Trump Takes On Middle East’s Gordian Knot

Political scientist John Owen thinks the key to U.S. relations with Russia is through Iran.
January 27, 2017

As Donald Trump assumes the presidency, the Middle East continues to be a troublesome hotspot. And many of the problems he faces are interconnected, according to a University of Virginia politics professor.

John Owen, Taylor Professor of Politics, specializes in the study of international relations. A faculty fellow at UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, he also is a faculty associate at the Miller Center.

As a recipient of a Humboldt Research Award, he spent the 2015-16 academic year in Germany, researching how transnational ideological and cultural similarities and differences affect, and are affected by, international relations. Owen was editor of Security Studies from 2011 to 2014, and serves on the editorial board of that journal and of International Security. 

His newest book is “Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s History.” From transnational ideological struggles in the history of the West, the book draws lessons on the dynamics of conflict in the Muslim world today and what the outside world ought, and ought not, to do in response. “Confronting Political Islam” builds on Owen’s previous books: “The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change 1510-2010” and “Liberal Peace, Liberal War: American Politics and International Security.”

UVA Today recently asked Owen to discuss the U.S. relations in the Middle East with an eye on a new administration taking over. Owen separated the region into specific areas, including Iran, which has had historically poor relations with the United States since the 1979 Iranian revolution; the Persian Gulf, an area from which about a third of the world’s oil supply flows and one populated by Iran, Saudi Arabia and some smaller Arab monarchies; Israel and its relationships with the Palestinians and the Arab world; and Syria, which is locked in a civil war that involves Russia.

Q. What is your assessment of the current relations between the U.S. and the Middle East and how will they change after Trump’s inauguration?

A. Relations between the United States and Iran are better on the surface than they have been in a long time, because there is a cooperative understanding on nuclear weapons. It appears Iran is abiding by the agreement, so the United States lifted sanctions.

Under the surface, there were a lot of worries in the Obama administration about long-term compliance by Iran. Also, it is not a treaty between the United States and Iran, only an executive agreement, so President Trump could abrogate it on day one.

The Iran question is tied up in the Persian Gulf more generally. There is a kind of Cold War between Iran, which is Shia and Persian, and Saudi Arabia, which is Sunni and Arab. This is valuable real estate because of oil. The Obama agreement with Iran has really put a scare into the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab states. They wonder if this portends a shift of sides. The Saudis and the Iranians both see this as an “Are you on our side or their side?” The Obama administration has wanted to say “neither – we’re just looking out after American interests in the region and we want regional stability,” but the governments on the ground don’t see it that way. The Saudis have been very worried about Obama’s intentions and one hears rumors that they are hoping for better and believe they will get better from Donald Trump, who has been openly skeptical about the Iran nuclear agreement and has talked about throwing it out the window when he takes office.

There is a lot at stake in that region. The United States Navy has had a base at Bahrain since 1971. This creates problems with Iran. Every once in a while, there are minor incidents in the Gulf between Iranian attack boats and U.S. Navy ships. Most of the time we don’t hear about these things, but any of these incidents could erupt. That is a dangerous area.

On Israel, things have been fairly quiet, at least as far as the United States is concerned, partly because there are no direct negotiations going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians on the so-called “two-state solution.” That has gone dormant. The Palestinian side has been divided between the Palestinian Authority, secular, on the West Bank, and Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean. The Palestinians remain divided, while the Israelis have built a security fence that seems to have succeeded in keeping bombs from going off in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, for the most part. The terrorism threat is still there, but it seems to have been managed by the Israelis.

But Israeli-Palestinian strife is still serious because the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu continues to back the building of settlements in new areas of the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. The Obama people have been firmer lately on opposing that, most recently at the United Nations when the U.S. for the first time, in my memory, did not veto a resolution condemning Israel for settlement construction in Palestinian territory. The U.S. abstained, but everyone knew what that meant.

Q. What about Egypt?

A. Another element is democracy and authoritarianism in the region after the Arab Spring, and in particular, focus on Egypt, which spent a couple years as a democratizing country with a tricky government of the Muslim Brotherhood party’s Mohamed Morsi, which was overthrown in 2013; now Egyptian army general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi runs Egypt much as Hosni Mubarak did before the Arab Spring. el-Sisi, like Mubarak, is very anti-jihadist, so he is no friend of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

This is why the Middle East is so complicated for the United States. The people who speak with the clearest voice against jihadism typically are not democratic. They are authoritarian and el- Sisi is not a democrat. He’s ruthless toward the Muslim Brotherhood, who disavow terrorism but are friendlier toward Hamas. Hamas started out as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Palestinian area. So that is a kind of slow-burn issue. I think the Obama people have tried to finesse it.

Egypt and the larger question of democracy and jihadism in the Middle East is extremely complex. The Obama administration has tried to stay on top of things, but it is very difficult.

Q. And Syria?

A. The Syrian civil war is related to Iran. Things are really going Bashar al-Assad’s way, with lots of help from Russia. My reading of the Obama people and Syria is that there has been a tacit agreement with Russia that the United States is not going to get involved in any heavy way. We are not going to intervene militarily on behalf of what we call the “Syrian opposition.”

There are two opponents to Assad in Syria – the Islamic State, really horrific jihadists, and then the “Syrian opposition” that is not the Islamic State. There are some elements of the Syrian opposition that are unsavory; we don’t always know who is who and who is on what side, but those are our guys in so far as we have “guys.” But the Obama administration has not done a lot of active military support of the opposition.

Meanwhile Iran and Hezbollah, which is an Iranian client in Lebanon, have been helping Assad in Syria put down the rebellion, and in the last couple of years, Russia as taken a much more active role.

Q. So what is Trump going to do?  

A. We don’t know. Everyone likes to say everything is unchartered territory with Donald Trump, and that certainly is so with the Middle East. The high-probability event I am seeing is that Trump will make good on his promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This is a very big deal because, although Jerusalem is Israel’s official capital, most countries have kept their embassies in Tel Aviv. Israel took West Jerusalem in the 1967 war but, because the territorial issues with the Palestinians are unsettled, the United States decided it is best not to move the embassy so as to not pre-judge the final status of Jerusalem, if indeed there is a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Donald Trump has signaled very explicitly that he does not care about these time-honored diplomatic norms about the U.S. embassy not moving to Jerusalem. If he thinks it should be there, it’s going to go there.

Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel is David Friedman, a lawyer in New York City and an open advocate of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. He has expressed skepticism of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, saying the Palestinians are not serious about negotiating, so Israel has to protect itself. Trump has been so explicit about this it might be difficult not to move the embassy unless there is real pushback from the Senate.

Trump’s problem is incoherence about the Middle East. Iran, the Persian Gulf and Syria are a cluster of really complicated issues. On the one hand, Trump does not favor the Iran nuclear deal and he intends to tear it up. On the other hand, Russia is very much for the Iran nuclear deal and Russia has been trying to push for some kind of settlement with Iran because Russia has long-standing interests in Syria, which is an Iranian ally, and Russia has been trying to build up its interests in the Middle East. Under Putin, this has been going on for 15 or more years. Russia and Persia go back a long way and the Russian default is, “We always have influence in Persia.” Putin regards the collapse of the Soviet Union as a disaster because it meant a collapse of Russian influence around the world, including in the Middle East. So he is trying to rebuild that – there is no question about that – but he is for the Iranian agreement because he does not want the Iranians kneecapped or hamstrung by the United States and the West.

Q. So relations with Iran are linked to relations with Russia?

A. We can stipulate that Trump does want better relations with Russia, but that is going to be difficult if you shred the Iranian nuclear agreement, because this is a top priority for Russia. I would even venture that one reason Putin has wooed Trump or Trump’s people – not the only reason, but one reason – is because he wants the U.S. to change the way it thinks about the Middle East. Trump believes that defeating ISIS should be a top U.S. priority and sees Russia as a partner in that effort. But in this area, Trump is working at cross purposes with himself because he and Russia disagree deeply about Iran.

A lot will depend on his Cabinet and who gets through the Senate. It looks like James Mattis will become Secretary of Defense. It seems pretty obvious to me that plenty of Democrats and Republicans who don’t like Trump and don’t trust him think James Mattis is a grown-up and they want him in the room. He is quite skeptical of Iran, in fact, quite hostile to the regime, because he, as a Marine general, had some of his guys killed in Iraq by Iranian proxies. He is also very skeptical about Russia.

At the same time, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who is another retired general but who used to head the Defense Intelligence Agency, is much friendlier toward Russia. And Rex Tillerson, who might make it in as secretary of state, has been friendlier toward Russia because he is the Exxon CEO. But in his Senate hearing last week, Tillerson was more skeptical toward Russia than many had expected, so he could end up leaning toward Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence, who is hawkish about Russia, too.

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