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Trump’s quest for allies against Iran

5 August, 2019

By Constantin Eckner – Junior Fellow

Following multiple incidents in the Persian Gulf, the White House is looking for allies to form a military coalition that is able to protect the Strait of Hormuz. Traditionally, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia will be at the United States’ side, but what about Qatar and others?

Securing old allies

In the White House’s quest for allies, the main goal is to secure the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, according to Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dunford recently stated that the US would provide intelligence and surveillance technology, while civilian ships could be escorted by an alliance of naval forces deployed in the region.

The Strait of Hormuz has been of significant importance to the world economy and global trade. About one-third of oil transported around the world on ships travels through the strait that separates Iran and Oman. The strait connects the oil producers in the region—Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Kuwait and Iraq—with the markets in Asia, Europe and North America. The Bab-el-Mandeb strait sits between Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea, and is the southern entrance to the Red Sea which leads on its northern end into the Egyptian Suez Canal. Multiple ships transiting the area have suffered attacks from Iran-back Houthi rebels fighting in the Yemen conflict.

Since parts of the route used by ships go through Iranian territorial waters, Iran has threatened to shut down the Strait of Hormuz. Just in the past few months, the tensions between Teheran and Washington have notably intensified thanks to the US withdrawing from the nuclear deal, which was one of Donald Trump’s election promises in 2016, and the Iranian government acting confrontationally in an attempt to advance the country’s position in relation to the US and Europe. Washington has accused Teheran of two attacks on petroleum tankers in the Persian Gulf. On top of this, Iran has shot down an American drone and captured a British tanker.

The United States is not alone in its desire to push back on the Iranian influence in the region. Local players such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also interested in doing so. Dunford has already confirmed that the US is in touch with a number of countries from the region, and the coming weeks will show who is willing to join forces.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, the situation seems to be quite clear. Riyadh and Tehran have been enemies for many years, while Saudi Arabia remains the closest partner of the US in the Arab world. Washington can be certain that the kingdom joins such an anti-Iran alliance. The relationship between crown prince Mohammad bin Salman and Trump is—despite some hiccups—intact. Saudi Arabia is also somewhat dependent on help from its partner. In the recent past, Riyadh has upgraded much of its military force, particularly with American equipment that it depends on US contractors to support. While this reliance is less than ideal from a sovereignty perspective, these acquisitions mean that Saudi Arabia could not only take care of logistics, but also provide naval and air forces in operations against Iran.

The other main ally for the US will most likely be the UAE, even though Dubai, in particular, has acted somewhat friendly towards Iran due to economic interests in the past. Because of its position as a commercial hub, Dubai kept an open and pragmatic relationship with Iran. However, the power balance within the UAE has shifted towards Abu Dhabi, whose crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan takes a more confrontational posture towards Iran, intending to make the UAE a co-leader of the anti-Iran front in the region.

What about Qatar?

In addition to its most stalwart allies, the US administration has realised that it has to integrate the small emirate of Qatar into the planned coalition. Just recently, President Trump welcomed the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to Washington and discussed his plans, while Qatar decided to buy American weapons and Boeing aeroplanes, and agreed to build a petrochemistry plant in the south of the US.

The tone has changed since 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and other countries set up a blockade, supported by the US, against Qatar. Back then, Trump accused the small emirate of acting as a main financier of terrorism and being in cahoots with Iran. The president has since then made a 180-degree turn in his approach. This is perhaps to be expected, as the most important regional US military base is located in Qatar, and logistics alone elevate Qatar’s position and make them indispensable for any alliance.

Doha is involved in multiple conflicts in the Middle East, including funding the Gaza strip. Qatar also has more influence on the Afghan Taliban than any other gulf nation, which turns them into a major player when it comes to peace negotiations. Moreover, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the affair surrounding Haya, the fled princess of Dubai, have damaged the image of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

But it remains up in the air whether Qatar is ready to fully commit to Trump’s anti-Iran alliance. On the one hand, Doha is certainly happy about being welcomed in Washington, as such a visit means its international position has been elevated and shows that the blockade initiated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE was not crowned with success.

On the other hand, Qatar has attempted to be as diplomatic as possible towards both Saudi Arabia and Iran in the past. Doha is now in a situation where it will most likely try to promote restraint but also not pose strong opposition against the operation of a military alliance. Qatar could use its participation in Trump’s coalition to ask the president for a favour: forcing Saudi Arabia and the UAE to end the blockade. If Trump wants to integrate Qatar into his alliance by all means, then his two strongest partners have to yield, if they do not have any interest in damaging their relationships with the president.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo recently spoke of more than 20 potential coalition partners to secure shipping traffic in the Persian Gulf. Out of all the Gulf nations, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman would be three next to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar who are considered. Since Bahrain is economically depended on Saudi Arabia and has no real independent foreign policy, it will follow suit. Kuwait and Oman could be more reluctant to join in. Neither possesses a strong military and are not as economically stable as others, which could mean that the two are—just like Qatar—more interested in keeping somewhat of a middle-of-the-road approach while not boycotting or even torpedoing any Washington-led operations.

While the US is focussed on pushing back Iran, it does not want to carry the costs of such a mission all by itself. It therefore seems likely that the anti-Iran coalition currently forming will have to accommodate a number of trade-offs to account for the differing priorities of its prospective participants. But such compromises should not be mistaken for a lack of resolve in Washington to contain the threat Tehran poses to its interests.

Image: US Navy ships transit the Strait of Hormuz (Source: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class J. Alexander Delgado)

About Constantin Eckner

Constantin Eckner is a Junior Fellow at the Human Security Centre. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of St Andrews with a research project on the public debate about asylum in Europe since the 1980s. His other areas of research include MENA security, EU foreign policy and human rights. Constantin holds an M.Litt in Modern History from the University of St Andrews and an M.A. in History and Political Science from the University of Goettingen. He has worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent for broadcasters and news agencies. Constantin is fluent in German, English, and Czech, and has working knowledge in Arabic and French.