The Battle for Regional Hegemony: A Realist Examination of the Trump Administration’s Handling of Competing Coalitions in the Middle East
Since the beginning of the United States’ intervention in the Middle East, countries around the world have looked to our involvement as an example of the dangers of overextending resources and lack of planning. Following the September 11th attacks in 2001, the United States military intervened in Afghanistan to drive the Taliban from power, and then in 2003 invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime. These decisions inserted the United States military into the Middle East for the next two decades, with little reason to believe there will soon be a dramatic scaling back of involvement. In what has been dubbed ‘endless wars,’ the United States was dragged into conflict in which there were no clear exit strategies, with regional developments further entrenching our involvement. At a certain point, the initial strategies in which the U.S. entered evolved as the situation changed. The geopolitical jigsaw puzzle across the Middle East is anchored by two rivaling powers: Iran and Saudi Arabia. The United States has sided itself with Saudi Arabia and its allies in its effort to restrict Iran’s regional influence. Iran’s utilization of proxy groups and links to terrorism has further motivated the United States’ dealings with Iran. The strategy for these dealings underwent a dramatic shift when in 2016, Donald Trump was elected as President. President Trump diverged from the overall strategy set by President George W. Bush and continued by President Barack Obama. Trump quickly left the Iran Nuclear Deal orchestrated by Obama while warming to Saudi rulers. His administration also influenced the normalization of relations between Israel and multiple regional adversaries like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Critics have expressed displeasure regarding Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia given their human rights violations; however, any chance of finding some form of success in the politically fractured region requires choosing which issues to prioritize for the sake of securing the homeland and America’s interests. Trump’s decisions have created a dilemma for the new Biden administration, who seek to return to the pre-2016 policies that Biden had a part in coordinating. This article aims to assess these dilemmas by analyzing where and how Trump modified foreign policy in the region concerning these battling coalitions and where policy was left relatively intact. Ultimately, while the United States’ realist approach under Trump had the opportunity for success, its flawed execution hurt our overall standing in the region, adding new challenges for the Biden administration that were not present after Obama’s second term.
When European world powers finally ended the destruction of the Second World War, colonizing countries like Britain, France, and Italy faced financial ruin and were forced to withdraw from the region. The plans they enacted to transfer power to the local populations were often rushed and ill-conceived 1. Competing nationalisms that formed in the region led to battles for control, including the repeating Arab-Israeli wars. The discovery of massive amounts of oil in the region, just as the global economy began relying on the energy source, made the land and regimes controlled them of international interest. Today, Saudi Arabia is the largest exporter of crude oil globally, and five of the top ten largest exporters are in the region. As economies modernized and grew, access and control over oil fields became increasingly important. International focus on the region gradually increased, and Middle Eastern countries developed rivalries mainly on religious lines. The two most influential countries include the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with a Sunni Muslim majority, and Iran, with a Shiite Muslim majority. Both of these countries have used this power interacting with their neighbors in different ways as two major alliances roughly formed. Saudi Arabia is the most powerful member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, with the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait also being member states. The United States, including its NATO allies, has traditionally been more supportive of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) than its adversaries. On the other hand, Iran has relied more heavily on proxy groups to do their bidding in the region. More recently, the Iranian regime has relied on the power vacuums that emerged following the Arab Spring in 2011 to utilize their proxy groups and gain influence. This has occurred in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen 2. Iran uses its controversial Revolutionary Guard Quds Force to organize, train, and supply groups vying for power in other countries. Many of these groups have been designated as terrorist organizations, leading to Iran’s characterization by the western powers as the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism 3. While most of the United States’ focus in the region is fighting many of these groups, the underlying objective is to limit the Iranian regime’s strength and influence.
Direct Dealings with Iran
The central diplomatic strategy pursued by the Obama administration revolved around the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran Nuclear Deal, that was created in 2015 and became effective October of that year. The JCPOA was a continuation of previous agreements in which Iran restricted its nuclear program in exchange for relief of sanctions. The Iran Nuclear Deal that President Obama’s administration finalized in 2015 drastically reduced Iran’s uranium stockpile for 15 years, forced Iran to store a majority of its centrifuges for ten years, limited its nuclear research program, and created an inspection system to ensure Iran’s compliance with the agreement4 . Some critics were dubious of its effectiveness both at home and abroad. Israel, a neighboring country, was one country that opposed the agreement, and many conservative lawmakers in the United States echoed their concerns. Polling in Israel from 2015 found that 70% of Israeli’s opposed the Iran Nuclear Deal, with only 10% supporting it and an identical percentage believing they could trust the United States to “thwart Tehran’s ambitions to produce unconventional arms.” 5. Domestically, GOP lawmakers criticized the agreement for being weak on Iran, and it would eventually become a large component of the 2016 presidential campaigns.
On top of reimposing sanctions and withdrawing from the JCPOA, President Trump’s administration took significant steps to escalate military tensions with Iran. In January of 2020, President Trump ordered a drone strike assassinating Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, commander of the aforementioned Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Soleimani was considered one of the most powerful figures in the Iranian regime, and his death sent shockwaves through the region and the world. His critics quickly pointed out the likely absence of legal authority, lacking statutory authority without approval from Congress, and potential for significant military escalation. It is worth noting that both the Obama and Bush administrations had similar opportunities and ultimately did not execute a strike for fear of retaliation against the over 5,000 American soldiers in neighboring Iraq and around the region 6. The location of the strike in Baghdad International Airport also had unintended, or perhaps overlooked, consequences. Iran and Iraq have a complicated relationship as the government in Iraq has ties to the United States as well as an intertwined history with Iran and shared Shia majorities. After the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003, Iran took advantage of the new power vacuum by flooding the country with pro-Iranian proxy groups. Iran exerted this influence on the weakened Iraqi state and created what Johan
Franzen of the University of Anglia called an “elected dictatorship” 7. As of recent, the mutual threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has tied Iraq, Iran, and the United States into tense cooperation. The shared enemy in ISIL prompted the Iraqi creation of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a group of up to 30 Shia militias tasked with defending Iraq against the existential threat of ISIL. Many of these militias were primarily supported by the Iranian Quds force, and therefore more loyal to Iran than their inhabited Iraq. Despite some of these militias’ repeated attacks against United States soldiers,8  these militias were mostly successful in combating the threat of ISIL and relied upon by the Iraqi government for protection. The Iraqi government incorporated these Shia militias into the Iraqi military in 2014 in attempts to install a chain of command through these militias to Iraqi officials. However, according to a policy briefing from the Brookings Institution in 2017, these forces remain “dominated by Iran-aligned, pre-existing militia groups” that ultimately report to their de facto leaders in either the Badr Brigade or the Kataib Hezbollah militias- both labeled as terrorist organizations by the United States 9 While the United States considered many of these Iran-aligned militias to be terrorist organizations, their success in defending the region from the threat of ISIL led to them becoming largely popular among the local populations, as well as the Iranian Quds force that supported them, commanded by General Qasem Souleimani 10. The already tense alliance between Iraq, Iran, and the United States, combined with the popularity of Soleimani and lack of control over these militias in the country by the Iraqi government created the considerable potential for violent backlash against United States soldiers positioned in Iraq. In addition to the threat against United States Soldiers, the United States’ wounded its reputation and influence in Iraq and the region. The General’s popularity among the local population prompted a quick backlash from the Iraqi parliament, who issued a resolution urging the Iraqi Prime Minister to rescind invitations for U.S. troops 11. President Trump further exacerbated tensions by threatening the bombing of Iranian cultural sites via tweet if tensions between the two countries did not settle, 12 repeating the claim the next day to reporters on Air Force One 13. The United States military ultimately faced several attacks with no reported casualties, however, the threat of escalating retaliation or increased radicalization remains ongoing. If the strike against Soleimani had been executed in a less careless manner, the decision makes sense given the overall strategy in the region. With more protection in place for retaliatory attacks against soldiers on the ground, coordination with Congress, and in a way that didn’t weaken our relationship with the government of Iraq, this strike would have been able to simultaneously eliminate a perpetrator of terrorism and send a strong rebuff against a pattern of provocations by the Iranian regime.
This strong message against Iran makes sense when viewing the decision through the perspective of the Middle East as a larger theater for a war against the Iranian proxy groups meant to consolidate Iranian control throughout the region. While conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are fought outside of Iran, they are often fought against groups that are not formally incorporated as Iranian forces but are trained, supplied, and organized by the Iranian regime. While conflicts in the region that the United States is involved in are not against any official part of the Iranian military, the Iranian military, specifically the leader of the Quds force, is involved in coordinating those at war with the United States military.
Indirectly Battling Irani Influence
Throughout President Obama’s term, some of his intervention decisions lacked consistency. Facing the fallout of the Arab Spring of 2011, in which large-scale pro-democracy protests collapsed authoritarian regimes, Obama decided to intervene in the Libyan Civil War but not in the Syrian Civil War.
The United States entered Libya with a UN coalition of 19 other countries to end the ongoing civil war, as well as the Gaddafi regime’s attacks against its own civilians. While the operation to topple the Gaddafi regime was a quick success, and in 2015 the United Nations created the Government of National Accord (GNA), it has not been able to restore political order to the country, and violent conflict in pursuit of control has persisted. While the U.S. has generally stayed out of the war after the creation of the GNA, the GNA and its military branch, the Libyan National Army, have received support from countries like Syria, Russia, the UAE, and especially Saudi Arabia. Although Iran is predisposed to counter any alliance involving Saudi Arabia that would increase Saudi influence, Iran’s lack of interest in the North African country compared to its closer regional neighbors, combined with Iran’s apprehension to oppose its allies, such as Syria and Russia, lead Iran to mostly stay out of the conflict. Following the lead of the past few years of his predecessor, President Trump decided to remain mostly removed from the conflict, saying, “The United States has right now enough roles.”14 The United States involvement in Libya has almost exclusively involved counterterrorism rather than involvement in the power struggle.15 In the conflict between Saudi and Iranian influence, this decision makes strategic sense due to Iran’s lack of influence or interest in entering the conflict.
One of the main groups involved in the Syrian conflict is Hezbollah, a Lebanese group known for being militants in a range of conflicts from Lebanon to Israel to Bosnia. Since its founding, the group has had intimate ties to the Iranian regime, being heavily influenced by the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and the group follows the “theological and sometimes ideological guidance of Iran’s supreme leader…”16 especially the military wing of the organization. In 2019, the Treasury Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea assessed Iran’s monetary contribution to the group at $700 million a year at one point, though sanctions against Iran have reduced that number recently 17. The al-Assad regime receives support from Hezbollah as well as Russia and is opposed by many western countries as well as Saudi Arabia. Despite Barack Obama’s declaration in 2011 that Bashar al-Assad should step aside, the administration decided not to use the U.S. military to intervene. The Obama administration ultimately decided that the United States’ strategic interests were not inherently tied to Syria and, further, that Syria’s minor role in the United States’ economy made the potential consequences outweigh the benefits of intervention 18. As the conflict continued, the U.S. began to take a more active role in the conflict, largely prompted by the rise of the Islamic State in the region. Large-scale intervention by Iran in the conflict in 2013 led Steven Heydemann of the Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution to wonder, “Is it a matter of interest to the United States whether Iran consolidates its position as a regional hegemon in the Arab East?”19 . With the United States not intervening in Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s regime received the advantage of support from the pro-Ba’ath Hezbollah, strengthening the Assad family’s control in the country. The absence of the United States in the Syrian conflict led to countries like Iran and Russia taking leading roles in the conflict, effectively weakening our diplomatic influence in the region. In 2014, in coordination with a larger coalition, the U.S. began airstrikes in Syria, although they mostly targeted Islamic State positions.20 A year later, the first 50 United States troops were sent to Northern Syria to help train local militias, and that number gradually grew.21 It wasn’t until 2017 that the United States executed its first airstrike against the Syrian Ba’ath regime.22 In October of 2019, after a reduction in the presence of the Islamic State in the region, President Trump decided to withdraw the 1,000 troops in the region,23 exemplifying that much of the motivation of the United States intervention in Syria stemmed from the need to fight ISIL, even though the U.S. does oppose the Assad regime. Despite this, the decision is to the detriment of the Saudi coalition, which is fighting hard against the Syrian regime, and must be to the pleasure of the triple alliance of Iran, Syria, and Russia.
Long marred by humanitarian concerns, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salmon, faced scrutiny from the international community over human rights violations, which stressed the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. International criticism was renewed after President Trump took office in 2017. The kingdom was reprimanded for the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Washington Post correspondent with close ties to the United States 24. Saudi Arabia also escalated attacks against civilians in the Yemeni Civil War. Their aggressive attacks against Yemeni separatist forces have led to more than three million people becoming internally displaced and the outbreak of disease and famine. The United Nations declares the humanitarian crisis “the worst in the world” 25. In response to an emboldened Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration took a significantly different approach than the two previous administrations; negligence, albeit negligence in exchange for a more powerful standing in the region.
The leading opposition group to the Yemeni government is the Houthi rebels, a Shiite group with ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah. Despite a lack of historical relations between the two countries, Iran capitalized on Yemen’s civil unrest during the Arab Spring in 2011 by supplying the Houthis with rockets, missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, explosives, and ammunition. The United States also found that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard provided training and assistance to the rebel group in northern Syria. Iranian support of the Houthis continued to grow as the group began achieving military success. In 2014, after the Houthis had captured the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, Houthi leaders traveled to Tehran and set up agreements to resume air service between Tehran and Sanaa, as well as pledges to increase Yemeni-Iranian cooperation 26. Recently, the Houthis began attacking Saudi targets in addition to continued strikes against the Yemeni government. The conflict is perpetuated by the fact that outside interests lay at the heart of the civil war. Iran sees the potential for increased influence in the region by helping the Iranian-tied Houthis gain power, and the Saudis would not allow their southern border to be placed under the influence of Iran. Despite the abhorrent and worsening crisis in Yemen, the United States has kept its close ties with the regional power. The Trump administration sees the threat of expanded Iranian influence, particularly so close to Saudi Arabia, and decided not to punish Saudi Arabia for targeting civilians and the already poor Yemeni infrastructure. In fact, in 2019, the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used an emergency waiver to avoid facing congressional oversight in the sale of billions of dollars worth of weapons to the Saudi kingdom, with many of these weapons likely to be used against civilians27 . Pompeo validated the emergency measure by referring to “Iranian aggression” and the volatility of the region28 . This action by the Trump administration demonstrates different priorities than his two predecessors. While Bush and Obama were motivated, at least in part, by support for democratic reforms in the region as well as protecting United States interests, the Trump administration was much more influenced by the latter.
Strong rebuffs by the United States to Iran and the militias tied to them are not enough in and of itself to restrict Iran’s influence in attempts to quell Iran-sponsored conflict. A strong competing coalition is necessary to secure that the United States’ economic and military security are anchored. This requires the United States not only to refortify the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) but also expand it to include more countries in the region and promote economic growth. In the case of strengthening the coalition between Saudi-allied countries, President Trump was unsuccessful and even counterproductive. However, with the goal of increasing the number of countries in the region aligned with U.S. allies, the President was somewhat successful. An example of the formal expansion of relations with a U.S. ally can be seen in the United States’ closest ally in the region and most militarily capable in the Middle East: Israel. Long burdened with regional animosity leading to large-scale conflict with neighbors, Israel has long been considered by the western alliance as a testament to the ideals they hope to spread in the region. At a 2012 AIPAC conference, Nancy Pelosi made the analogy that “Israel and the Jewish people remain a symbol of democracy…,” 29 stressing the United States’ long and continued partnership with the nation in a hostile region. For decades, Israel had maintained full diplomatic relations with only two neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, when the countries signed peace treaties in the late 20th century 30. Recently, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel signed agreements to normalize relations and establish diplomatic ties 31. Another optimistic development for this strategy was the lack of opposition from Saudi Arabia, with Prince Faisal bin Farhan saying the agreements “could be viewed as positive.”32 The move was to the dismay of Palestinian organizations, as the Palestinian nation was the subject of most of the controversy 33, however, it does serve the administration's objective to expand the network of relations in competition with Iran’s, strengthening U.S. standing in the Middle East.
On the other hand, President Trump has both witnessed and worsened the relationships between countries in the GCC. Qatar has maintained relations with organizations across the region’s ideological spectrum, including America, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed the “land, air, and sea blockade” and “issued a list of demands that would impair the sovereignty and independence of Qatar” 34. They justified the blockade by accusing Qatar of sponsoring terrorism, which the U.S. had previously acknowledged, especially regarding Hamas 35. A subsequent story by the Washington Post found that U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that UAE officials had plans to hack news sites owned and operated by the Qatari government to attribute false quotes to Qatar’s emir, the same quotes that the UAE used in their justification of the blockade 36. It is also worth noting that Qatar is a neighboring state of Iran, as well as the two countries’ economic codependence in the energy industry. This link between Iran and Qatar makes the move more likely to be motivated by efforts to push back against an emboldened Iran rather than Qatar’s reputation for harboring and funding terrorist groups. Despite an opportunity to use the United States’ capacity as a mediator to mend the GCC’s fractures while using the existing regional pressure against Qatar to force concessions on their terror-linked relations, President Trump supported the action. The day after the blockade began, President Trump tweeted his reiteration against the funding of radical ideology, adding, “Leaders pointed to Qatar - Look!” 37. Despite further cracking down on Qatar’s terror-linked activities, the move also risks pushing Qatar further from the GCC and America’s friends in the region, and therefore towards the influence of Iran’s own terror-linked regime. Many in Trump’s administration took neutral stances in pursuit of their foreign strategy and due to the large U.S. military presence in the country. Years later, the blockade remains, but some have expressed cautious optimism toward resolving the conflict 38.
Newly elected President Biden now faces myriad challenges to return to the state of foreign policy he left behind in 2017. Biden has expressed a strong desire to return to the JCPOA that was the highlight achievement in the Obama administration’s dealings with Iran, however after Trump left the agreement, the prospects of reentering are low. Iran has already denied an invitation to meet with the U.S. and European Union to discuss a return to the deal.39 While there is still a possibility of recouping the agreement, Trump’s departure from the JCPOA exemplifies the newfound lack of consistency in United States foreign policy from administration to administration, decreasing the incentive for Iran to return. While Biden will likely continue declining direct intervention in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts, airstrikes have continued in Syria, targeting Iran-backed militias,40 continuing the goal of pushing back against extremist forces as well as against Iranian influence. Additionally, in regard to Syria, Biden has cut support to Saudi Arabia for the Yemen Civil War over humanitarian concerns.41 Saudi Arabia will and should remain a country with close diplomatic ties to the United States for its strategic importance. Still, this move shows an emphasis return to humanitarian values in the United States’ foreign dealings. While this move does risk increasing Iran’s influence in the region, it shows the balancing act of past administrations between strategic objectives and moral values.
The most marked shift in long-term strategy that emerged in the Trump presidency was the shift away from humanitarian virtues and stated objectives in spreading democracy. A greater emphasis was placed on securing American interests at the expense of those stated virtues and goals. If that strategy is implemented, then our actions must be calculated to increase our reputation and influence in the region in order to isolate Iran. While Trump’s plan appeared to show the promise of a calculated realist approach in the region, it was continuously impeded and jeopardized by some of Donald Trump’s impulsive decisions, the consequences of which are now being dealt with under President Biden. After withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal to take a more hardline approach in Iran’s dealings and turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Saudi Arabia in commitment to that plan, President Trump often took one step forward and two steps back in the pursuit of his objectives, hurting our international reputation more than helping our strategic objectives.
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40. Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Airstrikes in Syria Target Iran-Backed Militias That Rocketed American Troops in Iraq,” The New York Times, February 26, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/25/us/politics/biden-syria-airstrike-iran.html.
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