Fallout from Trump’s Iran Strategy

This week, President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the rest of the administration’s Iran policy advisors further escalated the administration’s “maximum economic pressure” campaign against Iran. With just over one week before the last round of “significant reduction exceptions” (SREs) are due to expire, the president and his top advisors announced that no more waivers are to be issued to those countries that have been importing Iranian oil. Instead, oil consumers like China, Turkey, India, Japan, and South Korea have until May 2 to stop purchasing Iranian oil or they will be subject to US sanctions.

Before that announcement, the State Department earlier in the week released its annual report on “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments.” In this year’s version, the State Department argues that Iran may have violated, or intends to violate, the Nonproliferation Treaty. In sum, this tactic, along with the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, are likely the final steps the administration has to maximize pressure on Iran. These steps appear to be motivated by the desire to goad Tehran into contravening or withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which would then allow the United States to convince the international community to apply more pressure on the Islamic Republic.

Iran and the United States are at a critical juncture now. If Tehran hunkers down and opts to wait out what could be the one term of this administration, it is unclear what further steps Washington could meaningfully pursue without the support of the international community. However, if Iran retaliates in a serious manner, like regime figures have already suggested, the situation would risk provoking a harsher US response, perhaps even a military one. The fallout would not remain between the United States and Iran; indeed, many of the region’s Arab states would be caught in the blowback.

Military Conflict with Iran Will Affect Arab States

While direct military conflict between Iran and the United States is unlikely at this point, any confrontation with Iran will see fighting and violence break out in any number of areas where Iran is influential: Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, or the Arabian Gulf. If the regime in Tehran views any possible military assault as an existential threat, it would surely strike preemptively, using its unconventional capabilities, to exact as much harm as possible on the United States and its allies in the region. It is plausible that if an all-out war were to take place, the Saudis and other Gulf partners—as well as US troops in the area—would be targeted by the Iranians. In the Levant, Iranian proxies would undoubtedly rise to target Israel and probably even US troops in Syria and Iraq.

Persian-Arab Arms Race

A more likely consequence of the administration’s strategy, albeit one farther along in the future, is to provoke another arms race in the region. If the regime in Tehran decides that it should no longer adhere to the terms of the JCPOA and decides to free itself of the constraints of the deal, Iran would be just a year away from producing enough weapons-grade material for a nuclear bomb. If that is the case, and the current administration does not give satisfactory security guarantees, Saudi Arabia should not be expected to sit idly by: Riyadh would certainly explore the prospects of forming its own nuclear weapons program as a safeguard.

More Money in the Hands of the Emboldened

The most likely result of the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign is an escalation of the region-wide proxy war between Iran and some of the more powerful Arab states. In fact, this appears to be underway already. Over the last few weeks, likely after consulting with members of the Trump Administration about their plans to increase the pressure on Iran, the Saudis and Emiratis have felt liberated to more aggressively pursue their regional policies. The two countries signed off on Khalifa Haftar’s march on the UN-backed government in Libya; they are funneling billions of dollars to the transitional military council in Sudan, perhaps to make it not so transitional; and Saudi Arabia executed a number of Shiite citizens, in all likelihood to send a political message to Iran.

Even before the latest maneuvers, Arab Gulf states in particular were active in the region. Now, however, though the Trump Administration is loath to admit it, there is a possibility that cutting Iranian oil exports to zero, if this is even possible, would raise global oil prices. With larger market shares for countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and others—now that oil exports from Venezuela and Iran are affected by US pressure and the possibility that fighting in Libya will knock its production offline—global oil shortages would pay huge dividends for Iran’s Arab rivals and give them more disposable cash to pursue their regional objectives. Iran likely would not sit idly by and grow poorer as its Gulf neighbors enjoy their fortunes, however. Tehran could increase pressure on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi through direct attacks on cyber infrastructure or it could close the Strait of Hormuz, which would jeopardize the whole Gulf economy.

Even more than the extra money, though, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in particular must be feeling extremely confident that this administration supports their ambitions tout court. Emboldened by President Trump’s fealty to their foreign policy positions, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—along with others with regional ambitions—might very well see the time as ripe for pumping money and weapons into any number of Arab states in order to try and gain momentum in proxy fights across the region. For fragile states like Algeria, Sudan, and Libya, additional Saudi, Emirati, and Qatari influence stands to make things worse and turn domestic political rivals into proxies of competing Gulf states.

With emboldened, and potentially richer, Arab states, ongoing proxy wars are very likely to intensify, causing more destruction and strife in the region. Even where Iran is not involved, the Arab Gulf states in particular feel as though their policies have been given the green light by the Trump Administration and they are looking to act more aggressively to secure their interests. This will increase the possibility of new military fronts to open up in the region, thus further exacerbating suffering for many across the Middle East.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Reports Reviewing Education Materials Used by Palestinians. On April 18, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) introduced H.R. 2343 that would require the secretary of state to produce an annual report reviewing the educational material provided by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and UN Relief Works Agency to Palestinian refugees.

Recognizing Importance of US-Israel Economic Relationship. That same day, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) introduced H. Res. 324 “recognizing the importance of the United States-Israel economic relationship and encouraging new areas of cooperation.”

2) Personnel and Correspondence

GOP Senators Laud Golan Decision, Call for More Action. On April 17, 10 Republican senators wrote to President Trump thanking him for recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. They also called on the administration to implement the action across the federal government. That would include changes to passports, which would mean US citizens born in the Golan Heights would be considered “born in Israel,” as well as changes to commerce rules, ensuring that products made in the Golan are labeled as “made in Israel.”

Senators Call on New Saudi Ambassador to Push for Women’s Rights. On April 19, 18 of the Senate’s 25 female members penned a bipartisan letter to the new Saudi ambassador, Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, urging her to take a leading role in improving the lives of Saudi women. The senators took issue with a number of obstacles facing Saudi women, including strict guardianship laws and detention and reported torture of women’s rights activists.

CODELs to Tunisia, Egypt, and the West Bank. This week, two senators traveled to the Middle East and North Africa as parts of congressional delegations (CODELs). First, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) led a CODEL that included a stop in Tunisia. Among other topics, Graham discussed the situation in neighboring Libya, but he was caught off-guard when he found out that President Trump all but blessed General Khalifa Haftar as he has tried to take over the Libyan capital by force. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) took a separate trip, visiting Egypt and the West Bank to discuss regional developments with officials in both places.

Sanders Calls on Congress to Override Trump’s Veto of War Powers Resolution. On April 22, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) announced that he was circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter in an attempt to garner enough votes to override President Trump’s veto of the War Powers Resolution.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Speaks to Libya’s Haftar. The White House stated this week that President Donald Trump spoke to Libyan General Khalifa Haftar on April 15, several days before the White House issued a statement on the events in Libya. The timing is curious, as the United States sided with Russia at the UN Security Council to scuttle a resolution calling for a ceasefire just days after Haftar and Trump spoke. Many observers suspect that the Trump Administration has sided with Haftar’s backers in the Gulf (e.g., Saudi Arabia) and the phone call was tantamount to supporting Haftar’s march on Tripoli. Indeed, Trump recognized Haftar’s “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” Read more on Libya here.

2) Department of State

Pompeo, State Officials Meet with UAE Officials over Iran, Libya, Sudan. During the last week, Secretary of State Pompeo and other State Department officials met with representatives from the UAE to coordinate policies toward Iran, Libya, and Sudan. First, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) met with the US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Robert C. O’Brien in the Emirati capital on April 17 and later MBZ spoke on the phone with President Trump. Separately, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed visited with Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton this week in Washington. Lastly, the UAE’s ambassador to Sudan, Hamad Mohammed Humaid Al Junaibi, met with US Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Ambassador Makila James, in Khartoum. In all of these meetings, US and Emirati officials spoke about the two sides’ mutual interests; it is becoming apparent that those interests include supporting authoritarian leaders in Sudan and Libya, while the leaders from Washington and Abu Dhabi also coordinate policies toward Iran.

Pompeo Speaks with Iraqi Prime Minister After Iran Waiver Decision. On April 22, Secretary Pompeo phoned Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to reiterate US support for Iraq. This was likely meant to alleviate concerns that Baghdad may have about being caught between the United States and Iran in Washington’s “zero tolerance” campaign against Tehran.

Rewards for Justice: $10 Million for Information about Hezbollah Financial Networks. Also on April 22, the State Department announced that it would offer rewards of up to $10 million to anyone who could provide “information leading to the disruption of the financial mechanisms of the global terrorist organization Lebanese Hezbollah.”

Ambassador Jeffrey to Travel to Switzerland for Syria Talks. Ambassador Jim Jeffrey travels to Geneva on April 24, the State Department announced this week. Jeffrey will meet with UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen to discuss ways to further the United Nations’ version of the peace process in that country.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here