President Donald Trump’s long-awaited, long-expected decision to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal has polarized the international community like none of his other foreign policy moves.
The withdrawal was lamented in Brussels, where European Union leaders said member nations would work to preserve the framework of the deal without Washington’s participation.
It was denounced in Moscow, where Russian President Vladmir Putin called for a summit with U.S. officials to address Washington’s “aggressive nationalism” and “claims to exceptionalism.”
It was excoriated in Tehran, where conservative Iranian lawmakers burned an American flag and a piece of paper representing the nuclear agreement, shouting “Death to America!” as they stomped on the ashes.
But three countries in the Middle East celebrated Trump’s decision as an affirmation Washington is now unequivocally on their side in the fight against Iran — their common regional nemesis. Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates lavished praise on Trump for pulling out of the nuclear accord, which they see as giving Tehran a path to “regional hegemony.”
The divergent reaction exposed what some observers say is a profound geopolitical shift in which old Western alliances are being eclipsed by an emerging axis comprising the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent, the UAE. When it comes to Mideast policy, at least, Washington now values the counsel of its Israeli-Gulf Arab friends more than that of its traditional Atlantic allies, according to Boston University Historian Andrew Bacevich.
“In reaching this decision, Trump ignored the advice — make that, please — of traditional U.S. allies such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom,” Bacevich wrote Wednesday in an essay for Spectator USA. “Instead, the president chose to heed the counsel of his new friends Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Viewed from this perspective, May 8, 2018, marks the inauguration of a Saudi-American-Israeli axis and a major realignment of U.S. strategic relationships.”
Indeed, the European signatories to the Iran deal lobbied Trump intensely — and personally — to keep the U.S. in the agreement, as Bacevich noted. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both met with Trump in separate visits to the White House, while British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson traveled to Washington in a last ditch effort to convince senior administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, not to scrap the deal.
But Saudi Arabia and Israel exerted plenty of their own influence in the run-up to Trump’s decision — only with the advantage of having to persuade an administration already amenable to their position. The like-mindedness was on display during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s whirlwind Mideast tour in late April, where he all but declared the Iran deal as good as dead — at least as far as the U.S. was concerned.
Iran “is indeed the greatest sponsor of terrorism in the world, and we are determined to make sure it never possesses a nuclear weapon,” Pompeo said in Riyadh alongside Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on April 29. “The Iran deal in its current form does not provide that assurance.”
That same day, in Tel Aviv, Pompeo again railed against Iran and the nuclear deal, saying Tehran posed a growing danger to Israel.
“The United States is with Israel in this fight, and we strongly support Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself,” he said during a press conference as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau looked on.
Pompeo’s choice of destinations for his first overseas trip as secretary of state served as a not-too-subtle indicator of which way Trump’s administration was leaning on the Iran deal. From the beginning, European allies were playing from behind in a game against a new team of U.S. partners who share the administration’s perspective on the Iranian threat.
In their remarks praising Trump’s decision, administration officials and their Republican allies in Congress carefully avoided mention of foreign pressure or lobbying. Withdrawing from the Iran deal was consistent with core U.S. national security interests and happened to be good for Israel and the Gulf Arab monarchies, they said.
“It’s clearly time to hold Iran accountable for their dangerous behavior,” Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia said in a statement Tuesday. “President Trump is fully equipped to re-engage with our allies across the globe while putting America’s national security interests first.”
However, some foreign policy observers worry Trump’s administration has uncritically accepted the anti-Iran views of the Israeli-Gulf Arab axis, to the detriment of longstanding alliances. If pushed too far, support for the axis could cause Washington to act against its long-term interests in the Middle East, according to realist foreign policy scholar Daniel Larison.
“The U.S. continues to distort its regional policies to serve the interests two of its biggest liabilities; and in the process, it is damaging relations with real allies that have contributed something to U.S. security,” he wrote in a May 9 blog post at The American Conservative. “Trump is catering to the wishes of client states that do nothing but cause the U.S. headaches and drag us into unnecessary wars, and he is practically guaranteeing that the U.S. will be drawn more deeply into the region’s conflicts by aligning the U.S. so closely with two of its most destabilizing states.”
Larison’s description of Israel and Saudi Arabia as the Mideast’s most disruptive states is certainly a matter of debate. What appears beyond doubt, though, is that both countries, plus the UAE, are solidly aligned with Washington’s views on Middle East policy — something European allies cannot remotely claim.
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