Over five days in May, Donald Trump’s Iran policy—of monumental importance to the future of the Middle East and to US security—began to come into focus. On May 17, the president quietly agreed to continue to waive sanctions against Iran, a step that was required to keep the Iran nuclear deal in force. Two days later Iran held presidential elections with a landslide result in favor of the moderate incumbent, Hassan Rouhani; and two days after that the United States’ new Middle East policy, built around a Saudi-US-Israel axis, was unveiled in the president’s speech in Riyadh.
It had long seemed clear that Trump was not going to “rip up” what he had called in the campaign “the dumbest deal…in the history of deal-making.” The State Department had confirmed repeated findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran was meeting its nuclear commitments. But the May 17 waiver was the first time that an affirmative action on the deal had to be taken in the president’s name.
Iran’s election pitted President Rouhani, the architect of the deal and a proponent of reengaging Iran with the world, against a conservative, nationalist cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, who ran with the backing of the Revolutionary Guard and other hard-line forces. Had Raisi won, the deal’s future in Iran would have been very much in doubt. Instead, Rouhani had a resounding victory with high voter turnout. Though few Iranians have yet to feel any economic benefit from the deal and the end to international isolation it promises, there is little doubt that, for now, they overwhelmingly favor sticking with it.
In Saudi Arabia, where he was making the first stop of his first trip abroad as president, Trump ignored that positive outcome. His speech was a full-throated embrace of the Saudi view of Iran as the region’s chief malefactor and cause of its troubles. Trump’s reference to Tehran as the Middle East power that has “for decades…fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” is a more accurate description of the Saudi kingdom, with its long record of exporting an unforgiving brand of Wahhabi Islam to madrasas and mosques around the world. His assurance of unquestioning friendship with Riyadh is new in American policy. Washington will ignore the failure of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states to enact needed political and economic reforms, and their repression of Shia minorities, in exchange for their help against ISIS and promotion of Israeli–Palestinian peace. All nations, Trump declaimed, “must work together to isolate Iran.”
The new US policy has layers of contradictions. By not rejecting the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.