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Iran‘s Waiting Game With Trump?

Contrary to some wishful thinking following the Trump administration’s decision to “put Iran on notice” and seemingly restore U.S.-Saudi ties, there are little signs of apprehension in Tehran.

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As the Donald Trump administration appears to be taking a tougher line on Iran and the U.S. Congress ponders new hostile actions against the country, several members of the European Parliament visitedTehran in mid-March. The visit, organized jointly by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, close to the Social-Democratic party, and the Institute for Political and International Studies, the Iranian foreign ministry’s think-tank, served to take the temperature in Tehran.

Contrary to how some wishful thinking has it, following the Trump administration’s decision to “put Iran on notice” and seemingly restore U.S.-Saudi ties, there are little signs of apprehension in Tehran. The European delegation found a remarkably self-confident Iranian leadership, well aware of its assets and ready to play a long game, convinced that it has the geopolitical winds at its sails. Beyond the official anti-American rhetoric, the Iranians tend to see Donald Trump as a non-ideological dealmaker who, sooner or later, will have to come to grips with reality and recognize Iran’s predominant role in the Persian Gulf and broader Middle East.

There are reasons for the Iranians to feel self-confident. Iraq, which for the best part of the 20thcentury served as a counter-balance to Iran, is now ruled by a friendly Shia-dominated regime that, while by no means Tehran’s puppet, is unlikely to re-emerge as a credible challenger to Iran any time soon.  Tehran also has under its wings battle-hardened Shia militias, who, in case of increased American pressure, could resume harassing American forces in Iraq once Mosul is liberated from the common enemy—the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS).

Further west, meanwhile, the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria ensures a much stronger Hezbollah as a deterrent against potential hostile Israeli moves targeting the Islamic Republic.

Even the sometimes-touted possibility of a Russian-American deal in Syria at the expense of Iran does not seem to bother Iranians much. While Russian air power has certainly helped the Assad regime, it is the Iranians who have most of the assets on the ground, in the form of Hezbollah and proxy Shia Islamist groups. Iranian officials like to insist that they are Russia’s partners, not its clients. For example, they pointed to Iran’s absence in the UN General Assembly vote in December 2016 on the resolution that condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a fact that reportedly caused considerable irritation in Moscow. Whatever a possible reset with the U.S., Russia knows it will need Iran’s buy-in for any credible exit strategy in Syria.

When it comes to the Persian Gulf, intensive Saudi Arabian efforts to enlist Trump’s support reek of desperation to the Iranians. As Trump and his officials persistently identify “radical Islamic terrorism” as their main enemy, for many of their supporters this enemy has a face and a name: the Saudi kingdom. It is noteworthy that the multi-million Saudi effort to derail or dilute JASTA (the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act) has failed, and no sooner had deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman left Washington after his meeting with Trump, than 800 American families of 9/11 victims filed a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia over its alleged complicity in the 2001 terror attacks.

Despite the effusive rhetoric about a “turning point” in U.S.-Saudi relations following Mohammad bin Salman’s visit, Iranians believe the Saudis are unsure as to what they can really expect from Trump and therefore are hedging their bets by selectively engaging Tehran. One example of this is a recent agreement between the two countries on Iranian participation in this year’s Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca). And Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s recent visits to Qatar and Oman have shown that smaller Gulf countries (to which Kuwait should also be added) have a more pragmatic attitude, and are prepared to reach out to Tehran without seeking Riyadh’s approval.

Add to this the fact that the only regional power capable of challenging Iran in terms of its size, geography, population, economy and army—Turkey—is going through domestic turmoil provoked by the President Erdogan’s divisive politics, and the picture of the Iranian strategic ascendancy is complete.

The Iranian expectation that Trump will accept these realities is rational, for it would be a logical consequence of Trump implementing his own oft-repeated priorities: limiting the US involvement in world affairs in favor of a domestic agenda, ending free riding by U.S. allies, and focusing on the fight against ISIS. The way to achieve all these objectives would not be to drastically escalate existing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen in order to roll back Iranian influence, as is often suggested by Washington-based think-tanks and op-eds. On the contrary, Iranians believe that Trump should accept Iran as one of the pillars of the emerging new regional order in the Middle East, alongside other powers. Trump could take a page from Richard Nixon’s playbook, who, when a post-Vietnam America tried to extricate herself from costly entanglements overseas in the 1970s, managed to skillfully balance Iran and Saudi Arabia.

These days, given the Saudi failure in Yemen and profound repercussions that it is likely to have on the kingdom’s domestic stability and struggle for succession, tilting towards a more stable and powerful Iran would make even more strategic sense. Iran also views ISIS as its unambiguous foe, a policy it shares with the U.S.

However, such a redefinition of the Middle Eastern alliances would require a bold and strategic-minded leadership in Washington. Now in its third month in office, the Trump administration has yet to show any of these qualities. On the Iranian side, by contrast, lingering anti-Americanism has not prevented the leadership from privileging, time and again, national interest over ideology. The Iran nuclear deal, shows that Iran is capable of responding to positive incentives and delivering on its side of the bargain. It cannot be ruled out that, eventually, just as it happened with the nuclear issue, the Americans will realize that the only realistic option they have in the Middle East is to negotiate with the Iranians over the regional order as well. The question, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is how much more damage will be wrought on the region before the Americans do the right thing.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

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