Amidst conflicting agendas and interests, it would seem that the anti-Iran Sunni coalition gelled during President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and participation at the US-Arab-Muslim summit on May 21. The backbone of this coalition is made up of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt.
The official goal of the summit was to position the issue of counter-terrorism as a top priority, building on the “Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism” (IMAFT) established by Saudi Arabia. In this context, Trump announced the establishment of the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, co-chaired by the US, Saudi Arabia and the GCC.
But the hidden glue binding the Sunni coalition together is the shared concern about Iranian expansion and the joint fear of the Iranian threat. US secretary of Defense Mattis stated already in April that “everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region, you find Iran”. That was the clear feeling in the room on May 21. Trump, in his speech, detailed some of Iran’s negative behavior, from the support of terrorism, through instilling instability in the region by spreading destruction and chaos to initiating “destabilizing interventions” (specifically naming Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen). He attributed direct responsibility to Iran for the “unspeakable crimes” committed by the Assad regime in Syria. On the practical side Trump called for the isolation of Iran and “deny it funding of terrorism”.
There are a few significant conclusions to be drawn from this event. First, the Trump administration reversed and over-turned the Obama administration policy, siding with the Sunni camp while negating the “appeasing” policy of concessions and allowances towards Iran and its Shiite camp. Second, the US recognizes Saudi Arabia as the religious and political center in the Arab Gulf and Muslim world.
Granted that Saudi Arabia is certainly on board on the Iranian issue, it is still questionable whether the Saudis can be trusted as an ally in the counter-terrorism efforts, given that this country is known for its long term cultivation of extreme elements and “charity foundations” in support of terrorism. Can the US ignore Saudi history of terrorism support and current gross HR violations?
The billion dollar question is whether this coalition will hold together. One Washington Institute paper calls this coalition unsustainable and “unlikely to be affective” due to the conflicting agendas of the members. Among the “conflicting agendas” they designate the lack of consensus around Saudi Arabia, different approaches to extremism, variance in the form of Islam and lack of “shared values, threats and interests”. It may be true that there are conflicting agendas, certainly in relation to terrorism, but it would seem that on the Iran issue the feeling of threat unites them all.