March 1, 2017 Special Dispatch No. 6807

Saudis Optimistic On Trump Administration's Middle East Policy, Express Hope It Will Act Against Iran

March 1, 2017
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 6807

The beginning of the presidency of Donald Trump in the U.S. generated optimism in Saudi Arabia about the new American administration. This was especially the case in light of the previous presidency, that of Barack Obama, during which the U.S. and Saudi Arabia grew apart, and the Obama administration's measures in the Middle East that were contradictory to Saudi political positions – the apex of which was the JCPOA agreement.

Although during the elections the Saudis expressed no explicit support for Trump, since his inauguration they are expecting the next four years to bring U.S. action aimed at weakening Iran and supporting Saudi policy, and at strengthening U.S.-Saudi ties as well as U.S. ties with other Sunni countries.

These Saudi expectations have been bolstered by some anti-Iran statements made and measures taken by the new U.S. administration. Among other things, President Trump attacked the JCPOA, calling it a bad deal that saved Iran from bankruptcy,[1] and Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated that Iran the world's "biggest state sponsor of terrorism."[2]President Trump also tweeted criticism of Iran's takeover of increasingly large parts of Iraq.[3]Additionally, following the January 30, 2017 attack by the Iranian-backed Houthis on a Saudi frigate on the Yemeni border, the U.S. deployed the USS Cole to the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb off the coast of Yemen.[4]Furthermore, according to recent reports, the administration is considering designating Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.[5]

Saudi expectations of U.S. policy under Donald Trump and praise for the new administration and its perceived policies are being expressed in statements by Saudi officials as well as in numerous articles and cartoons in the Saudi press. Additionally, many of the articles discussing the administration predicted that future American moves in the Middle East would serve Saudi interests, particularly in its rivalry with Iran.

This report will review comments by Saudi officials, as well as excerpts from articles in the Saudi press published since President Trump's inauguration, reflecting this Saudi optimism vis-à-vis the new U.S. administration.

Trump takes aim at Iran (Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 6, 2017)

Saudi Officials: Trump's Aggressive Messages To Iran Are A Welcome Change

The compatibility between the political positions of the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia's desire to weaken Iran and consolidate its image as fighting terrorism were clearly expressed in a January 29, 2017 phone conversation between President Trump and Saudi King Salman. According to the White House, the two agreed that the JCPOA must be "rigorously enforced," and that Iranian actions that destabilize the Middle East should be addressed. They also agreed to bolster their joint efforts to combat the spread of radical Islamic terrorism.[6] A Saudi news agency report on the conversation also stated that President Trump and King Salman see eye to eye on the issues of the fight against terrorism and its financing, and that they discussed the U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership and its economic, security, and military aspects.[7] These same topics were raised in another phone call, on January 31, between Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in which the two discussed the implementation of the previous conversation between the two leaders on U.S.-Saudi strategic cooperation, the fight against terrorism, and opposition to Iranian interference in Middle East affairs.[8]

Saudi Arabia's enthusiasm about the new American administration was clearly discernable in comments by Saudi officials, chiefly Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and Foreign Minister 'Adel Al-Jubeir, before and after Trump's inauguration, expressing overt support for the U.S. and hostility towards Iran.

Thus, on January 9, 2017, some two weeks before Trump's inauguration, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman told Foreign Affairs magazine in an interview that he was interested in renewing the strategic dialogue between the countries, which under Obama had stopped for reasons that were not clear.[9] Similarly, in a January 15 press conference, Al-Jubeir said that Saudi Arabia has no fear of Trump, but seeks the same thing he seeks in fighting terrorism and in firmness vis-à-vis Iran.[10] In a separate press conference in Riyadh, on January 24, Al-Jubeir said that Saudi Arabia supports the vision of President Trump, who seeks to combat ISIS and block Iran, adding that Saudi-U.S. relations are longstanding, as is their ongoing cooperation in security, politics, and economics. He also said that Saudi Arabia yearns for a positive American future worldwide.[11]

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2017, Al-Jubeir praised Trump, calling him "a pragmatic man who seeks to solve crises and lead the world, and who acts to close any loophole that terrorist organizations could exploit." He added: "Just like us, he believes that we must get rid of ISIS, and the officials he appointed to his administration have a lot of experience and are highly capable. Therefore, we expect to see American involvement [in Middle East issues] and rational foreign policy..." Al-Jubeir also echoed the Trump administration's designation of Iran as the country that sponsors terrorism more than any other in the world.[12]

Trump declares Iran "No. 1 Terrorist" ('Okaz, Saudi Arabia, February 8, 2017)

The following day, Al-Jubeir added to his praise for Trump and his policy, in an interview with the German daily Der Spiegel, in which he said that Trump was realistic and not crazy, and that the Saudis share his goals of combatting terrorism and upping the pressure on Iran. As for Trump's ban on entry to the U.S. for citizens of seven Muslim countries, Al-Jubeir said that the decision did not target Saudi Arabia and that in any case the Saudis respect Washington's right to oversee all those who come into the country. He added that Saudi Arabia was optimistic and was expecting more cooperation with the U.S. than in the past, and that Trump's aggressive messages to Iran were a welcome change.[13]

Saudi Press: High Expectations From The Trump Administration's Anti-Iran Policies

Saudi expectations of closer relations with the new American administration and of a stronger regional status for Saudi Arabia were also widely expressed in the Saudi press. News of Saudi-American contacts and anti-Iran moves by the U.S. made the front pages of official Saudi newspapers. Several editorials and op-eds praised the U.S. policy under Trump, and predicted that Iran faced a bitter fate if it continued its attempts to influence political conflicts in the Middle East, and offered other predictions on moves Trump could make in Iraq and Yemen that would also serve Saudi interests. Many cartoons also focused on the substantial American pressure on Iran.

On the other hand, several articles in the Saudi press also called for tempering expectations from the Trump administration, arguing that Saudis must first wait and see what Trump will actually do, beyond his hawkish statements.

Front page of the official Saudi daily Al-Riyadh for February 8, 2017: "The Servant of the Two Holy Sites [King Salman] And Trump Stress Solid Relations [Between The Countries] And Set Dates For Reciprocal Visits"


Front page of the official Saudi daily Al-Watan for February 5, 2017 shows an infographic detailing "Policy Agreed-Upon By Republicans And Democrats Regarding Iran"

Editorials: Trump's Administration "Will Have No Patience With Iran," Is "Not Ruling Out The Possibility Of Military Action Against" It

Editorials in the official Saudi press were openly delighted by Trump's stern messages to Iran, and presented assessments that his U.S. policy would be more aggressive towards Iran than the Obama administration's – particularly with regard to enforcing the JCPOA. Thus, the Saudi daily 'Okaz wrote in an editorial: "It has become clear that the American administration of President Donald Trump will have no patience with Iran. Apparently, [Iran] considered the 'bribes' that it received from the previous president, Barack Obama, in order to arrive at an agreement on its nuclear program to be an American weakness from which Washington would never recover. [But now] it is clear to the American administration that Iran is engaged in activity aimed at destabilizing [the region], that it is seeking to harm U.S. allies, and that it is violating the UN ban on supplying [arms] to revolutionary militias in Yemen. The [January 30, 2017] attempt [by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen] to blow up a Saudi frigate off the coast of Yemen and the [January 29, 2017] test [launching] of a ballistic missile against the Gulf states were a step too far, and Washington could no longer remain silent as it had under Obama.

"Therefore, [then-]National Security advisor Michael Flynn spoke sternly and warned that the U.S. would absolutely not remain silent over Iran's suspicious activities, and President Trump later reminded the Khamenei regime, in a tweet, that Iran would have been on the verge of collapse without the funds sent by Obama on the pretext that these were frozen Iranian funds.

"These developments are coming in the wake of a phone conversation between King Salman and Trump... and also after a follow-up phone conversation between Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and Secretary of State Jim Matthews [sic; James Mattis], in which they agreed that Iran's terror activity, which aims to destabilize [certain] countries and interfere in their [internal] affairs, whether directly or via its agents and proxies [in those countries], must be dealt with. Another interesting thing was Trump's tweet from yesterday [February 2, 2017] regarding Iranian hegemony in Iraq, which he said is increasing every day. These are all signs that this will be a critical year for the lies and threats by Iran, which is trapped in delusions of joining the nuclear club and in dreams of gnawing away at the Arabian Peninsula and the Fertile Crescent."[14]

"Trump" gives "Iran" no choice but to reverse course (Makkah, Saudi Arabia, February 12, 2017)

Al-Riyadh made similar arguments in an editorial, even predicting a possible U.S.-Iran military conflict: "The air of escalation in the Washington-Tehran discourse is continuing, and is exacerbated by the tweets by American President, Donald Trump... He accused Iran of 'playing with fire' and added: '[T]hey don't appreciate how 'kind' president Obama was to them. Not me!' This shows that Trump will not continue in his predecessor's footsteps in dealing with the Iranian dossier; rather, he will be stricter about the implementation of the nuclear agreement and will make no concessions on the path to blocking Iran [from attaining nuclear weapons]. This is especially true since Washington considers Tehran a major supporter of terrorism, in both the region and the world.

"The characteristics of Trump's view on dealing with the Iranian regime were clarified by his previous tweets, in which he called the nuclear agreement 'terrible.' This shows that he is completely dissatisfied with this agreement and is searching for a way that will allow him to cancel it. He is also not ruling out the possibility of military action against the Iranian regime. Thus, all signs point to the new American administration sooner or later entering into direct conflict with the Iranian regime, and there is no better evidence for this than the economic sanctions against 13 Iranian individuals and 12 Iranian companies – a first step that will surely be followed by more that are no less aggressive..."[15]

Saudi Columnist: The Trump Administration's Position Towards Iran Is Identical To That Of The Gulf States; Muslim Brotherhood Could Be Designated A Terrorist Organization

High hopes for anti-Iran action by the Trump administration were also expressed in op-eds by many Saudi writers. Muhammad Aal Al-Sheikh, a columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, also argued that the new American administration would be harsher on Iran and would also act decisively against political Islam movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). He wrote: "All signs point to the fact that the Iranians, and the Arabs who follow in their path, have rough years ahead of them. We can also expect the MB to be classified as a terrorist organization, so that its supporters will be persecuted and pressured, just like members of the terrorist organization Hizbullah.

"It is clear to all that the position of President Trump and his administration officials on Iran's ayatollahs is the same as the position that the Gulf [countries] attempted to persuade President Obama [to adopt]. But [Obama] and his administration insisted on disregarding all these Gulf efforts and blatantly ignored Iran's terrorist activity and the expansion it and its militias were carrying out in the region... According to many analysts, a harsh phase of economic sanctions [on Iran] by the Trump administration will strangle its domestic economy once again, particularly because President Trump, unlike President Obama, is a man who 'does what he says he will do'... I do not believe that President Trump will use military force to punish the Persian ayatollahs, but Iran will likely suffocate from a collection of [U.S.] decisions that constitute economic siege, which is like a slow death for countries nowadays...

"Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries suffered greatly during President Obama's two terms, and the Arab world also suffered from what the Americans called 'the Arab Spring.' It seems as though that phase is now a part of history, with Obama's departure and Hillary Clinton's election loss. Based on the fact that Trump and his team took a stand against terrorism and are acting to uproot it and all its elements – as [Trump] promised he would do – I can say that ultimately political Islam, both Sunni and Shi'ite, will become a target for elimination, in order to destroy terrorism..."[16]

The American eagle, with Trump on board, pecks away at "Iran's missile program" (Makkah, Saudi Arabia, February 6, 2017)

Former Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Editor: Trump Must Take Steps Against Iran In Order To Protect American Interests

Salman Al-Dosari, a former editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, proposed a series of anti-Iran steps for the new American administration that would protect its interests in the region and that are also largely in line with Saudi interests there. He wrote: "Washington has four cards it can use to isolate Iran: The first is to raise the price Iran [pays] for continuing its intransigence, and focusing on meticulously implementing the nuclear agreement, instead of canceling it, at least for now. This will ensure that Iran's ability to produce a nuclear bomb does not increase, and also that the 'biggest state sponsor of terrorism,' as Washington calls it, will be deterred. The second card is to cancel the disaster of handing Iraq over to Iran, since this is what gave the Iranian government, and its militias and proxies, free rein to expand in the region and threaten American interests...

"The third card is to include Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its associate organizations in the list of terrorist organizations. Since they are not so designated, they are sowing terrible destruction and chaos, and harming American interests, under an official umbrella that allows them [to do] what other terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda cannot.

"The fourth card is to tighten the noose on Iran's aid to [Houthi] revolutionaries in Yemen – an element threatening peace and promoting chaos in that country, [which persists] so long as [Iran's] weapons shipments to its allies in Yemen continue in violation of the UN ban on weapons transfers. This [Iranian] activity is also a direct provocation against UN [Security Council] Resolution 2231, which codifies the nuclear agreement, and is a clear example of Iran's lack of serious commitment to the agreement. If Tehran continues to violate the nuclear agreement, the U.S. will have no choice but to distance itself from the agreement.

"It should be mentioned that the U.S.'s new anti-Iran policy does not mean a desire for or encouragement of war, since no side is interested in such a war. However, the new American administration is clearly aware of the serious danger that Iran poses to its interests...

"The future will apparently bring an increase in the level of conflict, so that it is indeed less than a war, but [will be conducted] by means that are sufficient to largely thwart Iran's activity."

(Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, February 5, 2017)

Criticism Of High Expectations From Trump: He Is No Different From His Predecessors; There Is No Change On The Ground

Alongside the many articles expressing joy and optimism about Trump's Middle East policy, particularly his intentions regarding Iran, several writers called to temper expectations and wait for the American administration to take actual steps that promote Saudi interests. For example, 'Abd Al-Aziz Al-Sweid, a writer for the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, wrote: "The American administration is conducting a media campaign against the ayatollah regime in Iran, but [this campaign] is confined to statements made by the president and by his aides, who repeat his words. As for the sanctions levelled [by the U.S.] on companies tied to Iran – this is nothing new, since the previous American administration did the same thing gradually, but at the same time also gave Iran hundreds of millions of dollars, worked with it in Iraq, and promoted its [Houthi] agent in Yemen.

"In a short time, the Trump administration issued a new batch of dire statements against Iran, to the point that it seemed to anyone following Trump that he was riding his dark horse while drawing his two pistols in Khamenei's face! This new batch [of statements] is nothing but political narcotics, which are different in quality from those used by Kerry and Obama. The reality we face does not herald changes on the ground. American forces still operate side-by-side with the IRGC in Iraq. Two days ago, an IRGC official was killed in Mosul. Was he operating far from the binoculars of American troops? If Trump is so extreme, why does he continue to allow, or not to oppose, the barbaric crimes that the sectarian PMU [in Iraq] and its leaders from Khamenei's IRGC commit against Sunni Iraqi citizens, including children and elderly, under the pretext that they are terrorists?!"[17]



[1], February 2, 2017.

[2] Al-Youm (Saudi Arabia), February 5, 2017.

[3], February 1, 2017.

[4] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 5, 2017.

[5] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 7, 2017; Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), February 9, 2017.

[6], January 29, 2017.

[7] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 30, 2017.

[8] Al-Hayat (London), February 1, 2017.

[9] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), January 9, 2017.

[10], January 20, 2017.

[11] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 25, 2017.

[12], February 19, 2017.

[13], February 20, 2017. For more on Saudi Arabia's attitude regarding Trump's Executive Order, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1299, Arab World Split Over President Trump's Executive Order Suspending Entry Of Citizens From Arab And Islamic Countries Into The U.S., February 7, 2017.

[14] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), February 3 2017.

[15] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), February 4, 2017.

[16] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), February 5, 2017.T

[17] Al-Hayat (London), February 7, 2017.

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