Trump’s Mideast Magical Mystery Tour by Paul Scham*

This is written as President Trump is returning to the United States – and I fully recognize that any minute after it’s published that something may emerge – from him or from anywhere – totally reversing our perceptions of what occurred.  But life and attention spans are short, so we gotta go on what we see.

He enjoyed Saudi hospitality, is willing to forgive their Islam, and clearly appreciated the $110 billion in new military contracts he is bringing home.  Moreover, he seems to believe the Saudis and most Arab states want very much to make peace with Israel (actually, there’s little doubt that’s true).  And Bibi Netanyahu would very much like to make peace with them so long as they agree not to mention the P-word.  But as alienated as Arab leaders are from their populations, they do recognize that the emergence of some recognizable sort of Palestinian state is an absolute prerequisite for normalizing their ties with Israel.  Trump actually seems to get that, even if Bibi doesn’t.  Of course, Bibi has to deal with a cynical population, much of which has long since written of the Palestinians as a negotiating partner.  But Trump, as the quintessence of not-Obama, may conceivably be able to push Bibi in ways that Obama could only dream of.  That is unlikely but we don’t know.  No possible scrutiny of Trump’s words will reveal that; we will have to wait and see.  I consider it conceivable – but barely; I would be shocked, astonished, and happy if that indeed plays out, but I won’t waste any time or energy expecting it.

But there was another aspect of Trump’s trip that received considerably less attention, at least in the American media, but quite a bit in Israel and the Arab world; namely, that the lynchpin of any such Israeli-Arab deal would be the utter demonization of Iran.  Trump, Israel, and the Saudis, along with other (not necessarily all) Gulf and most Sunni Arab countries, hated (and still despise) the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  Almost all the rest of the world likes it – and most of us hoped that it could herald the beginning of a return of Iran to the world community as an important, respected, and accepted regional power, a position it has occupied fairly continuously for about 2500 years.  Unfortunately, in American politics, Iran currently occupies a niche little different from that of the Soviet Union in the 1950s, i.e., no one can lose by denouncing it – and no one seems able to win by pointing out the obvious; that the Islamic Republic is highly unlikely to disappear in the next few years – and, perhaps even more important, that it is very much to the interest of the US, Israel, and the rest of the world, to empower, inasmuch as we can, the (comparatively) progressive forces that exist and just won the recent election, rather than continue empowering the most reactionary and dangerous forces in the country such as the Revolutionary Guard and the conservative clerical establishment.

Now comes the obligatory disclaimer, which is almost an incantation.  I do not admire, support, or otherwise respect the Islamic Republic, its aggression, nor its support for Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime, nor for Hezbollah and other such forces.  However, I cannot imagine a scenario for winding down the Syrian civil war that does not involve Iran, which understandably sees its vital interests bound up with Syria – and with its centuries-old relationship with the Lebanese Shi’a, currently represented by Hezbollah.  It is also the case that ISIS is a greater danger to US, European, and Israeli interests than is Assad, murderous as he is – and Iran is hated by ISIS as much as we are.  Instead of demonizing Iran as a uniquely evil and unquenchable fount of terrorism, as the Saudis and Netanyahu want us to do, it would make infinitely more sense to build on the success of the JCPOA to chip away at Iran’s other unacceptable behavior.  The only way to do that is to make it clear that the very clear US, Israeli, and Saudi goal of regime change must be taken off the table in order for any progress to be made.

One does not have to believe that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a Jeffersonian democrat or an opponent of the Islamic state to recognize that his largely successful political appeal is based on an attempt to re-integrate Iran in the world community and liberalize (though not abolish) the strictures of the Islamic Republic.  One can recognize the limited – but not insignificant – powers that he has as president, and that he is subordinate in most ways to the Supreme Leader – and still accept that his presidency is significantly better than that of Mahmoud Ahmadinajad, or of other conservatives such as Ebrahim Raisi, his chief opponent in the recent election.  And one must recognize the hypocrisy of Rex Tillerson denouncing Iranian repression while praising Saudi Arabia, a medieval monarchy that makes Iran’s very limited democracy seem both a free and almost feminist society by comparison.

It is dubious that Trump is capable of seeing these things.  But the foreign policy establishment is, and can recognize that to the extent that Trump tries to build Israeli-Arab peace on the twin pillars of ignoring Palestinian national rights and perpetual delegitimization and enmity to Iran, the Middle East will become more violent: the pointless Saudi bombing of Yemen will continue, Syria will continue to unravel, Europe will be inundated with ever more refugees, and much more besides.  Finding a way to limit Trump’s harm Is primarily an American problem, but averting our eyes from the real dangers of his foreign ‘policy’ – even as we hope against hope that somehow it may accomplish something positive – is not in any way useful.

*This essay was first published on the Huffington Post blog.

Paul Scham is Research Associate Professor of Israel Studies, Executive Director of UMD’s Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, an Adjunct Scholar of the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C., and President of Partners for Progressive Israel.  The views expressed herein are his own.