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The New Administration's More Sympathetic Ear For The Arabs

For many of the Arab regimes in the region, the election of Trump as president of the United States is positive, if only because Obama's presidency is ending.

No less important to them is that the incoming administration is expected to toughen its policy towards Iran. The Arabs blame President Obama not only for Iran's growing hegemonic footprint but also for the rise of the "Islamic State" due to his hasty withdrawal from Iraq.

As part of his "leading from behind" policy, Obama's Washington sought to move away from its traditional leadership role in the Middle East. The Obama administration was also seen as having neglected allies and drawn closer to enemies. America's credibility, image of strength and deterrence eroded due to not meeting commitments, weak responses and sometimes lack of responses to provocations and even attempts to harm American forces.

One of the immediate results of this policy was the increased involvement of players from outside the region, who received a greater ability to influence the process of shaping its future. Arab countries, Egypt and Saudi Arabia among them, were forced to adopt a more independent foreign policy, which did not always match American policy objectives, and sought additional external diplomatic and even military backing.

The Trump administration's first steps in the region will be significant for how it is perceived. Trump has already managed to distance himself from some of his statements against Muslims, and Arab officials who have criticized him now seek to turn over a new leaf. The Gulf States in particular are encouraged by the firm tone of Trump and his defense secretary, Mattis, towards Iran, and the new administration is likely to be attentive to their concerns.

Unlike the Israeli prime minister, who spoke on CBS's 60 Minutes on dismantling the Iran deal, Arab leaders do not want the nuclear agreement to be cancelled at this stage. In their view, this would cause more harm than good at this point—the strengthening of the extremists in Iran, difficulty reviving the sanctions regime, and renewed uranium enrichment in Iran, possibly at an increased rate. In two conferences held in November in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Arab leaders sounded more concerned about Iran's regional conduct, which appears to have become more aggressive since the signing of the nuclear agreement, and about its increasing influence in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.

Some of the Arab leaders now hope that Trump will place less of an emphasis on human rights and allow for greater latitude in suppressing real and imagined opposition to their rule. The election of Trump is also accompanied by concerns. He will likely want to see them carry more of the defense burden, beyond purchasing weapons and hosting American bases. In addition, there are concerns over the new winds blowing in Washington towards Russia. The latter may receive better conditions from Trump and his secretary of state, Tillerson, in any future arrangement in Syria. Trump will find it difficult to rebuild relations with Arab states while embracing Putin. Many in the region are also dissatisfied with some of his statements regarding Israel, especially his declaration that he will move the American embassy to Jerusalem. Even if the Palestinian issue is not their top priority, the fulfillment of this pledge would certainly bring about a crisis with the Arab states.

Some of the responses to Trump's election have deviated from protocol and reflect a hope that his policy will be different than that of his predecessor. Arabs and Israelis alike will find a more sympathetic ear on Iran in Trump's White House, hoping that he will take a tougher approach toward the Shia state regional conduct and that he will not encourage further rapprochement with the latter.

Arab regimes hope that President-elect Trump will start pushing back on Iran's ambitions in the Middle East, moving away from Obama's narrow approach—seeing the latter through an arms control lens—and not to shy away from presenting a credible threat to use force against Iran for its propping up dictators such as Bashar al-Assad and supporting terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. President-elect Trump's emphasis on renewing American power and his sometimes unpredictable behavior may have already unsettled the ruling clerics in Iran.

However, Trump, who has emphasized his desire to place "America first," may focus on internal issues more than his predecessor did. He may also choose to distance himself from personal involvement in the Middle East's issues, and reduce American involvement in the region. Either way, by almost any standard, the Middle East is the least stable region on the planet, and additional American distance from it would certainly not add to its stability. Leaders of Arab states can find comfort in the saying, "You can take America out of the Middle East, but you can't easily take the Middle East out of America."

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