Iran’s Crisis of Legitimacy
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader
In July 2019, Jason Greenblatt, then U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, attended a routine quarterly UN Security Council meeting about the Middle East. Providing an update on the Trump administration’s thinking about the peace process, he pointedly told the surprised audience that the United States no longer respected the “fiction” of an international consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Greenblatt went out of his way to attack not some extreme or obscure measure but UN Security Council Resolution 242, the foundation of half a century of Arab-Israeli negotiations and of every agreement Israel has achieved within them, including the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. He railed against its ambiguous wording, which has shielded Israel for decades against Arab demands for a full withdrawal from occupied territory, as “tired rhetoric designed to prevent progress and bypass direct negotiations” and claimed that it had hurt rather than helped the chances for real peace in the region.
The indignation was calculated. Guided by his boss Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser on the Middle East, Greenblatt was trying to change the conversation, to “start a new, realistic discussion” of the subject. UN resolutions, international law, global consensus—all that was irrelevant. From now on, Washington would no longer advocate a two-state solution to the conflict, with independent Jewish and Palestinian states living alongside each other in peace and security.
Greenblatt’s presentation was part of a broader campaign by the Trump administration to break with the past and create a new Middle Eastern order. To please a president who likes simple, cost-free answers, the administration’s strategists appear to have come up with a clever plan. The United States can continue to withdraw from the region but face no adverse consequences for doing so, because Israel and Saudi Arabia will pick up the slack. Washington will subcontract the job of containing Iran, the principal source of regional instability, to Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Levant and the Persian Gulf, respectively. And the two countries’ common interest in countering Iran will improve their bilateral relationship, on which Israel can build a tacit alliance with the Sunni Arab world. The proxies get broad leeway to execute Washington’s mandate at will, and their patron gets a new, Trumpian order on the cheap. Unfortunately, this vision is a fantasy.
In the mid-1970s, even as the United States retrenched after its defeat in Vietnam, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger successfully laid the foundations for a new, U.S.-led Middle Eastern order. His main tool was active diplomacy to reconcile Israel and its Arab neighbors. In many respects, his efforts and those that followed were strikingly successful, producing peace treaties between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and Jordan, as well as an interim agreement with the Palestinians.
Progress stalled during the twenty-first century, however, as the second intifada dashed hopes for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, the Iraq war empowered a revolutionary Iran, and the Arab Spring destabilized the region and triggered the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Whoever won the presidency in 2016, therefore, would have faced a bleak diplomatic landscape in the Middle East. Any recent administration would have responded to this situation by going back to basics and painstakingly trying to reconstruct the order Kissinger built, since it has, on balance, served U.S. interests well. Instead, the Trump administration decided to blow up what was left.
The Trump administration understands little about how the Middle East actually works.
This is not reckless mayhem or mere domestic politics, goes the official line, but creative destruction—demolition necessary to clear the ground for a grand new diplomatic structure opening soon. The brochures look great; they always do. But it is just another illusion.
The Trump administration likes to see itself as clear-eyed and tough-minded, a confronter of the hard truths others refuse to acknowledge. In fact, it understands so little about how the Middle East actually works that its bungling efforts have been a failure across the board. As so often in the past, the cynical locals are manipulating a clueless outsider, advancing their personal agendas at the naive Americans’ expense.
The Trump administration’s Middle East policies cannot possibly create a new, more stable regional order. But they will certainly do a good job of continuing the destruction of the old one, and risking all that it had gained. And this will fit neatly into Trump’s overall campaign to do away with the liberal international order in favor of the law of the jungle.
Each aspect of the Trump administration’s supposed new strategic triangle is misconceived, starting with Iran, a hostile would-be regional hegemon with a well-advanced nuclear program that Washington has been trying to contain for decades. In 2015, U.S. and European diplomats made a major breakthrough by negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a classic multilateral arms control agreement that finally brought Iran’s nuclear program under extensive international supervision. By the time Trump entered office, the agreement was functioning well in practice, and its inspections provided a high degree of confidence that Iran was not actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
The deal was hardly perfect. Its terms enabled Iran to resume parts of its nuclear program after ten years, it did not deal adequately with Iran’s ballistic missile program, and it did not address Iran’s aggressive efforts at regional destabilization. Still, the agreement took the nuclear file off the table and set a pattern for how to resolve contentious disputes. So the obvious next step for any incoming administration would have been to build on the JCPOA and tackle the other issues on the docket. Instead, in May 2018, overruling then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis and blatantly lying about Iran’s compliance, Trump shredded the agreement.
This was partly due to Trump’s personal obsession with Barack Obama. Anything his predecessor had done had to be undone, and the Iran deal was Obama’s signature accomplishment. But there was more to it than pique. In a speech soon after the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, Trump’s new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, unveiled the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of reimposed sanctions to cut off Iran’s oil exports, an effort that was designed to prevent the country from having “carte blanche to dominate the Middle East.” Pompeo issued a list of demands that together amounted to Iranian capitulation: no uranium enrichment, ever; no interference with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspections, anywhere; no development of nuclear-capable missiles; no support for Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Iraqi Shiite militias, the Taliban, or Yemen’s Houthis; no Iranian-commanded forces in any part of Syria; and no threatening behavior toward Israel, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates. In case there was any doubt, Pompeo was explicit: there would be no renegotiation of the JCPOA.
In Trump’s view, anything Barack Obama had done had to be undone.
These moves were not coordinated with U.S. allies and partners. The appeals of the other signatories to the JCPOA—China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the EU—were ignored, and they were even threatened with U.S. sanctions if they dared to buy Iranian oil, in contradiction to the agreement they had signed.
Meanwhile, the president was determined to withdraw U.S. forces from the region even more quickly than his predecessor had. The administration dramatically increased its demands on Iran, in other words, at precisely the same time that it was reducing its ability and will to deter Tehran’s nefarious activity in the region. The gap between rhetoric and reality was best expressed by Pompeo, who, one month after Trump made clear that he was determined to remove every remaining U.S. soldier from Syria, declared that the United States intended to “expel every last Iranian boot” from the country.
The chasm between intentions and capabilities would not be a problem, the Trump team insisted, because most of the burden of containing Iran would be borne by Washington’s two powerful regional partners, Israel and Saudi Arabia. There was a superficial logic to this approach, since Israel is now the strongest power in the region and Saudi Arabia is rich and influential. But it cannot stand up to scrutiny.
Israel has formidable military capabilities and a common interest with Sunni Arab states in countering Iran, but the United States cannot depend on the Jewish state to promote its interests in the Arab world. Israel’s unresolved conflict with the Palestinians has placed a ceiling on its ability to cooperate publicly with its neighbors. Arab states are often willing to make common cause with Israel under the table; Saudi Arabia has been doing so since the 1960s. But an open association with the Jewish state would allow Iran to pummel them for their apostasy and generate domestic dissent.
In February of this year, for example, Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to organize an anti-Iran conference in Poland. Netanyahu tweeted that it was “an open meeting with representatives of leading Arab countries, that are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of combating Iran.” Yet the Arab foreign ministers refused to appear on the same panel with him in the conference’s general forum. The best the Israeli leader could do was post an illicitly filmed video on YouTube of the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates discussing Israel. (The video was quickly taken down.) As for the United States’ European allies, they mostly sent low-level representatives, whose fate there was to be publicly chastised by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence for attempting to discourage Iran from breaking out of the nuclear agreement.
In Syria, meanwhile, Israel can’t achieve its objective of evicting the Iranian presence, which includes Iranian-backed militias with some 40,000 troops, without outside help. But with the United States heading for the exits there, Israel has had no choice but to seek Russia’s assistance, given its military presence and its influence on the Assad regime. Repeated visits by Netanyahu to Moscow, however, have gained only Russian President Vladimir Putin’s qualified acquiescence in Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets. The Israeli prime minister had hoped to use U.S. pressure and promises of sanctions relief to persuade Russia to press Iran to leave Syria, but that plan didn’t pan out either. This past June, Netanyahu invited the top U.S. and Russian national security advisers to Jerusalem to discuss joint action against Tehran. There, the Russian poured cold water on the plan, explaining publicly that Russia and Iran were cooperating on counterterrorism issues, that Iran’s interests in Syria needed to be acknowledged, and that Israeli airstrikes on Iranian assets in Syria were “undesirable.”
Netanyahu was so alarmed by Trump’s surprise announcement that he would withdraw residual U.S. troops from eastern Syria, where they were helping prevent Iran from establishing a land bridge from Iraq to Lebanon, that he had to plead with the White House to delay the withdrawal. But this stopgap measure has done nothing to remove Iran’s Syrian strongholds, and hundreds of Israeli strikes on Iranian positions have only increased the risk that the conflict will spread to Iraq and Lebanon and escalate to a full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Israel’s border with Syria had been quiet for almost four decades after Kissinger negotiated the Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement in 1974. The agreement included a carefully negotiated side deal between the United States and Syria that committed the Assad regime to preventing terrorists from operating against Israel from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. The disengagement agreement was based on UN Security Council Resolution 242, with its explicit prohibition on the acquisition of territory by force, which made clear that the Golan Heights was Syrian sovereign territory. Nevertheless, that UN resolution, which Greenblatt was so keen to disparage before the UN Security Council, allowed Israel to retain possession of the Golan Heights until a final peace agreement was reached. That is why Israel never annexed the territory, even though it considers it strategically crucial, maintains settlements there, and even has established vineyards and a robust tourism industry in the area. (Instead of claiming sovereignty, in a controversial decision in 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin extended Israeli law to the Golan, for which Israel was condemned by the UN Security Council, with the United States voting in favor.)
Israel and Syria managed to keep their deal going for generations, even upholding it as the latter descended into civil war and anarchy. When Netanyahu asked for Russia’s help in keeping Iranian-backed militias out of the Golan Heights in July 2018, he explicitly invoked the disengagement agreement, as did Putin in his press conference with Trump at their ill-fated Helsinki summit that same month. But that was all before Netanyahu sought Trump’s help in his latest reelection bid. In what Trump subsequently referred to as a “quickie” briefing, he was asked on Netanyahu’s behalf by Kushner and David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights (without even informing Pompeo, who happened to be visiting Israel at the time).
Trump was quick to agree. “I went, ‘bing!’—it was done,” he later told the Republican Jewish Coalition at its annual meeting in Las Vegas. And so in March of this year, he issued a presidential proclamation declaring that the Golan Heights was part of Israel. Trump boasted that he had done something no other president was willing to do. He was clearly unaware that no previous Israeli government had been willing to do it either, knowing that it would violate a core principle of UN Security Council Resolution 242 and not wanting to reap the whirlwind.
The cheap political gambit wasn’t even successful. Netanyahu couldn’t secure a majority in national elections two weeks later and was forced to take part in another campaign in the fall, in which he came up short again. But Trump’s snap decision will have lasting implications, undermining the disengagement agreement, giving Putin justification for his illegal annexation of Crimea, and reinforcing U.S. and Israeli diplomatic isolation. The result is a Tehran now free to establish its militias’ presence on the Syrian side of the border—with the blessing of Damascus, unconstrained by the antiterrorism commitment that Hafez al-Assad made to Kissinger all those decades ago. Sure enough, by July of this year, Israel was finding it necessary to bomb Hezbollah positions in the Golan Heights, left with violence as its only tool to prevent Iran from making mischief there.
Saudi Arabia has proved to be an even weaker reed for the United States to lean on. Riyadh has never before sought to lead the Arab world in war and peace. Recognizing their country’s limitations as a rich yet vulnerable state with a fragile domestic consensus, Saudi rulers have preferred to play a quiet, supporting role in the American-led order. Egypt, Iraq, and Syria were always the key players in Arab politics. But with Iraq battered, Syria in chaos, and a stagnant Egypt being whipsawed by revolution and counterrevolution, the way was clear for an ambitious, headstrong, and ruthless young Saudi prince to stake his country’s claim to Arab leadership. Coming to power in 2015, at the age of 29, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, first consolidated his control over the kingdom’s military and security apparatus and then launched an ambitious economic development program at home and aggressive interventions abroad, including a brutal campaign to suppress Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Newly exposed to Middle Eastern diplomacy on taking office, Trump jumped at the short-term benefits Saudi Arabia promised to deliver in both security and economics (a $350 billion arms deal that never materialized and the promise of huge investments in the United States). The young Saudi scion soon developed a bromance with his American counterpart, Kushner, which led to Trump’s first trip abroad, to an Arab and Islamic summit in Riyadh in 2017. This gathering was supposed to facilitate greater cooperation on countering violent extremism across the region; its sole tangible result was Trump’s greenlighting of an Emirati-Saudi decision to blockade neighboring Qatar, a crucial U.S. partner in the Gulf because it hosts Al Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. military facility in the Middle East.
Instead of focusing on Iran, the Saudis had duped Trump into taking sides in a local ideological contest, against another American friend to boot. The result was to split the Gulf Cooperation Council, further undermining its already limited ability to counter Iran in the Gulf, while driving Qatar into Iran’s arms, since it had no other way of maintaining access to the world except by utilizing Iranian airspace, something which the Iranians were only too happy to provide. This fiasco has bedeviled the administration ever since, with the Saudis blocking all attempts at patching up the rift.
The Saudis had duped Trump into taking sides in a local ideological contest against Qatar.
MBS’s war in Yemen has also created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Saudi Arabia’s atrocities against Yemeni civilians, carried out with U.S.-supplied aircraft using U.S. ordnance, have brought global outrage. The damage to the United States’ reputation has been so great that a bipartisan congressional consensus tried to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Trump brushed aside the challenge, but only by invoking executive powers, which further infuriated Congress and has jeopardized the sustainability of one of the pillars of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
MBS’s determination to seek a military solution in Yemen has met its match in the Houthis, whose dependence on Iran has grown with their ambitions to rule the country. Tehran is now supplying them with ballistic missiles and armed drones for use against Saudi targets, including civilian airports and oil facilities. (Hence initial suspicions of Houthi involvement in a September attack that took out almost half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production capacity. Although the disruption was short lived, Saudi Arabia’s once stalwart reliability as the world’s largest oil exporter has been put in doubt by the unintended consequences of its Trump-encouraged adventurism.)
The outrages continued to pile up when MBS apparently ordered the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Trump and Netanyahu did their best to shield their Saudi partner from international condemnation, and Trump even restricted congressional access to intelligence about the murder, sowing further divisions in Washington. With Riyadh so dependent on Washington and MBS momentarily vulnerable to intrafamily rivalries, the White House could have used the crisis to insist that MBS take responsibility for the murder and rein in his foreign exploits. But Trump didn’t even try, allowing the efficacy of Saudi leadership of the anti-Iran coalition to be further undermined.
Nor has Saudi Arabia helped much on the peace process. Experienced hands could have told Trump that the Saudis would never get out ahead of the Palestinians. But Trump had given responsibility for the peace process to Kushner, who was impressed by MBS’s refreshingly open attitude to Israel and disdain for the Palestinians and uninterested in the lessons of past failures. In 2017, MBS promised Kushner that he could deliver the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table on Trump’s terms. He summoned Abbas to Riyadh and told him to accept Kushner’s ideas in exchange for $10 billion in Saudi funding. Instead, Abbas refused and promptly leaked the details of the exchange, causing a furor in the Arab world.
MBS also promised Kushner that Saudi Arabia would acquiesce in Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and reassured him that any negative reaction on the Arab street would die down in a couple of months. That was enough for Trump to dismiss all objections and announce his decision at the end of 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the U.S. embassy there.
MBS was right about the reaction in the Arab street; it was hardly noticeable. But he had failed to warn Kushner of the other consequences. The crown prince might not have cared about Jerusalem, but his father certainly did. And while MBS may have been in day-to-day control of the kingdom’s affairs, final say still lay with King Salman. The al Aqsa mosque, in Jerusalem, is Islam’s third-holiest shrine; as custodian of the two others, King Salman could not stay silent. He promptly condemned Trump’s decision and summoned the region’s Arab leaders to a meeting the following April to denounce it collectively. King Salman has repeatedly stated ever since that Saudi Arabia will not support any settlement that does not provide for an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital—something Trump refuses to endorse.
The Jerusalem decision and embassy move blew up Kushner’s scheme to have Saudi Arabia play a leading role in the peace process. It also drove the Palestinians away from the negotiating table. In the wake of the decision, they cut off all official contact with the Trump administration, with Abbas condemning the forthcoming Trump peace plan as “a shameful bargain” that will “go to hell.” When Kushner unveiled the economic dimensions of Trump’s peace plan at a meeting in Bahrain this past June—designed to show the Palestinians that they would benefit from peace—the Palestinians boycotted the conference.
Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem drove the Palestinians away from the negotiating table.
Bullying was no more effective than bribing. Trump thought the Palestinians were so weak that he could bludgeon them into submission by cutting off aid, closing down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington and the U.S. consulate general in Jerusalem, and attempting to eliminate the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Once again, as anybody with experience in the region could have predicted, this didn’t work. Punishing the Palestinians only made them dig in their heels and rally behind their (otherwise unpopular) leadership.
Without the Saudis and the Palestinians, Kushner had little chance to secure Egyptian or Jordanian support for the crucial part of the plan, the political and security arrangements. King Abdullah of Jordan, in particular, became increasingly alarmed by the prospect that he might have to choose between Trump and the Palestinians if Kushner came forward with Trump’s ideas. King Abdullah’s largely Palestinian population would be furious if he accepted the plan, yet he feared alienating Trump and jeopardizing his billion-dollar annual aid package if he rejected it. (The Palestinian Authority was already finding alternatives to Trump’s aid cuts, but those sources weren’t available to Jordan.) Nevertheless, when Kushner made his final ask this past summer, the king refused—after which the launch of the full plan was once again rescheduled for some “more appropriate” time. Recognizing that it had no future, Greenblatt resigned.
Another Saudi-inspired initiative, the proposed Middle East Strategic Alliance, also went nowhere. Riyadh assumed that Trump could pull the neighboring Arab states into a coalition to counter Iran. Dubbed the “Arab NATO,” it had Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf Cooperation Council coming together under a U.S. security umbrella to enhance their cooperation and, as a White House spokesperson put it, “serve as a bulwark against Iranian aggression.” Israel would be a silent partner. The project’s internal contradictions revealed themselves at the initial meeting in September 2017, and it quickly stalled. Trump eventually appointed Anthony Zinni, a former commander of U.S. Central Command, as a special envoy to move things forward. Given the reluctance of the other Arab states to bait the Iranian bear, however, Zinni was unable to make any headway, and he resigned in January. Three months later, Egypt withdrew, and the initiative died.
Just like its blundering on other fronts, the Trump administration’s efforts on Iran have produced few positive results. It seemed for a while that the “maximum pressure” campaign was reducing Iran’s funding of its proxies abroad. Yet those operations have always been run on the cheap, and with some belt-tightening, they have continued apace. Hezbollah is still trying to add precision-guided missiles to its arsenal in Lebanon, Iranian-backed militias in Syria are staying put, and the Houthis in Yemen and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza have actually had their funding increased.
Not content with the maximum, in April of this year, Trump dialed up the pressure even further by designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and denying waivers to China and India for the purchase of Iranian oil. With its economy crashing and the Europeans failing to provide adequate sanctions relief, Tehran decided enough was enough.
Up to that point, the Iranians had been exercising what they termed “strategic patience”—waiting for the 2020 U.S. presidential election, toughing things out in the meantime, and keeping the Europeans onboard by sticking to the nuclear agreement. Now, Iran decided to retaliate.
First, it reduced its compliance with the JCPOA by expanding its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. Then, it resumed higher levels of enrichment. And in September, it restarted centrifuge development, shortening the breakout time for nuclear weapons production. Since Trump was the first to walk away from the accord, ripping up the painstakingly developed international legal consensus that prevented Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, the United States was in no position to say or do anything to stop it.
Iran’s moves are putting Trump in an increasingly tight corner. If he does not persuade the Iranians to reverse course, he will come under pressure from his hawkish advisers and Netanyahu to bomb their nuclear program, a dangerous adventure. But the only way to persuade them is to grant Iran sanctions relief, which Trump is clearly loath to do. The tension is also rising because Iran is now striking at U.S. interests across the region: six oil tankers hit by mysterious attacks just outside the Strait of Hormuz, an Iranian missile attack on the Golan Heights, confrontations in Gaza provoked by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Saudi oil fields struck by drones.
In May, Trump responded by dispatching a carrier strike group and bombers to the Gulf, but when it came to retaliating for the shooting down of a U.S. drone, he blinked. The Iranians got the message: Trump likes to talk war, but he doesn’t like to wage it. They understood that he prefers making deals. So they cleverly offered to start negotiations. Sensing another made-for-television summit, Trump jumped at the offer and invited Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to meet on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September, saying of the Iranian problem, “We could solve it in 24 hours.”
Almost three years into his term, Trump has nothing to show for his efforts in the Middle East.
The about-face alarmed Trump’s partners, especially Netanyahu, who spoke out against it. The Saudis became more circumspect in responding to the September drone attack on their oil fields. The Emiratis wasted no time in hedging their bets, dispatching officials to Tehran to resume long-stalled maritime security talks. For Trump’s Middle Eastern partners, a meeting between the impulsive and unpredictable U.S. president and the cool, professional Iranian president was their worst nightmare.
Almost three years into his term, Trump has nothing to show for his efforts to counter Iran or promote peace in the Middle East. Instead, his policies have fueled the conflict between Iran and Israel, alienated the Palestinians, supported an unending war and a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and split the Gulf Cooperation Council, possibly permanently.
There is another path the United States could take in the region, an approach far more conducive to the interests of Washington and all its allies and partners. It would require stepping up U.S. diplomacy and scaling back U.S. objectives to what can plausibly be accomplished with the means available. Contain Iran rather than try to roll back its gains or topple its regime. Maintain the residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq and Syria. Get back to the JCPOA and build on it to address other problematic Iranian behavior, using measured sanctions relief as leverage. Resolve the dispute in the Gulf Cooperation Council and engage all the relevant parties to try to end the conflict in Yemen. Return to the pursuit of an equitable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where prospects for a breakthrough may be low but engagement is necessary to preserve the hope of a two-state solution down the road. Treat Israel and Saudi Arabia as crucial regional partners but not subcontractors free to do whatever they want. And instead of spurning international consensus, try to shape it to align with U.S. interests.
This alternative path might eventually lead to a successful renovation of the grand project Kissinger began half a century ago. But if the United States continues to follow Trump’s folly instead, it should not be surprised to find itself alone in the desert, chasing a mirage.