ABU DHABI // Dealing with Iran, the conflict in Yemen and finding a viable outcome to the Syrian crisis are the main challenges the United States will face in the Middle East this year, according to a report by an American think-tank.
The 2017 Global Forecast by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies found that the US will also have to work on rebuilding its partnerships with its Arab allies and decide upon its level of commitment to the defence of the Gulf against Iran.
“I think the main question for the new administration (of Republican Donald Trump), one that seems less sympathetic to Iran than the outgoing one, is how it will deal with it,” said Mishaal Al Gergawi, managing director of the Abu Dhabi think-tank, the Delma Institute.
“On one hand, many will welcome holding Iran accountable for regional expansion and its direct and indirect participation in various civil wars.
“On the other, 2017 is an election year in Iran, and if the new US administration plans to counter Iran and it starts to look like the nuclear deal will not bear its fruit, then [president Hassan] Rouhani might face either losing the election or be forced to pursue a much more hawkish campaign and second term.
“What does that look like? I think that’s a very difficult and important question.”
The US will also have to reshape its counterterrorism efforts to fight the remnants of ISIL and help Iraq find a post-ISIL settlement that addresses tensions and divisions between Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds.
“The foremost challenge will be to regain trust and confidence of its allies and to regain that element of deterrence that it has lost among regional foes and enemies,” said Professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences.
“The new administration has to rebuild trust because US allies have problems in trusting it and believing it.
“This is because, firstly, it declared red lines and never stuck to them, as in Syria. Secondly, a result of (outgoing president Barack) Obama’s [lack of] confrontation with (Israeli prime minister) Netanyahu on the settlements in the West Bank and, thirdly, because of its unconvincing show in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.”
Although US vice president Joe Biden reassured Gulf allies in March that his country was committed to strengthening and stabilising the region, relations are strained due to a weak US presence.
“Hopefully the US will be more willing to confront Iran,” Prof Abdulla said. “Over the past years, we’ve seen the US reluctant to understand that Iranian expansionism is a threat to its allies and to its own interests.
“Confronting Iran really, truly is what brings back confidence in the US and sends a credible message that it is serious about its own interests.”
Dr Albadr Al Shateri, politics professor at the National Defence College, said the new US administration brought unpredictability.
“However, given (Mr Trump’s) nominees for the national security team, one can safely say [they] are hawkish on Iran and political Islam,” he said. “These two subjects are of great concern to the Arab Gulf states and may provide grounds for cooperation.”
Mr Trump’s administration is set to inherit some long-standing and complex security challenges.
“The US needs to work out a formula to take its regional partnerships out of troubled waters and drive them forward,” said Sabahat Khan, senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
“For the incoming Trump administration, Iran is a player that is linked to many regional challenges for the US and its regional partners, so the White House will need to be ready with a clear policy in terms of what it wants and how.”
He said when Mr Trump takes office this month, he will inherit not just the Iran nuclear deal from the Obama administration but the instability of Syria, Iraq and Yemen – all crises that took form and spiralled out of control under Mr Obama’s watch.
“Assessments suggest that the Trump administration will take a tough position on Iran because the current regional trajectory is untenable,” said Mr Khan. “This does not make a military clash inevitable, but it does raise the stakes and there is serious business to be done.”