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Axis of good and evil

Updated May 28, 2017 01:53am

ON his first foreign foray, President Donald Trump, apart from asking the 50-odd Muslim leaders assembled in Riyadh to act against “Islamist terrorism”, proposed a new alliance between the US, Arab-Muslim states and Israel to oppose Iran’s hegemonic expansion and support for ‘terrorism’, while simultaneously promising a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

In his Riyadh speech, Trump called this a struggle between “good and evil”. Unfortunately, the proposed coalition would combine many members who are ‘good’ with some who are ‘evil’.

Trump’s new plan reflects a radical turnaround from his expressed hostility to Islam and condemnation of Saudi Arabia and “radical Islamic terrorism” during the presidential campaign. However, despite the fanfare in Riyadh and Jerusalem, there are good reasons to be sceptical about this plan’s success.

Trump’s intensified opposition to Iran is in itself not surprising. Two main sources of his support base — the Republican right and Israel — were strongly opposed to Barack Obama’s engagement with Iran. They wanted the complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear programme rather than the agreement negotiated to ensure that Iran does not have the capability to develop nuclear weapons for at least a decade.

Obama’s apparent assumption was that in the wake of the nuclear bargain, Iran would use its considerable influence to help in stabilising Iraq and Syria and the region. For its part, Iran expected the US, under Obama’s Democratic successor (Hillary Clinton), not only to legally abrogate the nuclear sanctions but also work to eliminate the unilateral US sanctions imposed on Tehran in the context of terrorism and missile testing. Trump’s victory upended these assumptions.

Under Trump, Iran is doubtful that the nuclear sanctions will be cancelled by the US Congress and rightly fears that other US sanctions may be intensified, as threatened by Trump and his advisers and members of the US Congress. Consequently, while continuing to fight the militant Islamic State (IS) group and Al Qaeda in the region, Tehran has held back its cooperation with the US and enhanced its military role in all of the region’s conflicts.

The Muslim states at the Riyadh summit should review the pros and cons of joining the anti-Iran coalition.

While Trump has not renounced the nuclear deal, his administration is embarked on finding ways to intensify pressure on Iran. The aim, at the minimum, is to secure a halt to Iran’s missile testing, a more accommodative stance on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and termination of support to Hezbollah and Hamas. To challenge Iran, Washington has now aligned itself completely with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

For Riyadh, the return of its prodigal patron is heaven-sent. Angered by Obama’s ‘betrayal’, and fearful of Iran’s rising power, Saudi Arabia had hastily announced the formation of a 41-nation ‘Islamic alliance’ last year. Given Iran’s explicit exclusion, the response to the ‘alliance’ was lukewarm from most Muslim countries. The most notable development was the appointment of Pakistan’s respected ex-army chief to head the military alliance.

With the revival of the traditional US-Saudi alliance, as illustrated in the $110 billion in arms deals and $350bn in business contracts signed during Trump’s trip, the Saudis have less need now for the ‘Islamic Alliance’ against Iran although it would be a useful appendage to the renewed partnership with the US.

It is safe to presume that tensions in the Levant and the Gulf are likely to escalate in the wake of the new “co-relation of forces” unleashed during Trump’s trip. However, it will not be easy, even for the powerful coalition that is being formed, to reverse Iran’s dominant position in the region.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government in Baghdad depends on the Iranian-trained Shia militias to do most of the fighting against IS, and restrain the Sunni tribes and Kurdish ambitions. Similarly, Syria’s Assad could not survive without the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Shia militias.

In Yemen, the Iran-backed Houthis have proved resilient. Hezbollah, despite its preoccupation with fighting for Assad, possesses the missile capabilities to do serious damage to Israel from southern Lebanon and Syria. Iran also retains influence with Hamas, the only credible Palestinian resistance to Israel.

Finally, Iran’s capacity for retaliation under pressure cannot be underestimated. It can, among other things: foment trouble in the Gulf, especially Bahrain, destabilise Afghanistan and provoke sectarian strife in Pakistan.

Trump himself affirmed in Jerusalem that Arab cooperation in an anti-Iran coalition will be available only if a political settlement can be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians. The 2002 Saudi peace plan was mentioned as a basis for a settlement. This appears highly unlikely, given Israel’s virtual foreclosure of a two-state solution. Trump has raised expectations which are unlikely to be fulfilled.

Those Arab and Muslim states which were invited to Riyadh for the Arab Islamic American summit would do well to carefully review the pros and cons of joining the anti-Iran coalition.

As has been noted critically in the Pakistani press, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not able to speak at the Riyadh summit, nor to meet President Trump, while the leaders of lesser countries were accorded that privilege. This may represent a deliberate snub, probably administered by the Americans rather than the Saudis, or merely an organisational mishap. In any case, this diplomatic snub or snafu may be a blessing in disguise since it provides Pakistan with even greater justification to review its position on the anti-Iran coalition.

Since the early days, Pakistan has taken the consistent position that it will not take sides or participate in conflicts between Muslim states. Thus, it adopted a neutral stance during the Iran-Iraq war and participated in a six-nation Islamic heads of state committee to end the war. Such neutrality did not detract from Pakistan’s traditional commitment to the security of Saudi Arabia and the holy places.

This practised paradigm provides a sound guide for Pakistan’s policy in the current context.

Of course, Pakistan’s neutrality should be reciprocated by Iran in the context of Pakistan’s challenges with Afghanistan and India.

Finally, Pakistan should expect to be pressed by the US to fall in line with its regional strategy not only in the Gulf but especially in Afghanistan and South Asia. This is another reason for Pakistan to determine its policies after due consideration of the entire spectrum of its strategic interests.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2017