Donald Trump ended his second week as president Friday, Feb. 3, by demonstrating his resolve to cut Iran down to size. This is his main preoccupation in the Middle East to the exclusion of all other Middle East issues.
After Trump personally warned the Islamic Republic that it was “playing with fire,” the US Treasury released a fresh round of anti-Iran sanctions, targeting 13 individuals and 12 entities, some based in the UAE, Lebanon and China. In the next hours, the USS Cole destroyer was posted to the Red Sea’s Bab al Mandeb Straits, after Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels began planting mines in the strategic waterway and oil route chokepoint.
This was seen in Washington as a fresh Iranian provocation for escalating tensions, six days after a Houthi suicide attack in fast boats on a Saudi frigate on patrol in the Red Sea, and attacks on US vessels in October.
National security adviser Michael Flynn’s statement Wednesday putting Iran “on notice” for last week’s ballistic missile test, drew a snooty response Thursday night, from a top adviser to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that Iran will not yield to “useless” US threats from “an inexperienced person.”
Trump had evidently decided that Tehran’s scornful provocations deserved a fitting response.
He also pushed to the side all other Middle East questions.
Israel got a light tap on the wrist from another White House statement Friday, that its “new or expanded settlements in the West Bank may not be helpful in achieving Middle East peace,” although the US “has no official position on settlement activity.”
Jerusalem was given to understand that the Trump administration was too busy turning the screws on Iran to deal with “Middle East peace” and develop a settlement policy.
In this sense, Donald Trump is taking the opposite line to Barack Obama, his Secretary of State John Kerry and European powers today, who judge Jewish West Bank settlements to be the root cause – not just of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but of most other Middle East woes.
The US president also made little time for the visiting King Abdullah of Jordan, who, after moving heaven and earth to be received in the Oval Office, had to be satisfied with breakfast with Trump in Washington – even though Jordan is a vital element in the US-Russian safe zones plan for Syria and moreover host to a US Central Command war room for Syria.
DEBKAfile’s sources in Washington report: After dodging the settlement issue, Trump was just as anxious to avoid being cornered on Jerusalem by the Jordanian monarch, which he would not have escaped had he received the king officially at the White House.
This does not mean that the new US president intends to line up with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or Education Minister Naftali Bennett on the settlement or any other issue. If he acts in character, Trump will not be sidetracked from his main objectives by actions which he views as irrelevant. He has said in the past that he would try his hand at Middle East peacemaking.
But for now, he is fully focused on getting Iran and its proxies, especially Hizballah, out of Syria. This goal is so challenging that he can’t hope to achieve it without Russia’s military assistance. Trump is willing to pay a high price for this help, including letting Vladimir Putin push his way into one corner after another n the Middle East, or standing aside for a partial reconciliation between Egypt and the Palestinian Hamas terrorists.
Last week, Ayatollah Khameinei still believed that by letting the Revolutionary Guards of the leash for provocative actions, he could push Trump back – hence the missile test, the Houthi suicide boats, and the advances made by pro-Iranian Shiite militias on the Mosul front in Iraq.
But Friday, the US President laid down his markers for the US-Iranian contest which has begun to unfold, and is not ruling out its further escalation into full military confrontations, which may involve America’s allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.
This contingency came up in the long conversation Trump held with Saudi King Salman on Jan. 29 and is widely covered in the Israeli prime minister’s almost daily discussions with members of his administration. Early Friday, Netanyahu talked on the phone to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
They all appreciate that Tehran or its Middle East proxies, such as the Lebanese Hizballah, may well hit back at the Trump administration in Syria or by limited military strikes against Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
These eventualities top Washington’s agenda for now and will dominate Middle East affairs in the near future.