Trump and the Middle East

The diplomatic normalization involves two Arab countries who were never front-line states in confrontation with Israel, and neither the United Nations as an organization nor the other members of the Security Council agree that the international organization’s sanctions on Iran have been legally reimposed. As with much involving the Trump administration’s foreign and security policies, most states are waiting for the results of the U.S. election before making significant decisions while others – such as Israel and the UAE and Bahrain – are trying to lock in gains ahead of a potential change in U.S. leadership.

The agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain are not technically peace treaties because the two Arab states have never been at war with Israel. Neither have they been at the forefront of devising anti-Israeli policies among the Arab states. Both have had secret and not-so-secret dealings with Israel over the past decade-plus, driven in large part by their shared concerns about Iran. All of the states involved saw this set of agreements as ways to shore up their relationship with the United States, particularly but not exclusively the Trump administration. If President Trump serves a second term, these agreements could pave the way for more arms sales to the UAE in particular the F-35, fifth generation fighter/attack aircraft.

Even if Vice President Biden were to take office in January, all three countries will have shown their willingness to move towards regular relations and also shore up an anti-Iranian front – something which has resonance on both sides of the political aisle in the United States (even if approaches on how to bring Iran to heel differ between U.S. political parties). The agreements also open the way for expanded economic relations between the states involved although these will be slow in coming due to ongoing, largely generational, hostility to Israel in key neighboring states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The U.S. announcement of snap-back sanctions on Iran was previewed in late August, and not much has changed since that time. When the U.S. claimed at the United Nations that it was, as a party to the Iran nuclear agreement, triggering the thirty day notice that sanctions would be placed back on Tehran, only one rotating member of the Security Council, the Dominican Republic, agreed with Washington that this was legal. The rest of the Security Council members, including those also party to the Iran nuclear agreement (China, Russia, France, Germany, and the UK (as well as the EU)) stated clearly that Washington did not have the legal authority to call for snap back sanctions – having formally abrogated the agreement in May 2018. The U.S. announcement this weekend will change little in the short-term. Washington will threaten its own national secondary sanctions against any state that tries to conduct commerce with Iran. None likely will attempt such deals ahead of the U.S. election in November. Both developments in U.S. relations with the region seem to be designed to gain some advantage before the election either with voters focused on Israel or voters supporting maximum pressure on Iran.  Everyone is waiting.

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