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Trump, Saudis & Iran: Is toppling in the offing?

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.
Published : Jul 18, 2019, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jul 18, 2019, 12:05 am IST

The measure seeks to authorise the President to suspend US visas of Saudi citizens, including specifically government employees and descendant

US President Donald Trump (Photo:AP)
 US President Donald Trump (Photo:AP)

The British warships in or steaming towards the Persian Gulf offer further evidence of Great Britain’s total subservience to the United States. When US President Donald Trump reneged on the “Iran nuclear deal” — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in July 2015 — and tried to pressure the other signatories to do likewise, they issued a joint statement that the United Nations Security Council resolution endorsing the deal remained the “binding international legal framework for the resolution of the dispute” over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Not any longer, it would appear, and certainly not for Theresa May’s discredited government tottering in the final stages of extinction.

Her passive obedience to Big Brother on the other side of what used to be called “the pond” — meaning the Atlantic Ocean — isn’t surprising after the way Tony Blair, the Labour Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007, kotowed to George W. Bush Jr over invading Iraq in 2003. Mr Blair’s first foreign secretary, Robin Cook, suggested that his boss worshipped power, which Mr Bush radiated. Ms May isn’t a consequential enough public figure for anyone to try to analyse her motives. What is worrying is that it isn’t yet clear whether Washington has another toppling in mind. While Mr Trump’s thunderous rhetoric and provocative actions certainly suggest another “regime change” may be in the offing, his earlier dire warnings about a border wall that Mexico would pay for suggests a degree of bluster in his political style not necessarily backed by action. At the same time, Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, isn’t the only head of government to accuse the United States of manufacturing humanitarian crises in order to find an excuse for invasion.

If the United States does embark on another such adventure, it will be less to support the principle of non-proliferation than to cosy up to Iran’s sworn enemy, Saudi Arabia, which has emerged as the central pole in America’s West Asian diplomacy. Mr Trump’s close partnership with the desert kingdom is causing ripples of resentment even in Washington, where both Republicans and Democrats cited the war in Yemen, the murder of a prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul and other human rights abuses to introduce legislation calling for a “comprehensive review” of the US-Saudi relationship. The bill introduced by Senator Jim Risch, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also criticises the all-powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and seeks to impose travel restrictions on Saudi royals until the kingdom improves its human rights record. The measure seeks to authorise the President to suspend US visas of Saudi citizens, including specifically government employees and descendants of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince’s ancestor, while allowing for exceptions for diplomatic personnel and heads of state.

The opportunity for voicing this disapproval came when Mr Trump sought congressional approval for an “emergency” transfer of $8 billion worth of precision-guided and high-technology weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for use in the Yemen war. The UAE now seems to be pulling out of Yemen, but it always played a secondary role in the crisis. Saudi Arabia is the principal player and also by far the biggest buyer of US arms. The bill is co-sponsored, among others, by Mr Trump’s close ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, who is critical of the Saudi Crown Prince, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat. Although the bill doesn’t mention weapons (possibly because selling them is so important for the beleaguered American economy) it is an undisguised indictment of Mr Trump’s foreign policy. Last year’s $110 billion deal with Riyadh will mean sales of tanks, combat ships, missile defence systems, as well as radar, communications and cybersecurity technology worth $350 billion over 10 years.

The great religious divide between Shia Iran, which has always prided itself on its Aryan roots, and the Arab world, which is overwhelmingly Sunni, can mean nothing to Mr Trump or his influential son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. But Mr Kushner’s reported friendship with the Crown Prince is held responsible for Riyadh’s acquiescence in Washington’s blind support for Israel at the expense of all moral and legal considerations as well as long-standing commitments to the Palestinians. The Saudis, once regarded as the leader of the Arab and Islamic worlds and foremost champion of the Palestinian cause, watched silently from the sidelines as Mr Trump underwrote the shift of the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which the Palestinians also claim, the annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights and the so-called Bahrain plan (believed to be Mr Kushner’s brainchild) which will deny sovereign independence to the West Bank and reduce it to the permanent status of an Israeli colony.

Iran may be the payoff. Mr Trump can even discharge his debt to Riyadh by punishing Tehran with an air of righteousness. The post-World War II dispensation that decided the nuclear regime recognises only five nuclear states. The others (including India) are still illegal. However, the signatories to the Iran deal — the United States, China, France, Russia, Britain, Germany and the European Union — solemnly assured Iran of certain economic benefits in return for restricting its nuclear programme. Having unilaterally broken that commitment, Mr Trump now regularly threatens the Iranian leaders with “obliteration” while needling them with provocative military action in the air and at sea. Reports indicate that Iran is no longer abiding by its side of the bargain regarding the quantity and level of uranium enrichment.  If so, and if as a consequence a threat of nuclear devastation looms over West Asia, the US President is to blame for recklessly betraying his country’s sworn word. It’s no excuse that the Iran deal was former President Barack Obama’s handiwork, which his jealous successor therefore feels compelled to undo.

Tags: donald trump, united nations security council