high-risk move against Iran.

That was somewhat reassuring in particular to Arab leaders, who were surprised and disappointed when Trump refrained from striking Iran earlier this year after it downed a U.S. drone and struck Saudi oil facilities.

“Gulf states are worried (less now after Soleimani) that the U.S. will desert them when the going gets tough,” a person familiar with the Saudi royal court wrote in a text to POLITICO.

Trump has heaped economic sanctions on Iran in what the administration describes as a “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at bringing Tehran to heel.

On Wednesday, the president announced that new sanctions were on the way after the Iranian missile assault. But his past hesitation about confronting Iran militarily is thought to have spurred recent diplomatic discussions among Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Tehran, including hopes for progress in the conflict in Yemen.

In fact, after the U.S. strike against Soleimani last week, Iraq’s prime minister claimed the Iranian general had been in Iraq as part of talks to reduce tensions with Saudi Arabia. (Pompeo has mocked that assertion and declared it “not true.”)

At the same time, while those same countries are happy to see Trump punch Iran, they don’t want the confrontation to evolve into a full-blown war.

Coffins of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and others who were killed in Iraq by a U.S. drone strike, are carried on a truck surrounded by mourners during a funeral procession, in the city of Kerman, Iran, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020.

“Iran’s neighbors want Iran deterred but they don’t want Iran to be lashing out, and the question is ‘How you can deter an adversary without ever striking that adversary?’” said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Barack Obama, Trump’s Democratic predecessor, used sanctions and partnered with other countries to cajole Iran into negotiations that led to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. For many Arab countries, as well as Israel, curbing Iran’s nuclear program was for years a top priority.

But by the time the nuclear deal was reached, Iran’s non-nuclear behavior in the region — especially its ballistic missile program, support for proxy militias and intervention in Syria’s civil war — had become almost as infuriating as its alleged nuclear ambitions.

The nuclear deal essentially didn’t cover those other issues, so the Saudis, Emiratis and others were ultimately unhappy with it. Israel’s Netanyahu did virtually everything he could to get the nuclear deal derailed, including delivering a blistering address to Congress in which he said the agreement “paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

At the same time, Obama’s ongoing outreach to Iran put America’s longtime Arab partners on edge. Some questioned Obama’s commitment to their safety — a question Obama’s supporters say is ridiculous — and viewed his diplomatic efforts as a tilt toward Tehran.

Trump abandoned the nuclear agreement in May 2018, and began reimposing sanctions on Tehran that had been lifted under the deal.

The Arab official told POLITICO that what Iran’s opponents in the region want now is for the U.S. to keep pressuring Iran — preferably through sanctions and diplomacy — to sit down and hammer out a more comprehensive agreement that covers its nuclear efforts, its missile program and its aggressive regional behavior.

The official also said Arab countries need to have a seat at the negotiating table. The last agreement was crafted through negotiations involving Iran, the U.S., China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany.

On Wednesday, Trump urged those countries to “break away from the remnants of the Iran deal” and “work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.”

Many Iran observers say that's unrealistic.

After all, they point out: For reasons ranging from sovereignty to pride, Iran is unlikely to sit down for such far-reaching talks; the Trump administration has done little of substance to engage Iran diplomatically; and the president has badly damaged relations with some staunch U.S. allies, making a multilateral effort harder.

Some point out that they have warned for years that Trump’s sanctions-heavy approach to Iran would eventually lead to a military confrontation. So it’s rich to see Gulf Arab states and Israel suddenly blanching at the consequences.

“What did they expect would happen?” tweeted Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at The Century Foundation.

Despite its fiery rhetoric, there are signs Iran’s leaders appear wary of taking things too far.

Thanks largely to U.S. sanctions, Iran’s economy is in dire shape. In October, the International Monetary Fund predicted Iran’s economy would shrink by 9.5 percent in 2019.

Many Iranians also are tired of the regime’s oppression. Only weeks ago, the country experienced widespread protests that alarmed the clerics in Tehran so much they shut down the internet for days.

In one of multiple signals from Iran that the escalation would end if Trump didn’t fight back using military force, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted after Iran’s missile strike: “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested further Iranian moves could be in the works. “They were slapped last night, but such military actions are not enough,” he said on Wednesday.

Soleimani led Iran’s elite Quds Force, a kind of expeditionary unit that ran operations outside Iran’s borders. He oversaw allied militia groups in other countries and was said to keep a tight grip on them.

“Some of the militia elements that are now viewing him as having been martyred could become rogue,” a former U.S. intelligence official told POLITICO.

“That’s the one piece that worries me,” the former official said, “is that a rogue element does something that is truly escalatory and we react to it not knowing whether it’s sponsored by the supreme leader or some other person.”

As if to illustrate the potential for continued danger, a pair of rockets were reported to have been fired Wednesday at the Green Zone, the area in Baghdad where the U. S. Embassy is located.

Martin Matishak contributed to this report.