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Trump in Riyadh – Time to Confront Iran?

Donald Trump speaks at a the Stop The Iran Nuclear Deal protest in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on September 9, 2015. Notables at the protest were Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson. The event was organized by the Tea Party. (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

by Hanin Ghaddar*

On his first trip abroad as a US President, Donald Trump is scheduled to visit Saudi capital, Riyadh, on May 21 to hold a US-Islamic-Arab Summit. In addition to Saudi officials, 56 Arab and Muslim leaders have been invited to discuss combatting extremism, the war in Yemen, the threats of ballistic missiles and maritime shipping in the red sea.

But that’s not all. Syria and Iran will certainly be on the agenda. Iran and its regional allies were not invited to this summit – and will not even be consulted on its proceedings, so it seems that the discussion on countering terrorism will place Iran at the center of the threats. Its proxies in Syria and the rest of the region will also not be spared.

This visit – which will be followed by another to Tel Aviv – indicates that Trump is re-aligning the White House with Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s anti-Iran position, after Obama’s administration sought to compromise Iran’s role in the region in order to achieve the Iranian Nuclear Deal. This visit signals a new era that will seek to counter Iran’s influence throughout the region. How? It is unclear, and there are hopes in Washington that this summit will provide some answers.

Until today, it is still unclear how the US is planning to achieve this goal. The only US anti-Iran action that has taken place so far is the missile strike against the Syrian air-base, in response to the government’s chemical weapons attack which killed more than 80 civilians. Besides, we’ve been hearing many threatening statements against Iran and its regional proxies – mainly Hezbollah – without any specific strategy or plan to execute these threats.

Of course, it has been only 3 months since Trump moved to the White House and after eight years of engaging Iran, it might take a while for the new US administration to come up with a new strategy. And this visit to the Middle East might be a good opportunity for trump to consolidate efforts and rally allies before finalizing a plan.

One thing is for sure; the Arab world – both governments and people – are sick and tired of war, and are eager to find a way to end it. They are also eager to finally have the US on the same page regarding Iran’s expanding role in the region.

Iran will not be part of the solution – obviously no Iranian or pro-Iranian official will be sitting at the table. This meeting is not Astana. Therefore, Assad’s fate will be on the table, and Iran’s proxies will be a major part of the discussion. But according to this administration, countering Iran involves countering ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Therefore, any kind of plan will have to involve a discussion on the war against ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa.

Houthi militiamen hold posters depicting Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah during a gathering to show their support to Hezbollah (Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
use they were asked by its government and president to help. Without Assad, Iran and Hezbollah will lose this justification. Also, Assad is a tool for ISIS and Al-Qaeda to lobby support. These extremist organizations survive on war and sectarian conflict and they also use Assad and Iran in Syria to bring in supporters and members. Assad is the reason why both Sunni and Shiite extremists exist and he needs to go in order for Syrians to start a new era in Syria.

Two, when and if ISIS is defeated – or at least removed from Mosul and Raqqa, Iran and its proxies should not be allowed to replace it. There are worries today that the regime in Syria –Iran’s proxy by default– will take over Raqqa once it is liberated. This should not happen, as it will only strengthen Iran.

Three, Iran’s proxies in Syria and Iraq should not be allowed to creep into State institutions. The Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq are gradually being integrated into the Iraqi army. In Syria, many of the militias are being coopted into some of Assad’s army battalions. We have seen in Lebanon how Hezbollah has managed to take over Lebanese State Institutions from within. When Hezbollah was allowed to integrate itself in the state institutions in Lebanon, it was just a matter of time before they took over. With Lebanon’s “lessons learnt,” Iran’s proxies should not be allowed into state institutions in Iraq and Syria, no matter what. If they do, even for the reasons of inclusiveness, Iran will manage to take over. Iran and its proxies only seek hegemony and will try to make decisions on behalf of everyone else, once they are part of state institutions. This issue should also be on the table.

There are a number of good signs that indicate a willingness to seriously discuss ways to counter Iran and it’s proxies in the region. For example, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun was not invited to Riyadh. Instead, Prime Minister Saad Hariri was invited. Also, right after Riyadh, Trump will fly to Tel Aviv, where it is safe to say that Iran will be the main subject of talks.

The GCC have an Iran problem. Trump and his administration have an Iran problem. Israel has an Iran problem. So far, everybody has been complaining about Iran without doing anything, because efforts haven’t been consolidated in one comprehensive strategy. To counter Iran’s operations and influence in the region, an alliance with one long-term strategy has to be formed, and this trip seems to be aiming at this.

Iran has already built roots in many parts of the region, and the land bridge its been constructing to connect Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria is almost complete. However, it is not too late to stop this bridge and start confronting Iran and its proxies on the ground. It might be difficult to force Iran out of the region immediately, but it is not as difficult to contain it. Now is the time, and in this context, this visit is very timely.

*Hanin Ghaddar is a Friedmann Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for the Near East Policy. She tweets @haningdr

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