Trump’s Outdated Hatred for Iran

The Saudi-Israeli tandem has often driven U.S. policies in the Middle East. But the Trump administration keeps following the old Saudi line on Iran even as Riyadh shifts toward diplomacy, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Regimes that crave U.S. support in their regional rivalries are apt to strike two different postures that may seem contradictory but really aren’t. They publicly play up the supposed threatening nature and incorrigibility of the rival, to keep Americans thinking that the United States should take sides against the rival. But they also realize that unending hostility and tension are not in their own best interests.

President Donald Trump poses for photos with ceremonial swordsmen on his arrival to Murabba Palace, as the guest of Saudi King Salman, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

They realize that there are two sides to every dispute, that compromise and conciliation are necessary to keep conflict from escalating, and that peace in their neighborhood is better than war.

This combination of postures characterizes the Persian Gulf Arabs and especially Saudi Arabia. Ties to the United States have been, ever since Ibn Saud’s meeting with Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, important to the Al Saud despite the absence of a mutual security treaty. The fragility of their anachronistic family rule has made an implied U.S. security guarantee especially useful to them.

Since the end of the Cold War, the USSR can no longer function as chief bogeyman (although the Saudis are happy to sound Cold War echoes regarding Russian involvement in Syria). The Sunni extremism that since the Cold War has become a major American preoccupation hits too close to Saudi Arabia being part of the problem rather than part of the solution for it to be the centerpiece of a Saudi strategy for drawing in the Americans. That centerpiece has instead been the purported threat from Saudi Arabia’s cross-Gulf rival Iran.

With the Trump administration, this part of the Saudi strategy has been conspicuously successful, as illustrated by Donald Trump’s sword-dancing visit to Riyadh earlier this year. The Saudis could not hope for a more unquestioning U.S. taking of their side in the cross-Gulf rivalry.

Rethinking a Rivalry

But a lessening of tension in that rivalry is in Saudi Arabia’s interests, as well as being in the interests of Iran. Both countries rely on the oil trade continuing without interruption from armed conflict or the fear of such conflict. Both have potentially restive domestic minorities that could find sympathy and support on the other side of the Gulf.

Saudi defense minister, Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud

For the Saudis this mainly means Shia in the Eastern Province. In Iran this means not only Arabs but other ethnic minorities among whom ISIS is trying to stir up trouble in revenge for Iran’s strong opposition to the group elsewhere in the Middle East.

The young and powerful Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), has hitched his rise to a more aggressive Saudi foreign policy that seeks regional hegemony at the expense of, among others, Iran. The setbacks associated with that policy, however, have MbS thinking about course corrections. In particular, he appears to be seeking a way out of the highly costly and unsuccessful military intervention in Yemen.

Thus it is no surprise to see multiple reports that MbS is actively seeking improved relations with Iran. He is looking to Iraq to play a helpful mediating role in this endeavor, and Saudi Arabia already has taken several steps to improve its relations with Iraq itself.

This diplomacy is proceeding quietly, thus not diminishing for American audiences the established line about Iran being a threat. But the direction of Riyadh’s diplomacy is clear, and it is just as much in Saudi Arabia’s interests as were previous rapprochements between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

An Outdated Hostility

All this makes Trump’s vehement and unbending hostility toward Iran all the more likely to further isolate the United States. It is a hostility that has fallen behind the curve of Persian Gulf diplomacy. Trump may have been dancing to the Saudis’ tune insofar as that tune was written to ensure that the United States took Saudi Arabia’s side, but the resulting policy of the Trump administration is not in the interests of Saudi Arabia itself, nor of the other Arab members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 22, 2016 (UN Photo)

Most important for Americans, it is not in the interests of the United States — which, along with the Gulf Arabs and Iran, shares an interest in a Persian Gulf characterized by peaceful commerce and competition for influence, rather than by confrontation and conflagration.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear agreement, figures into this equation because of Trump’s declared intention to destroy the accord despite Iran’s compliance with it. Negotiation of the agreement had made the Saudis nervous about a possible major realignment in which the United States would start taking Iran’s side more than Saudi Arabia’s.

The nervousness was one of the factors, along with the rise of MbS, that made opposition to Iran a prominent theme in Saudi statements over the past year or two. The Saudi fear was always unwarranted; even just the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran was not in the cards during the Obama administration. Obviously the relationship is going nowhere in a positive direction under Trump.

An accord that is working to keep closed all possible paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon is in Saudi Arabia’s interests, and the Saudis are smart enough to realize that. The Saudis do not need a nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf, and if one occurred, the Saudis probably would lose it. For Trump to carry through with his threat to trash the agreement would represent a piece of campaign baggage that is in nobody’s interests.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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32 comments for “Trump’s Outdated Hatred for Iran

  1. BobS
    August 17, 2017 at 12:17 pm

    The simplest way to understand the geopolitically ignorant Trump’s desire to abrogate the JCPOA is as a return on investment for Sheldon Adelson. That, and Trump’s determination to be not-Obama.

    And I almost forgot- the DEEP STATE!
    We must never forget the DEEP STATE!

    • Joe Tedesky
      August 17, 2017 at 12:48 pm

      Good observation Bob.

  2. Zim
    August 17, 2017 at 12:17 pm

    Thanks for the update. The US will continue the slide into irrelevancy concerning world affairs as long as Trump is president. Elect a clown, expect a circus.

  3. Sally Snyder
    August 17, 2017 at 12:24 pm

    As shown in this article, the attempts by Washington/the American oligarchy to control Iran are actually hurting American businesses:

    https://viableopposition.blogspot.ca/2017/08/who-is-being-hurt-by-americas-anti-iran.html

    Washington has a long history of shooting itself in the foot when it comes to its policies of sanctioning other nations.

    • Joe Tedesky
      August 17, 2017 at 1:05 pm

      Sally the best I can say after reading your provided article, is “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face”. This saying fits the U.S. Policy on Iran. In fact, what the U.S. should do in the Middle East, is to do what George C Marshall advised Truman to do, and that was to do what was in the best interest of the U.S., and not Israel’s.

      The Israeli government, not the Jewish people are the problem. I compare the average Jew to be held captive by their current government, as are we Americans who are also being falsely represented by our governments policies in the Middle East, which many of us regret. I mention this, this way, because I don’t wish to have my thoughts on this subject, be a cause to claim I am being anti Semitic. Sorry, it’s just the times we live in, that make me believe I should make myself be perfectly clear.

      Thanks for the cool link Sally. Joe

      • Virginia
        August 17, 2017 at 3:19 pm

        Joe, thanks for making that distinction so clearly which I think represents most of us here if not all. So many Jews are also opposed to the US – Zionist- designed MidEast ventures.

        • BobS
          August 17, 2017 at 6:59 pm

          You need to distinguish between American and European Jews on the one hand, and Israeli Jews on the other. The latter tend to be rather more bellicose.

      • mike k
        August 17, 2017 at 3:56 pm

        Thanks Joe. Wise comments.

  4. Zachary Smith
    August 17, 2017 at 12:25 pm

    “Trump’s Outdated Hatred for Iran”

    Regarding that title, “outdated” is mighty weak stuff. I’d prefer something on the order of “Trump The Dinosaur Strikes Again”. The man is a classical example of what some of us used to call a cement head. Today’s example in the news was of the poor dumbass tweeting about the “Beautiful Confederate Statues”. At 70 years of age Trump seems to be incapable of learning. Or of ‘unlearning’ the stupid notions he has picked up in those 70 years of being a spoiled rich brat.

    An accord that is working to keep closed all possible paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon is in Saudi Arabia’s interests, and the Saudis are smart enough to realize that.

    At the risk of appearing overly critical, that “accord” is going to ‘close all paths’ to Iran building their own nuclear weapons from scratch. It will not stop them from buying one from Pakistan or North Korea. Or remove from their inventory any they purchased when the Soviet Union broke up.

    • Joe Tedesky
      August 17, 2017 at 12:53 pm

      Zachary the very first comment post of yours that I read, you used the word ‘cement head’, and at that time you and I spoke about your use of it. Well today your use of that phrase is spot on. In fact the cement head Trump has, may possibly be cracking. Read this.

      https://www.statnews.com/2017/05/23/donald-trump-speaking-style-interviews/

      • August 17, 2017 at 1:22 pm

        Joe,…although the video clips of the youthful Trump are too short to assess Sharon Begley’s argument regarding Trump’s mental decline and loss of articulation, she may well have a valid explanation for his erratic behavior. Thanks for the link.

        • Joe Tedesky
          August 17, 2017 at 2:02 pm

          Sharon Begley’s analysis of Trump, is to me just something to take into consideration. I’m not a doctor of anything, so my opinion, is just that my opinion. I did find Ms Begley’s analysis of Trump interesting, since just the other day I said to my wife, how I thought that Trump was erratic and incoherent with his words, and then I read the article by Sharon Begley.

          I do think that Trump has very thin skin, and he is very use to getting his own way. To be fair though, to analyze Trump without taking into consideration that we have had quite a few other nut cases who have served in our nations high offices, is purely denying the truth that Trump isn’t or as history will prove wasn’t the first mental patient to take over the asylum. By the way, that’s not my making an excuse for Trump, as much as that’s a fact of past and present governmental life. Although, I think the Donald goes way to far, and his perspectives are not best fit to what the country should take away with their various perceptions of what Trump means. In other words,Trump causes more problems than he alleviates with his bombastic outbursts, and that leaves us all to wondering what next may we expect to hear come out of this man’s mouth.

          • BobS
            August 17, 2017 at 2:24 pm

            Trump’s “erratic”, “incoherent”, one among a “few other nut cases”, this time with “very thin skin”, a “mental patient” prone to “bombastic outbursts” (damn, if only we’d had some indication of his behavior before the election), but, but…WhataboutEMAILS!?….WhataboutBENGHAZI!?…WhataboutHILLARY!?

          • Joe Tedesky
            August 17, 2017 at 3:14 pm

            Bob all I can say, is that if you go into consortiumnews archives, and read the comment section of this past two years articles, you would see how I have never been a fan of Trump, let alone I would have voted for him. As a matter of fact, I didn’t find any commonality with any of this past elections presidential candidates, whether in the primaries or in the general election.

            I can clearly see, that I upset you, but Bob you are mistaken to label me a Trump supporter. I’m hoping you can get over your posting your nonsensical comments long enough to wake up, and see that we here may have more in common with you, that we would have against you. So, okay you love Hillary, but why torture us, or me, with your anger over her loss?

          • BobS
            August 17, 2017 at 6:48 pm

            “I can clearly see, that I upset you..”
            More like disgust.
            “As a matter of fact, I didn’t find any commonality with any of this past elections presidential candidates..”
            When have we ever gotten that choice, princess? The vote is always for empire, mostly for Wall Street, but this time we get the added bonus of neo-fascism.
            However, the important thing is your purity posse felt good about yourselves, while white evangelicals (clearly much smarter at the game of politics than a whole bunch of you here) got themselves Neil Gorsuch.

      • Zachary Smith
        August 17, 2017 at 2:18 pm

        Wow! That’s scary, and reminds a person of what happened with Ronald Reagan. Seventy years old is just too old for a President. I know there are razor sharp people into their Nineties, but that’s not what usually happens. Of course the Butcher of Libya will turn 70 in October, and she has had many alarming signs of some kind of mental problem.

        Recall as well George “codpiece commander” Bush. Reports have his life-long drinking dragging him down mentally to the “duh” stages at the end of his time in the White House.

        Any ambitions of Hillary, Sanders, and Biden in 2020 are ridiculous. Reelection of DJT is simply absurd as well. Not that I expect him to be in politics by then…..

        • BobS
          August 17, 2017 at 2:30 pm

          “…and she has had many alarming signs of some kind of mental problem.”
          An erudite diagnosis.
          And who among us doesn’t feel better with a CinC whose first impulse is to defend the KKK and neo-Nazis marching through the streets of an American city?

          • Zachary Smith
            August 17, 2017 at 3:50 pm

            An erudite diagnosis.

            Indeed it was.

            Hillary: “We came, we saw, he died. ….. giggle/laugh”

            HRC: an old psychopath vs DJT: clueless and slightly older rich *** wipe.

            The voting population of US citizens narrowly preferred the ignorant and arrogant motor-mouth to the warmongering *itch.

    • mike k
      August 17, 2017 at 3:59 pm

      So you are not a big fan of the treaty? What do you propose instead?

  5. Gil
    August 17, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    At the risk of sounding like a screaming Cassandra, the current policy of US appeasement of Saudi Arabia is helping erode the traditional sunni islamic tradition by providing political cover. Saudi inspired Wahhabism is forging ahead and replacing the four traditional and moderate schools of Sunnism as the West (a) weakens secular Arab states (e.g. Syria, Libya) and (b) turns face the other way so as not to offend the Saudis by allowing KSA funding of radical mosques in its own backyard (e.g. UK govt refusal to publish sources of funding of radical islamic groups in UK). Once these moderate schools have faded away, they are not going to be revived easily. This is only a recipe for long term violence.

    Obama, through the rapprochement made possible by the JCPOA was probably using Iran to counter-balance the Saudis in the region and blunting the Saudi ideology through a wider discourse with the Shiite. Trump;s reversal therefore is a regression and self-inflicting for the West in the long run. The danger to the rest of the Asia is of course is immediate.

    • mike k
      August 17, 2017 at 4:00 pm

      Right on Joe.

  6. mike k
    August 17, 2017 at 4:02 pm

    Ignorant, greedy, violent Americans meddling in the Middle East. What could go wrong?

  7. Realist
    August 18, 2017 at 2:01 am

    I don’t see why Washington has to take a “side” in every conflict or disagreement between nations. Taking a side always implies giving financial aid, spewing propaganda (mostly composed of lies), providing weaponry, overseeing military training, building goddam bases and sending our own military personnel and “independent contractors” (mercenaries) to every one of these countries using money and resources better spent by Americans on the needs of Americans. That’s a criticism I level at both parties, every branch and level of government, every media mouthpiece of government and every president or presidential candidate who are more dedicated to building empire or obstructing the legitimate interests of other countries rather than fixing America’s numerous and severe problems at home.

    Hillary was a disaster when she conducted foreign policy for Obama. She would have been a disaster as president. Trump is being a disaster as president, partially from his own deficiencies as a political leader, abrasive personality, thin skin and general lack of wisdom, but also from being sandbagged by basically every important figure in every public institution that interfaces with the presidency in this nation. There is simply nobody doing anything right in either major party or in any agency or organisation (public or private) that has major influence on government policy, especially foreign policy. And, if you think there is, you are not looking hard enough or prefer to fool yourself, probably out of some archaic loyalty or bias.

    Just watch, Pence will not be the key to a better future for our country and the world in which it must co-exist. And, the guy they install after they throw him out will not be either. The madness and the conflicts will only get worse, and the fall out that diminishes our constitutional liberties will also continue to get much worse as the government cracks down to prevent “violence in the streets” a la Charlottesville, “domestic terrorism” or however they choose to headline it, whether real, imagined, spontaneous, or staged. How convenient it will be for those who want to expand the powers of the Patriot Act and would gleefully shut down all independent news outlets such as this blog… and then go after the people who contributed to it… and finally after those exposed to it or “tainted” by it, accusing them of “transacting” with our “enemies,” most notably Russia. You read that passage in the sanctions bill, as it was pointed out by many here. We all went, “wow, is that for real?” Just like the abrogation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) written into the same fucked-over bill passed 98-2 by a bunch of dangerous tools in the Senate either brainwashed or bought off. Powerful individuals other than Trump are orchestrating all of this.

    Wake up, simplistically scapegoating and lynching Trump are not going to change anything for the better. The architects of that insurrection are counting on that. They are counting on the public reactions that media figures like Michael Savage, Alex Jones and other right wingers are warning about… what they call a “civil war.” Anything even hinting at a public rebellion will be the perfect pretext to crack down, install martial law, “fix” the constitution and create a monolithic dictatorship–probably at the expense of a few thousand lives and many more incarcerations.

    If you think the conflict between the Antifa and KKK demonstrators in Charlottesville was just an unfortunate coincidence, you should read about the classified ads placed by a business called “Crowds on Demand” in order to recruit “Actors and Photographers” before the Charlottesville event. Cited from the ad: “Crowds on demand, a Los Angeles-based public relations firm specializing in innovative events, is looking for enthusiastic actors and photographers in the Charlotte, NC area to participate in our events. Our events include everything from rallies to protests to corporate PR stunts to celebrity scenes. The biggest qualification is enthusiasm, a “can-do” spirit. Pay will vary by event but typically is $25+ per hour plus reimbursements for gas/parking/Uber/public transit. For more information about us please visit dubya,dubya, dubya crowsondemand dot com.

    If the purpose was not to cause public turmoil, why the urgency NOW, 150 after the Civil War to stage rallies for the removal of confederate statues from public venues (which most white Southerners sincerely and vehemently consider an expression of their regional “culture” rather than an endorsement of slavery or racism–so, yes, they are touchy whether “racist” or not–why poke the war eagle?)? Why were the two factions allowed to gather on the same day, to mix on the same scene, and why were the law enforcement agencies withdrawn from the scene rather than empowered to take control? If both factions were granted permits to march, that is suspicious. If one was and the other not, the police failed to act in accordance with the law–also suspicious. The whole thing stinks to high heaven, and was a perfect trap to lay for Trump, knowing he would say something so simplistic, incoherent, or ambiguous that it could be represented as “racist.” In that context, he is guaranteed to offend someone, whether he actually did or not. If he says nothing, he will be demonized as callous… as he was for not immediately condemning the KKK, which does not logically imply that he supports the KKK. In the 1960’s the demonstrations were genuine. Today it’s all paid theatrics, funded by oligarchs like George Soros.

    • Gregory Herr
      August 18, 2017 at 3:27 am

      Realist–
      You have marshalled key facts and put them in needed perspective. The long-standing attempts to manage, mangle, or structure the rest of the world while neglecting to keep our own house in order has reached a new level of disproportionality and malignancy. “There is simply nobody doing anything right in either major party or in any agency or organisation (public or private) that has major influence on government policy, especially foreign policy.”
      That powerful influences are orchestrating matters that predate Trump, are beyond him, and won’t be solved or mitigated by scapegoating or removing him, is something people should pay attention to. Charlottesville does stink to high heaven, the purpose IS to create public turmoil–and the rights of speech, dissent, and the ability to maintain civil society under rational rule of law are being trashed.
      My God, how forsaken does it have to become?

    • BobS
      August 18, 2017 at 8:01 am

      “why the urgency NOW, 150 after the Civil War to stage rallies for the removal of confederate statues from public venues”
      For similar reasons the statues were erected 50 years after the Civil War, i.e. resurgence of the KKK/support for Jim Crow laws, and 100 years after the Civil War, i.e. opposition to civil rights legislation.
      Symbolism.
      It appears this country makes a symbolic statement about The War of Southern Treason in Defense of Slavery every 50 years or so. As it happens, this time we’re on the moral side of history.

      • Realist
        August 18, 2017 at 9:21 am

        Why no action during the administration of the Peace Prize Messiah? Most definitely I ask, why specifically now? You think the timing of something that will be viewed as provocative to so many who identify with their Southern heroes and icons was just some coincidence? Couldn’t be done last year because? Might hurt Hillary’s election chances perhaps? Especially in a toss-up border state that the Dems have become competitive in. I see a motive to make the timing political. All the boilerplate about the horrors of the KKK, Jim Crow, etc does not add anything to your statement. Most everyone has always known those were terrible episodes in our nation’s history and I don’t believe the few who don’t are growing in numbers or influence. The media is (rightfully) giving genuine racists grief, even if the politicians are not. No one is trying to reverse the civil rights laws, and if they did they’d have no success. What about all the other suspect details surrounding this clash that I mentioned? Certainly no one behind the scenes in power would ever consider staging chaos, conflicts and false flags to distract us from other issues, right? Suddenly the statues have to come down, suddenly “Antifa” has to march in protest of them, and on the same day in the same town the “Right to Unite” crowd (neologism for the KKK) has to express their first amendment rights on the same matter, with both groups in each other’s faces and both brandishing clubs while the police withdraw rather than enforce the law and uphold the peace. You have no further questions about that constellation of purely “stochastic” events? You make a good follower.

        • BobS
          August 18, 2017 at 9:40 am

          “Why no action during the administration of the Peace Prize Messiah?”
          You mean like the city of New Orleans beginning the process of removal (interrupted by lawsuits to prevent) in 2015?
          Pretty much obviates all your ‘yelling-at-the-clouds’ that comes after, doesn’t it?

          • Realist
            August 18, 2017 at 11:10 am

            I keep telling you, you’re the one doing all the yelling around here, whether you are barking at clouds is beyond my ken. If that was a piece of work by Loretta Lynch it was certainly much less dangerous to Democratic election chances in a solid red state. Certainly not frought with danger as Virginia in 2016 would have been. So, it negates none of my analysis. Louisiana, yes, David Duke was probably a complainant in the lawsuit. He, specifically, is a racist. He’s acknowledged this. You would be making unwarranted assumptions about anyone else’s motives unless you know them personally and what they believe on this issue.

  8. Patricia Victour
    August 18, 2017 at 10:08 am

    When I hear that Trump is for or against something, I always have to wonder if he even knows what the “thing” he’s for or against really is, or is he (1) pandering to his base that he perceives as for or against the “thing,” or (2) are words being put in his mouth by his “advisors.” Animosity toward Iran is a baked-in-the-cake attitude on both sides in DC. What would HRC’s stand be, I wonder. No, I don’t.

    • BobS
      August 18, 2017 at 10:56 am

      Probably a continuation of Obama’s stand.

      • Gregory Herr
        August 18, 2017 at 1:54 pm

        Actually, BobS, her rhetoric was markedly more harsh than anything that came out of Obomber’s mouth. I doubt, had she gained the Presidency in 2008, that she would have negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran.

  9. mike k
    August 18, 2017 at 3:08 pm

    Have I said that Trump is an ignorant fool? He couldn’t find Iran on the map without someone guiding his finger.

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