Weekend Reads Trump Has Busy Day in Vortex of Middle East Relations

02:45  09 june  2017
02:45  09 june  2017 Source:   The New York Times

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President Trump on Wednesday, when he tried to play peacemaker in a dispute between Qatar and other Sunni Muslim neighbors, offering to invite both sides to the White House. © Al Drago/The New York Times President Trump on Wednesday, when he tried to play peacemaker in a dispute between Qatar and other Sunni Muslim neighbors, offering to invite both sides to the White House.

WASHINGTON — Rarely has the Trump administration spoken of Iran other than to condemn it as the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism and an aspiring nuclear weapons state. So when the White House woke on Wednesday to images of a possible Islamic State attack on Tehran, it prompted a heated debate: How does President Trump condemn the violence without seeming to embrace the victims?

Several administration officials said it took most of the day to work out the terse, curt wording of a White House statement that mixed sympathy with the suggestion that Iran’s own behavior made it a target.

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“We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people, who are going through such challenging times,” Mr. Trump wrote. “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”

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The statement capped a day during which Mr. Trump thrust himself into the messy politics of Persian Gulf states, trying also to play peacemaker in a bitter dispute between Qatar and other Sunni Muslim neighbors that threatens to splinter a Mideast alliance fighting the Islamic State.

For the administration, Wednesday served as a reminder that the world does not operate in the black-and-white terms that Mr. Trump used on the campaign trail and on Twitter, one in which the Sunni-dominated Islamic State and Shiite Iran are part of a continuum of “radical Islamic extremism.”

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“This is an illustration of the competing priorities and contradictions facing this administration, which will prove hard to reconcile,” said Robert Malley, the top Middle East policy official in the Obama White House. “You can’t be all-out against Iran, all-out against ISIS and terrorism, and maintain ‘America First’ — another way of saying keeping a light footprint in the region.”

Just a day earlier, on Tuesday, Mr. Trump posted a series of tweets taking credit for Saudi Arabia’s move to isolate Qatar and appearing to ally with Riyadh. In a quick turnabout, however, Mr. Trump called King Salman of Saudi Arabia and asked him to draw up a list of grievances for Qatar to address, according to a senior administration official.

That call followed several by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, who knows the Sunni gulf leaders from his days as chief executive of Exxon Mobil. He asked Saudi officials to list the demands they want Doha to meet in return for an end to the dispute, which has spurred an embargo against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and several other states.

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The Qataris were shocked at the contradiction between the evenhanded statements issued by the State and Defense Departments and Mr. Trump’s tweets castigating the tiny gulf state, and began asking American officials whether a longtime alliance was in peril.

By Wednesday, Mr. Trump offered to invite both sides to the White House, if necessary, and suggested Mr. Tillerson could act as a mediator. The president also called to the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, to drive home his tweeted urgings to cut off financing of extremist groups. While Qatar’s support for those groups — including the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudis and Egyptians consider a serious threat — is without question, the same charge could be leveled at Saudis, who have allowed funds to flow to other Sunni extremists.

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Analysts said Mr. Trump’s public statements and tweets supporting Saudi Arabia had emboldened the kingdom and sent a chill through other gulf states, including Oman and Kuwait, that fear that any country that defies the Saudis or the United Arab Emirates could face the same ostracism as Qatar has experienced this week.

“Everyone in the region is looking over their shoulder, thinking, ‘This is potentially us,’ ” said Gerald M. Feierstein, a former ambassador to Yemen who was the State Department’s second-ranking diplomat for Middle East policy from 2013 to 2016.

Mr. Feierstein, now the director for gulf affairs at the Middle East Institute, said that “the bottom line for us is, we have to come out of all this with a consensus on combating terror finance and not blowing the G.C.C. to smithereens,” he said, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council, the loose association of Sunni Arab states.

Among the Saudi complaints about Qatar — which focus mostly on charges that it finances extremists and hosts Al Jazeera, the Arab news channel that is frequently critical of the Saudis — is its episodic cooperation with Iran. That may add to Mr. Trump’s own suspicions about Qatar.

Ultimately, Mr. Trump told leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar that the campaign against the Islamic State would be more effective if the Persian Gulf was unified. Mr. Trump also spoke on Wednesday with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, to underscore G.C.C. unity as a way to promote regional stability, “but never at the expense of eliminating funding for radical extremism or defeating terrorism,” according to an administration statement.

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Mr. Trump’s hesitant response to the terrorist attack in Iran underscored that the hurdles to pursuing a unified strategy come from Washington as well.

The Trump administration is divided about how to deal with Iran, and two White House reviews of Iran policy have been grinding ahead for weeks. (One focuses on the future of the Iran nuclear deal, the other on the overall future of America’s dealings with the Islamic republic.)

One faction in the National Security Council has been pressing to find ways to sanction Iran, hoping to reimpose economic penalties against Tehran that were lifted after the 2015 nuclear agreement between world powers and the Islamic republic. But that strategy risks blowing up the accord, which others in the administration — including Mr. Mattis and the national security adviser, H. R. McMaster — have said should be preserved to keep Iran from racing to develop a nuclear weapon. The agreement, which Iran has complied with to date, forestalls that ability by 10 to 15 years.

But there appears to be no chance, administration officials say, that the Trump administration will seize any opportunity to find common cause with Tehran on fighting the Islamic State. Nor does there appear to be a strategy yet for managing the growing competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran for dominance of the Middle East.

The result is that while the Trump administration now finds itself in the middle of the Saudi-Qatari dispute, it may soon find itself caught between the Saudis and Iran. On Wednesday, Tehran accused Saudis of likely being the terror attack against the Parliament in Tehran, despite no evidence of such responsibility so far.

“It’s in U.S. interests to try and compel Tehran and Riyadh to address their differences and cooperate against ISIS,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Acrimony and distrust between Iran and Saudi Arabia only causes more civilian casualties in Syria and Yemen, more refugees pouring into Europe, and more Sunni and Shia radicalism.”

“In lieu of a grand strategy,” he added, “our Iran policy must be sophisticated and nimble enough to cooperate when possible, counter when necessary, and contain intelligently, until the Islamic republic’s internal contradictions force a course correction.”

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