When Donald Trump arrived in office U.S. influence in the
Middle East was in broad decline. In the previous eight years, Iran and Russia
had established vast influence and an on-the-ground presence in Syria, Iran was
seen to be the rising power throughout the region, and U.S. relations with both
Israel and the major Sunni Arab states were strained.
In two years Trump has turned that around.
U.S. power has been used to decimate Islamic State in Syria and shrink its geographical presence. Relations with Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf states are much closer. The U.S. has withdrawn from the deeply flawed Obama nuclear agreement (JCPOA) that Israelis of all major parties had opposed, and has reimposed full economic sanctions on Iran aimed at damaging its economy and reducing the cash available to it for aggression, subversion, and terrorism.
The U.S. military presence in Syria has helped prevent Iran’s consolidation of control through the Assad regime, and Trump administration officials have recently said expelling Iran is a key American goal.
Relations between the United States and Israel are excellent, and the U.S. no longer shies away from the toughest possible defense of Israel in the United Nations system, including vetoing all biased resolutions in the Security Council. In protest against maltreatment of Israel, the U.S. has resigned from the UN Human Rights Council and from UNESCO.
Trump’s policy has been grounded in realism. The decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem reflects that attitude: Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, so why should the embassy be anywhere else? The president saw the issue as a simple one and was not cowed by Arab threats or State Department predictions of doom.
Similarly, he saw UNRWA as manufacturing new generations of purported "refugees" rather than solving the refugee problem, so his conclusion was clear: we will contribute no more American money to that organization. He has also cut off funds for the PA, in the face of both its absolute refusal to end the payments to terrorists and their families, and the PA/PLO refusal to negotiate seriously with Israel and the United States over a possible peace agreement.
There are two cases where relations with the United States have suffered: the PA/PLO and Iran.
While the JCPOA was being negotiated Iran’s terrible conduct in the region - support for Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, putting IRGC and Hezbollah troops in Syria, subverting Bahrain, arming the Houthis in Yemen with missiles to shoot at Riyadh and at ships in the Bab el Mandab - was largely ignored.
No longer. So the tone of U.S.-Iran relations has become more hostile. This is a reflection of reality, and will not change unless Iran’s conduct does.
The U.S. now sees Iran as the region does: A country led by a malevolent regime that continues to promote terror and regional instability, while maintaining the ability to relaunch its nuclear weapons program. Trump has stated that he would be willing to negotiate with Iran as he has with North Korea, but it will not be a phony negotiation producing anything like the JCPOA, nor will he believe or argue that "moderates" in Tehran are in charge and are great partners.
There remain serious challenges in the two years ahead in Trump’s first term.
Refugees are still leaving Syria rather than returning to it, and there has been no progress on a political settlement that would ultimately allow Syrians to choose their country’s leadership. Iran and Russia have made far greater investments in supporting Assad than the U.S. and its allies have in opposing him.
Similarly, in Yemen, the U.S.-supported efforts of Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not yet changed the balance of power and a political solution is therefore not yet possible. In Iraq, the new government appears likely to seek a balance between Iran on one side, and the Sunni Arab states and the U.S. on the other, because it does not want Iranian domination.
In all these cases, the president’s desire to avoid being dragged into more Middle East ground wars will conflict with his wish to support friends and allies and his intention to push back against Russia and Iran.
Diplomatic outcomes will always reflect the real balance of power on the ground, and (as we saw in the various failed Kerry negotiations) the United States and its allies cannot win at the conference table what they have not won on the ground. Trump administration officials and the president will be facing many difficult decisions as they balance military and diplomatic goals with his desire for a light footprint.
What Trump has achieved already is a reassertion of the American presence, diplomatic in some cases (think of Jim Jeffrey’s efforts now as the new Syria envoy) and military in others. He has reasserted that the U.S. knows who its friends are and who they are not, a simple, old-fashioned yet absolutely indispensable stance for a world power.
Ask Israeli officials about that - and then ask the ayatollahs.