Trump’s Outdated Hatred for Iran

The Saudi-Israeli tandem has often driven U.S. policies in the Middle East. But the Trump administration keeps following the old Saudi line on Iran even as Riyadh shifts toward diplomacy, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Regimes that crave U.S. support in their regional rivalries are apt to strike two different postures that may seem contradictory but really aren’t. They publicly play up the supposed threatening nature and incorrigibility of the rival, to keep Americans thinking that the United States should take sides against the rival. But they also realize that unending hostility and tension are not in their own best interests.

President Donald Trump poses for photos with ceremonial swordsmen on his arrival to Murabba Palace, as the guest of Saudi King Salman, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

They realize that there are two sides to every dispute, that compromise and conciliation are necessary to keep conflict from escalating, and that peace in their neighborhood is better than war.

This combination of postures characterizes the Persian Gulf Arabs and especially Saudi Arabia. Ties to the United States have been, ever since Ibn Saud’s meeting with Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, important to the Al Saud despite the absence of a mutual security treaty. The fragility of their anachronistic family rule has made an implied U.S. security guarantee especially useful to them.

Since the end of the Cold War, the USSR can no longer function as chief bogeyman (although the Saudis are happy to sound Cold War echoes regarding Russian involvement in Syria). The Sunni extremism that since the Cold War has become a major American preoccupation hits too close to Saudi Arabia being part of the problem rather than part of the solution for it to be the centerpiece of a Saudi strategy for drawing in the Americans. That centerpiece has instead been the purported threat from Saudi Arabia’s cross-Gulf rival Iran.

With the Trump administration, this part of the Saudi strategy has been conspicuously successful, as illustrated by Donald Trump’s sword-dancing visit to Riyadh…

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