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ÜNAL ÇEVİKÖZ >Donald Trump and the new Middle Eastern paradigm

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Donald Trump’s first visit abroad is to Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. This will be followed by Israel and the Palestinian territories. Then, he will go to the Vatican and onward to Brussels to meet NATO leaders.

Predecessor Barack Obama pursued a reverse order. He started with Canada, then went to the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Turkey. This was an apparent NATO priority, but it also underlined the new U.S. president’s view of Islam and democracy by choosing Turkey, a country which enjoys secularism guaranteed by its constitution.

Obama’s choice was a significant attempt to correct the tainted image of the United States in the Islamic world following the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the last eight years, the U.S. has upgraded its standing in the Middle East and North Africa by several achievements, the nuclear deal with Iran in the P5+1 format being the most important of all.

It is a fact, however, that terrorism is on the rise globally, and many believe that terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are using Islam as a tool to realize their perverted ambitions. Donald Trump started to react to this reality on the very first day of his presidential term by means of making it a focal point in his inauguration speech. Then, he moved further by signing decrees to prohibit nationals of six Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia gave him the opportunity to address representatives of more than 50 Muslim countries at an Arab summit meeting. Syria and Iran were not present at the meeting. This helped King Salman target Iran in his opening speech in which he identified Iran as the “tip of the spear of global terrorism.” The king of Saudi Arabia also told the whole world in his speech that “we did not know terrorism and extremism until the Khomeini revolution reared its head.”

This rhetoric is little different from what Trump argues. He seconded King Salman’s accusations, speaking after him, by saying that “Iran was providing Syria with safe harbor, financial banking and the social standing needed for the recruitment” – of terrorists, apparently. It is important to underline, however, that the main terrorist organization which is the target of the whole international community in Syria is ISIL, a Sunni terrorist organization against which Iran is fighting, too.

Trump will probably find a similar animosity against Iran in his next stop, Israel. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel declared that they were very disappointed to see Obama sign the nuclear deal with Iran and have argued that it should be undone. This was exactly the approach Trump adopted in his election campaign.

Where are we heading in the Middle East? Is Trump’s visit to the Middle East aimed at enhancing intra-Islamic polarization that will be based on the Shiite-Sunni divide?

In Iran, however, the recent presidential elections resulted in the victory of the incumbent president Hassan Rouhani, an ardent supporter of reform in his country. Rouhani has invested a great deal of effort in dragging his country out of isolation because of the nuclear issue and finally succeeded in wrapping up the deal with the U.S. and the four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany.

Rouhani’s opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, based his election campaign on a criticism of Rouhani’s policies and accused him of pursuing soft policies against the West. The Iranian people, however, in sharp disagreement with Raisi, elected Rouhani again. It is obvious that years of long isolation, as well as sanctions imposed on the country, have affected the Iranian nation unfavorably.

As Trump is trying to antagonize Iran in the region by means of prioritizing Saudi Arabia and Israel in his first foreign trip, the Iranian people are looking for a reset with the new American president. The nuclear deal with Iran was not achieved easily. Its sustainability will be the demonstration of commitment to goodwill, stability and peace in the region.

This is also what the Iranian people want. It would be a huge mistake to undermine the parameters of “détente” in the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf. Let us hope that Trump’s confrontational attitude will change with the message from the Iranian people and will not result in an undesired escalation in the region.

May/23/2017

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