President Donald Trump’s speech last week in Saudi Arabia was touted as opening a bold new strategic plan, a Trump-style answer to President Barack Obama’s historic 2009 speech in Cairo. The speech, given at the Arab Islamic American Summit, was the centerpiece of Trump’s Middle East junket, his first trip abroad as president. It was supposed to be about mobilizing an Arab Sunni coalition against what Trump called “Islamic terror of all kinds,” telling U.S.-backed Muslim leaders that they had to do more, especially against the Islamic State group.
But the speech had far less to do with the Islamic State group than it did with one of the few Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, whose leaders were not invited to the glittering Saudi palace: Iran.
Iran vs. the Islamic State group. Trump repeatedly called for Sunni Arab unity against Shiite Iran, which he alleged was providing unnamed terrorists with “their territory, their funding and the false allure of their craven ideology.” From “Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen,” Trump claimed further, “Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region.”
Given the earlier parts of Trump’s speech, listeners could be forgiven for assuming Trump was talking about Iran’s support for the Islamic State group. The problem, though: Iran doesn’t support the Islamic State group.
In fact, like the hard-line Sunni Saudis, the Islamic State group views Shiite Muslims – all of them – as heretics, and Shiite-dominated Iran as one of its biggest enemies. Iran has been fighting the Islamic State group for years, even as the Saudis and their Gulf allies have supported a host of hard-line Sunni terrorist forces all over the region.
Admittedly, Iran has committed serious human rights violations in its anti-Islamic State group campaign – including backing Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brutal regime and various Shiite militias in Iraq. And Iran’s campaign is no more likely than our own military interventions in those countries (which have run up a horrifying human rights toll of their own) to lead to any permanent solution to the problem of terrorism.
But Trump’s speech ignored the reality of Iran’s actual regional role, which includes battling the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq more or less alongside the U.S. and its allies.
Human rights, off the table. Unlike Obama, whose Cairo speech in 2009 made at least a pretense of trying to engage with ordinary people in the region, Trump made clear that his audience was precisely the small coterie of Sunni Arab rulers in the room – who were, virtually to a man, absolute monarchs and dictators with little regard for human rights, and a shared reliance on U.S. military and political support.
“To the leaders and citizens of every country assembled here today, I want you to know that the United States is eager to form closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce,” Trump told his autocratic hosts. Details like human rights – and the gang of rulers gathered in Riyadh represent some of the worst violators in the world – were irrelevant.
“We are not here to lecture,” Trump told the assembled dictators. “We must seek partners, not perfection – and to make allies of all who share our goals.” (Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross apparently agreed, gushing afterwards that there “was not a single hint of a protestor” in Saudi Arabia – no accident in a kingdom that still beheads people for things like blasphemy and adultery.)
Arms for autocrats. “Not here to lecture” must have been a relief to the assembled royals. But in case some of the Gulf kings and princes were still worried, Trump reminded them that he and King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman had just signed “a $110 billion Saudi-funded defense purchase” – and, he added, “we will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies.”
That deal was arranged by scions of the two ruling families – Saudi family representatives plus Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who made a middle-of-the-meeting phone call to the CEO of Lockheed Martin to request a lower price for the Saudis.
The package will put more of Washington’s most advanced weapons in the hands of the Saudis, who are currently using them to wage a devastating war on Yemen, where rights groups have warned war crimes may already be taking place. Yet instead of relaying those concerns to his hosts, Trump thanked the Arab rulers for their “significant contributions to regional security,” singling out “Saudi Arabia and a regional coalition have taken strong action against Houthi militants in Yemen.”
The new arms deal included precision-guided munitions that the Obama administration had refused, on human rights grounds, to provide to Riyadh (although Obama did approve massive sales of other arms). The Saudis want to escalate their deadly assault on Yemen, a one-sided war that has already killed over 10,000 people in the impoverished country and left millions of Yemenis facing famine.
The U.S. has lent direct military and logistical support to that effort from the beginning. And now the Trump administration has even indicated the U.S. will support a Saudi escalation against Hodediah, the one port in the country capable of unloading humanitarian aid shipments.
Saudi Arabia bills its Yemen war as a defensive measure against Iran, based on the false claim that Yemen’s Houthi rebels somehow represent an Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia. While the Houthis appear to have accepted some help from Iran, theirs is an indigenous opposition that’s simmered in Yemen for decades – and virtually no experts view them as a proxy force for Tehran.
Ironically, Trump is ratcheting up his anti-Iran alliance with Arab autocrats precisely as the Iranian people are sending much more conciliatory signals. Indeed, Trump failed to even mention Iran’s recent election, in which a large majority of voters supported a second term for the moderate President Hasan Rouhani over his hard-line rival Ebrahim Raisi. The result means that Iranians support continuing the nuclear deal and opening Iran to the world.
Yet Trump urged his nascent Arab coalition against Iran to “pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they so richly deserve” – as though any of them would allow their own citizens a government based on justice and righteousness.
After he left Saudi Arabia, Trump headed to Israel, whose right-wing government publicly lobbied the U.S. Congress against the Iran nuclear deal, even as the Obama administration was negotiating it. Trump’s goal there was to figure out how to buy Israel a membership in his rising anti-Iran coalition. As he welcomed Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised what he called the “welcome change, a strategic change of American leadership and American policy” on Iran and the Middle East.
Make no mistake, though: The change is only toward greater support for Middle Eastern dictators, an increased flow of arms to human rights violators and a shift against diplomacy toward Iran, the one Middle Eastern country where it’s been most effective. And in a room full of autocrats, what a surprise there was no one to protest it.