By David Meijer
Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections has been met with shock and surprise from most of the rest of the world, with some of America’s key allies particularly unnerved. In his campaign speeches and during the presidential debates, Trump singled out partners like the NATO allies, Japan, South Korea, and the Gulf monarchies for freeloading off America’s protection. As Trump enters the White House, though, his outlook could change very quickly.
In fact, the unlikely US President-elect may yet find equally unlikely (though cautious) supporters in some of the very Gulf Arab countries he disparaged. Despite the Republican’s criticism, those governments view Trump’s hardline outlook as largely aligned with many of their own concerns, particularly regarding Iran. In that context, Trump’s promise to “tear up” the Iran nuclear deal brokered by President Obama in 2015 could yet be a game-changer for the emirs.
In the deal, technically known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran agreed to place limits on its plutonium enrichment capacities by reducing its uranium stockpile, converting enrichment facilities into research centers for peaceful means, and placing all of its nuclear facilities under international supervision by the IAEA. During the presidential campaign, Trump referred to the JCPOA as “the stupidest deal of all time” and warned that it would “give Iran absolutely nuclear weapons.” The most controversial aspect of the deal is the suspension of most sanctions against Iran, but even those that have been lifted can come back into place if Tehran violates the terms of the agreement.
As hardline critics in the US correctly point out, lifting sanctions will enable the Islamic Republic to expand the financial support it provides to Shia militant groups, not just those fighting ISIS in Iraq but also those propping up the Assad regime in Syria and taking over Yemen. Opponents state that many of the limitations the deal imposes come with a sunset clause of 15 years, after which Iran will be able to enrich uranium and develop a state-of-the-art, internationally legitimized ability to do so.
Instead of letting Iran bide its time, these critics have called for new and more severe sanctions that would delay Iran’s development of a nuclear breakout capacity if not prevent it completely. Reverting back to a sanctions regime, however, is more complicated than critics let on. If Trump makes good on his promise to pull out of the JCPOA and is compelled by a Republican Congress to impose harsher sanctions, they will also be doing a tremendous favor to the Iranian hardliners that have opposed the accord from the start.
Conservative factions in the Iranian state have long argued against improving relations with the West, criticizing President Hassan Rouhani for giving up too much for too little in return. Such a move would also provide Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei an excuse to re-launch the nuclear program with a vengeance, confirming his questioning of the trustworthiness of American promises. In other words, Iran could call off the deal, build up its nuclear capacity, and blame Washington for the whole thing.
While Iran’s most strident anti-Americans would welcome the deal’s collapse, it would also be a relief to the Gulf states. Many of the Sunni Arab countries in the Middle East have long been lamenting President Obama’s willingness to turn to Tehran even as it threatens their security and makes power plays in Syria and elsewhere. In the wake of the election, voices calling for Trump to reverse Obama’s Middle East policy and recommit to tried and tested relationships are becoming louder. The threat of a nuclear Iran offers the best incentive for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to re-affirm themselves as reliable partners, not just for the US but for the West as a whole.
For the Gulf states in particular, Trump’s surprise ascendancy is a chance to demonstrate why Washington, London, and Brussels can still count on them in a time of turbulence. Since ISIS declared war on Saudi Arabia and threatened Bahrain and Kuwait for supporting the fight against it in Syria, the West and the Gulf are the lynchpins of the fight against the millenarian jihadists and the struggle for stability in the region.
Economically speaking, the souring of the Washington-Tehran rapprochement would put an end to British and European business ventures there, serving as a reminder that Iran remains too unreliable to be entrusted with Western capital. Both Saudi Arabia and its neighbors already have an eye on convincing Britons and Europeans to see them, and not Iran, as a destination for trade and investment.
That approach is already paying off: Barclays intends to use Dubai as a gateway to massive trade and finance opportunities in the Gulf, while Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plans encourage Western and Asian partners to invest in its private sector and reduce the economy’s reliance on crude oil exports. Britain’s then-Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond welcomed the initiative, citing the British capital market as a means to finance Riyadh’s goals and British expertise as a resource to be leveraged in developing Saudi’s chronically underexploited industries. As Brexit proceeds, Westminster will have greater freedom to reach its own accords with the Emiratis and the Saudis.
Despite the Iran nuclear deal casting a shadow on Riyadh’s decades-old security partnerships, Saudi economic planners continue to see their traditional partners as natural fits to help the Kingdom reinvent itself. Even Donald Trump, despite the rhetoric, apparently sees Saudi as a good place to invest his company’s money: during the campaign, he registered eight companies linked to the hotel industry there.
Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors see the prospective scrapping of the JCPOA as a return to the natural order of things. Donald Trump, once he has assumed the presidency, should take close notice of this: the same “freeloaders” he lambasted a month ago could quickly become indispensable allies again.
*David Meijer is a senior security analyst based in Amsterdam specialized in trans-national contraband.