Trump’s bluster

May 23, 2017

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INTERNATIONAL politics can often resemble the theatre of the absurd. Certainly, US President Donald Trump’s address to a hall full of leaders from across the Muslim world on Sunday in Riyadh could fit the description. Both during the poll campaign and his presidency thus far, the American leader has demonised Muslims and singled them out for sharp criticism. And yet he was given a red-carpet reception by the kings, potentates and presidents-for-life who lord it over the Muslim world. Mr Trump had at one time toyed with the idea of setting up a ‘registry’ of Muslims in his country; he also signed an executive order banning the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority states before it was suspended by the American courts. But, bizarrely enough, at the summit he lectured his audience on the virtues of “hope and love”.

However, there was very little “hope and love” where Iran was concerned during the Arab-Islamic-American Summit. By excluding it from the event, the organisers and participants sent a pointed message to Iran that it did not belong in the ‘Islamic’ category. Moreover, Mr Trump did not mince his words; he lambasted Iran and accused it of fuelling the fires of “sectarian conflict and terror”, adding that Tehran must be isolated. The Saudi king, the host of the conclave, himself set the tone before Mr Trump’s address by referring to Iran as the “spearhead of global terrorism”. Since 1979, when the imperial order in Iran was overthrown and replaced with a hybrid clerical-democratic regime, Riyadh and Tehran have had frigid ties. The Saudis accuse Iran of wanting to ‘export’ its revolution, while the Iranians consider Saudi Arabia an American ‘stooge’, scheming against their interests. While this cold war has continued for over three decades, today, the Saudis and Iranians have come dangerously close to a full-blown confrontation. This state of affairs calls for regional efforts to reduce tensions between the two countries and to ensure that the focus on fighting terrorism in the Muslim world is not lost. Unfortunately, by not extending an invitation to Tehran to participate in the summit and by giving space to the American leader to criticise Iran, the kingdom has only worsened matters. A summit that features numerous Muslim states can be an excellent forum for discussing differences. At this summit, there was only bluster.

The fallout of the Riyadh conference, which our prime minister attended, raises questions about the Saudi-led military coalition that this country’s former army chief leads. Considering the anti-Iran bombast, will the coalition focus on the militant Islamic State group and similar organisations, or will it target Iran and its regional proxies such as Hezbollah and the Houthis? Pakistan’s Foreign Office should clarify its position on the summit proceedings and Mr Trump’s vow to isolate Iran. Meanwhile, Pakistan would be well advised to stay away from any sectarian adventure.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2017