Monday, May 22, 2017

Trump’s Middle East Reset

The Wall Street Journal

His visit revives the U.S.-Saudi alliance and sends a message to Iran.        

President Trump visited Saudi Arabia on his first trip abroad this weekend even as Iran re-elected Hassan Rouhani in a sham presidential vote. The timing may have been coincidental but the symbolism is potent. Mr. Trump is reviving the traditional U.S. alliance with the Sunni Arab states even as Tehran reaffirms its intentions to dominate the Middle East.

The timing comes full circle from the start of Barack Obama’s eight-year tilt toward Iran. That tilt began with Mr. Obama’s silence as Iranian leaders stole the 2009 presidential election while arresting and killing democratic protesters. He then spent two terms courting Iran in pursuit of his nuclear deal while downgrading relations with the Gulf Arabs, Israel and Egypt. Mr. Trump’s weekend meetings and Sunday speech show he is reversing that tilt as he tries to revive U.S. alliances and credibility in the Middle East.

Friday’s vote in Iran was more recoronation than re-election. The unelected Guardian Council of mullahs disqualified more than 1,600 candidates. The remaining six represented the narrow ideological spectrum approved by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. That includes Mr. Rouhani, who is often called a moderate in the West but has presided over continuing domestic repression and regional aggression.

Mr. Rouhani will probably honor the broad terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, not least because it has provided the mullahs a much-needed financial reprieve from sanctions. The regime is likely to exploit the accord at the margins, however, including ballistic-missile launches and technical progress in secret that could allow a nuclear breakout when most of the accord’s major restrictions sunset in eight to 13 years.

Contrary to Mr. Obama’s hopes, there is no evidence that the nuclear deal has changed Iran’s hostility to the U.S. or its designs for regional dominance. The Revolutionary Guards continue to support Bashar Assad’s marauding in Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, and Houthis in Yemen. Tehran sees the Gulf states as a collection of illegitimate Sunni potentates who must bow before Shiite-Persian power—and the U.S. as the only power that can stop its ambitions.

This is the strategic backdrop for Mr. Trump’s visit to Riyadh, which was remarkable for the public display of support for the U.S. alliance. The Saudis have long preferred to cooperate with the U.S. in more low-key fashion. But they laid on a summit of regional Arab leaders, announced substantial ($110 billion) new arms purchases and investment in the U.S., and offered Mr. Trump the chance to deliver his first speech as President on U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

The two countries also issued a public “joint strategic vision declaration” that called for “a robust, integrated regional security architecture.” The test of this vision will come in places like Syria and Yemen, but one early sign was the weekend launch of Saudi Arabia’s new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. This is a welcome development in the heart of Wahhabi Islam that nurtured Osama bin Laden and other jihadists.

Mr. Trump’s speech on Sunday was notable for its conciliatory tone, calling for a “partnership” with moderate Muslim states. The arch rhetoric of his campaign was gone as he invoked the shared desire of Muslims, Christians and Jews to live without fear of religiously motivated violence.

He was also blunt in addressing Iran as “a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room.” Until Iran’s regime “is willing to be a partner for peace,” he added, “all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”


All of this will reassure the Gulf Arabs and other U.S. allies who questioned America’s commitment during the Obama years of retreat. The Saudis are imperfect allies, but they are linchpins of the U.S.-led order in the Middle East, and their assistance is essential to defeating Islamic State in Syria.

In 31-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia also finally has a serious modernizer who wants to diversify the economy from oil, expand the public space of women and ease other cultural strictures. The U.S. has a stake in his success and in particular should help him prevail as soon as possible against the Houthis in Yemen.

The eight-year decline of U.S. credibility in the Middle East can’t be reversed in a single summit, but Mr. Trump’s weekend in Riyadh is a promising start that will be noticed from Tehran to Damascus to Moscow.