Trump plays favorites in the Saudi-Iran feud

Trump plays favorites in the Saudi-Iran feud

By Luke Vargas   
President Donald Trump is greeted in Saudi Arabia by King Salman. May 20, 2017. White House Photo.
President Donald Trump is greeted in Saudi Arabia by King Salman upon arriving in Saudi Arabia on May, 20, 2017. (White House Photo)

“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from our studio at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The following is a complete transcript of Episode Seven, “Playing Favorites in the Saudi-Iran Feud.

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Luke Vargas: Last weekend, President Trump visited Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip. King Salman welcomed Trump with a lavish reception. And when Trump gave a big speech on Islam, he lavished praise on Saudi Arabia for its anti-terror efforts and its promotion of equality. Trump’s main target, meanwhile, Iran.

Trump says Saudi Arabia and Iran, but does he mean Sunni and Shia? Is the U.S. taking sides in one of the world’s most contentious religious struggles? And if so, what might the consequences be?

We’re taking on those questions next on Wake.

Thanks for tuning in. We’re coming to you today from New York. And we’ve brought together two experts to discuss the implications of President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and what it might signal about U.S. policy going forward.

On the line with us from London is Dr. Lina Khatib, Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. Lina, welcome.

Lina Khatib: Hello.

Luke Vargas: And on the line from Washington Perry Cammack, a fellow at the Middle East Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Middle East policy advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry. Perry, welcome to the show.

Perry Cammack: Thanks for having me, Luke.

Luke Vargas: Perry, I want to start with you. Could you walk us through the actual deals – if we can call them that, the deliverables – that came out of the president’s visit to Saudi Arabia?

Perry Cammack: Sure, yeah. Essentially I see it as three.

Definitely in what we’d call here in Washington “deliverables,” as opposed to deals, meaning more symbolic potentially than substantive, some of the stuff is repackaged, which is the norm, frankly, for presidential visits like this.

So first of all, in some ways the meeting itself was the message. The fact that Donald Trump chose to visit Riyadh for his very first international visit I think is quite significant. And of course the Saudis would be thrilled with that.

There is this nearly $110 billion arms package or, I should say, more specifically, deals that have the potential over time to reach $110 billion.

And then last and perhaps the most interesting, was this so-called Terror Financing Targeting Center, which is aimed really to kind of better consolidate and coordinate regional counterterrorism experts. And personally I think this is actually quite, potentially, quite a useful thing over time.

Now the question, as I mentioned, is this is great – these optics, these photo ops – I think both sides would be happy about with the way the trip went, no surprises, the real question really in my mind is where does this take us down the road?

A Saudi Foreign Ministry graphic highlights the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
A Saudi Foreign Ministry graphic highlights the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Luke Vargas: Perry, you seem to suggest there that the initiative to stop financing of terror might have some dividends in the long room. Are there any other of these deliverables, as you call them, that might have positive benefits stretching out into the future? Or is there a lot of window dressing coming out of the Saudi visit – deals that sound good but maybe won’t account for much?

Perry Cammack: I think both sides, from my perspective, will be very happy with the visit. Saudi Arabia is under tremendous internal financial pressure and, kind of, regional pressure as it tries to figure out a deal with Iran.

Of course the Trump administration is really in the midst of a profound political crisis, potentially an existential political crisis, so in the short term I think both sides for their own domestic political reasons are happy with the optics, with the image.

But I do think over the longer run there are strategic divergences between the two countries, in the sense that the U.S., thanks to the shale revolution, is no longer as dependent on Gulf oil as it once was. There’s a kind of increased reluctance in the United States over the last decade or so to become involved in military conflicts in the Middle East.

So in my mind the jury’s still out in terms of the long-term implications of any of those so-called deliverables.

Luke Vargas: Lina, the same question to you. Are these deliverables going to change the state of play in the region and the fight against terrorism? Or is the big takeaway here mostly symbolic, that the Saudi visit took place at all?

President Trump is presented The Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud Medal by Saudi Arabia's King Salman. May 21, 2017. Courtesy: Saudi Foreign Ministry
President Trump is presented The Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud Medal by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. May 21, 2017. Courtesy: Saudi Foreign Ministry

Lina Khatib: Well the big takeaway is, as Perry said, that the United States president has gone to Saudi Arabia as his first port of call on an international trip, on his first international trip.

This is important because Saudi Arabia had been frustrated with the Obama administration, seeing that Obama had let them down mainly because of the nuclear deal that was brokered with Iran that limited or aimed at limiting Iran’s development of nuclear enrichment, but that Saudi Arabia saw as basically the United States prioritizing relations with Iran over relations with its old ally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

So it is more of a symbolic reset of the relationship. However, will this lead to actual action by the United States against Iran?

For example, further down the line, in a way that would satisfy Saudi Arabia? I am not so sure, because the Saudis are hoping that in the end the United States will step up its pressure on Iran, they’re hoping that perhaps the nuclear deal will be torn down, they’re hoping that perhaps the United States will increase sanctions on Iran or will even try to limit Iran’s involvement in Syria, because Iran is there fighting on the side of the Syrian regime.

But why would the United States go that far? I think this kind of optimism that we are seeing now, that’s being communicated now in the media on both sides, is not necessarily going to last in the long-term.

Luke Vargas: Lina, I want to get to Iran in a moment, but you did mention the symbolic importance that Saudi Arabia was President Trump’s first port of call. Usually it’s Mexico or Canada that receives the honor of being the first overseas visit.

We’re now days out from this visit to Saudi Arabia, and yet while in Europe, President Trump is still talking about how lavishly he was received in the kingdom. By all accounts, the Saudis seem to realize that throwing a big reception for Trump could pay big dividends. Is that how the Saudis typically do business? Or is Trump unique in his receptivity to pomp and circumstance?

Lina Khatib: Well the Saudis have always thrown lavish welcomes for the leader of the United States. If an American leader ever visited Riyadh they were always welcomed with open arms and rather lavishly.

But as I said, because of the relationship between the Obama administration and the regime in Saudi Arabia, that was not very happy with how Obama was handling Syria, because they were hoping for some form of American intervention in Syria to get rid of the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. That did not happen.

Then Obama signed a deal with Iran over nuclear enrichment. They did not like that. So I think that the reception this time was perhaps extra lavish.

Luke Vargas: Perry, what about that? Have you ever had to brief U.S. diplomats heading to Saudi Arabia about how to accept the hospitality of the Saudis without it changing the tenor of the actual political discourse?

Perry Cammack: Well I basically agree with what Lina said, that this basically went essentially according to plan for both sides.

I think from an American perspective, one of the reasons why Saudi Arabia was an appealing first trip was that it was a highly controlled environment in which you didn’t see the kind of public protests that happened in the second half of the visit in Belgium and elsewhere.

But I also think in Gulf monarchies, strategic relationships are really based upon personal connection. And in some ways I think President Obama had a kind of cerebral, detached approach to things which really, I think, was received not very well by the Saudis and some of the other Arab partners.

And I think in Donald Trump, whatever one thinks about his style and his rhetoric, he does kind of project this ethos of raw power alpha male that is actually quite familiar to many leaders in the Middle East. And there is this hope that after detachment from Obama – both rhetorical but also personal and in terms of U.S. foreign policy – that things are returning to a much more kind of warmer relationship with Trump.

But as I said, and I think as Lina said as well, I’m a bit more skeptical that that will play out over time once we’re past the warm and fuzzy feeling of the visit and the immediate aftermath.

Luke Vargas: You mention Trump’s “alpha male” style being well received in Saudi Arabia, and maybe bro-ing out with other world leaders can lead to better deals, I don’t know. But here’s a country, Saudi Arabia, that doesn’t even allow women to drive, and they gave $100 million to a fund inspired by the President’s daughter to empower female entrepreneurs.

Call me cynical but, should Trump have been more vocal about condemning human rights in Saudi Arabia, and is there a risk that Saudi Arabia is using money to deflect away attention on sensitive issues?

Perry Cammack: Well, Luke, it’s an interesting question, and it’s certainly true that the condition of women in Saudi Arabia is poor compared to most countries in the world, particularly wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia. I think it is worth noting, though, that more than half of the college graduates in Saudi Arabia are women, and I think what some Saudis will tell you is that there are changes happening, and potentially, I think, even profound changes happening inside Saudi Arabia with respect to its treatment of women.

Clearly there is a kind of cognitive dissonance in looking at this $100 million donation in a country where women can’t drive, and I think in a sense you answered your own question; it’s par for the course of this lavish reception that President Trump received. It does seem that it’s probably motivated more by the PR and kind of the imaging concerns rather than kind of substantive engagement in terms of the condition of women in the kingdom.

A Saudi Foreign Ministry graphic highlights statistics concerning women in the workforce.
A Saudi Foreign Ministry graphic highlights statistics concerning women in the workforce.

Luke Vargas: Let’s play a clip from President Trump’s speech on Islam, which he gave in Riyadh to an audience of regional leaders. Here he was talking about a US-Saudi arms deal:

“This landmark agreement includes the announcement of a $110 billion Saudi-funded defense purchase…This agreement will help the Saudi military to take a greater role in security and operations having to do with security.”

Perry, tell us about the Saudi military. What’s their strategy? What might we expect them to do with these new U.S. weapons, $110 billion of them?

Perry Cammack: The first thing I’d say is it’s not really quite as unprecedented as it might seem. If you look at the kind of arms sales during the eight years of the Obama administration, it’s essentially the same order of magnitude, it’s roughly $100 billion.

And again, these are announced contracts, they don’t necessarily all materialize into purchases, or at least happen over years and sometimes even decades.

I think Saudi Arabia militarily is in a little bit of a bind, in the sense that Iran is operational, certainly in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon. I think Saudi Arabia has struggled to figure out how to respond to that Iranian threat, in part because Iran operates kind of under the radar, it’s irregular warfare, it embeds kind of Revolutionary Guard troops and works with militias on the ground. Saudi Arabia takes the opposite approach, and I think in some ways this is the opposite approach.

This is building up a kind of conventional military force, but the problem is that the threat of Iran is not necessarily a conventional one, it’s as I mentioned this irregular one. So I think certainly this is deterrent value in this against Iran. I think certainly this signals greater cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States, but in my mind the real question is how are these weapons, frankly, used.

And the story we’ve seen so far in Yemen actually is a pretty grim one in which, during the two years of the Saudi intervention there, we essentially have a humanitarian catastrophe.

I would argue that Iran actually has more influence in Yemen now since the Saudi intervention started, and that Al-Qaeda in Yemen is actually stronger now than it was as well during the two-year period of the Saudi intervention there.

So it’s a bold statement. How it plays out over the next couple years I think is really open to question.

A White House graphic highlights President Trump's speech on Islam in Riyadh.
A White House graphic highlights President Trump’s speech on Islam in Riyadh.

Luke Vargas: Lina, did you want to weigh in on the Saudi and U.S. campaign in Yemen?

Lina Khatib: The Yemen campaign has been a public relations disaster for Saudi Arabia because they engaged before, thinking it would be a short-term campaign in which they would teach Iran a lesson and emerge victorious.

But it has cost them a lot of money. It’s cost them their reputation really. And they are now, in a way, desperate for resetting Saudi Arabia’s position in this particular conflict. And that is why they are trying to blame Iran primarily for what is happening in Yemen, although in the very beginning of this conflict Iran’s role was rather marginal in Yemen and now, as Perry said, this role has grown.

So Saudi Arabia now cannot afford to lose face. It cannot afford to be seen as having lost this conflict in Yemen. Now the issue is not about weapons. Saudi Arabia is not winning in Yemen because it doesn’t have sophisticated weapons or enough weapons. It’s actually the case that it’s fighting a group on the ground, actually several groups that engage in irregular warfare, and it’s very difficult to overwhelm these groups through airstrikes.

Saudi Arabia is not one to engage on the ground in Yemen, just like it doesn’t want to do that anywhere else in the world. And in many ways, at some point, Saudi Arabia needs to recognize that the only way to end this conflict is through a political settlement, but it’s not in a position to do that.

The United States, by giving Saudi Arabia weapons, is only pleasing Saudi Arabia in the short term, but not solving the conflict in the long term either.

What the United States needs to do if it really wants to help Saudi Arabia so to speak, is perhaps try to lead on brokering a deal for Yemen that is political in nature, rather than just giving weapons that will not really make much of an impact in this conflict and will, as I said, will not really help the Saudis win in Yemen either.

Courtesy: European Parliamentary Research Service
Courtesy: European Parliamentary Research Service

Luke Vargas: Let’s play one more clip from Trump’s speech in Riyadh. This one is on the topic of Iran:

“Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, cannot do it, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they so richly deserve.”

Perry, I hear that and I think back to an interview President Obama gave to The Atlantic last year. He warned against the U.S. taking sides in the Saudi-Iran feud. He said this feud drives proxy wars from Syria to Iraq to Yemen.

And Obama went on to say that if the U.S. actually adopted the Saudi viewpoint that Iran was the source of all the problems in the region that the U.S., and in particular the U.S. military, was going to get dragged in to settle scores between these two sides.

Do you think the U.S. is falling into that trap? Are there long-term risks for the U.S. throwing its support so strongly behind Saudi Arabia and against Iran?

Perry Cammack: Well, Luke, in this case I think context matters enormously.

And everything President Trump said is objectively true. I mean, it is the case that Iran is a big problem in the region. It is the case that Iran has an atrocious human rights record.

But the context of saying that in Saudi – so it’s one thing for him to say that in Washington in Europe, and you’ll find somewhat similar statements from President Obama as well – but I think the message of saying that in Saudi Arabia while being kind of silent on domestic challenges in Saudi Arabia, which admittedly aren’t as bad as abuse in Iran, will be understood in a certain context, which is that the United States is putting its hand on the dial in this broader kind of civilizational sectarian conflict.

We’ll see. Is it just a speech that’s kind of a one-off, or does it really mark the beginning of a new approach, which in some ways frankly looks somewhat similar to the approach that the Bush II administration took? That I think it’s too soon to see and time will play out, and ultimately the Trump administration will be judged not on its words about Iran, but about the specific actions it takes.

Luke Vargas: Lina, do you see the U.S. putting its hands on the scales in the Shia-Sunni conflict?

Lina Khatib: I don’t see why the United States will want to involve itself in any conflict in a kind of hands-on way in the Middle East. After the experience of the Iraq invasion, I think that this is the last thing that the United States wants to do.

And so at some point Saudi Arabia is likely to be disappointed by the way the United States is handling Iran.

The United States has not tried to intervene in Syria to limit Iranian activity, it’s not likely to intervene in Yemen to also engage in strikes against Yemeni targets on behalf of Saudi Arabia, so ultimately the best the Saudis can hope for ultimately in this context is for the United States to continue to a blind eye to what it’s doing in Yemen, to not comment on Saudi Arabia’s record of human rights infringements, to not comment on the need for political reform in Saudi Arabia.

So it’s more of a passive act that the U.S. will engage in, rather than an active one to be on the side of the Saudis.

Perry Cammack: I generally agree with Lina that that’s the most likely outcome, but I do think there is a potential for significant escalation with Iran, intentional but possibly even unintentional in the sense of kind of incidents at sea or air strikes that occur in Syria that kind of escalate over time.

President Trump and his wife Melania view a photograph of the Great Mosque of Mecca, Islam's holiest city, during their visit to Saudi Arabia. Courtesy: Saudi Foreign Ministry
President Trump and his wife Melania view a photograph of the Great Mosque of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, during their visit to Saudi Arabia. Courtesy: Saudi Foreign Ministry

Luke Vargas: A final question for both of you. We have seen Shia-Sunni tensions ebb and flow in the past.

Early last year, there was a spat that saw ambassadors recalled after Saudi Arabia executed a Shia cleric. Before that, Iran was furious about Iranian Hajj pilgrims being trampled to death in Mecca, an incident they blamed on Saudi Arabia.

Should Shia-Sunni tensions deteriorate further – not necessarily because of anything that comes out of this Trump visit – what might the consequences be for the United States? Would it worsen conflicts in which the U.S. is involved? Are there other political complications?

Perry Cammack: From my perspective, growing sectarian tensions makes all of the challenges in the Middle East only that much harder, whether it’s finding a political accommodation in Iraq, whether it’s finding a way to de-escalate the conflict in Syria or in Yemen. And frankly, these sectarian tensions are kind of the oxygen that radical groups, whether Sunni or Shia, use to expand and thrive.

And so from my perspective, certainly Iran’s behavior is problematic in the region, but I do think we need to be very careful about not being seen as playing into this sectarianization of the region.

Luke Vargas: Lina, is President Trump adding oxygen to a sectarian fire?

Lina Khatib: Not yet, but if the United States is seen to be taking the Sunni side against the Shia side, then certainly this will make the situation worse. Certainly the United States needs to be very careful in even the words used by the U.S. administration to talk about the Muslim world.

For example, talking about Muslim unity out of Riyadh has been noticed by Shia leaders as an exclusionary statement, because there were no Shia actors present when President Trump made that statement.

So the United States may not intend to make things worse, but it needs to be very careful, otherwise we’re going to end up with more conflict in the region.

Luke Vargas: Dr Lina Khatib, Head of Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, on the line from London tonight, thanks for being with us.

Lina Khatib: Thank you.

Luke Vargas: And in Washington, Perry Cammack, fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thank you.

Perry Cammack: Thank you.

Luke Vargas: If you like what you just heard leave us a review on iTunes or follow the program on Twitter @WakeOnAir.

I’m Luke Vargas, signing off. Join us again next week on Wake.

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