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Sword dancing, saber rattling

von Hein Matthias Kommentarbild App
Matthias von Hein
May 22, 2017

The general relief over Donald Trump's speech to Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia overlooks the fact that the US president has overturned Obama’s policy on Iran and is fueling tension in the region, says Matthias von Hein.

USA Saudi Arabien Donald Trump mit König Salman bin Abdulazi
Image: Imago/ZUMA Press/S. Craighead

The contrast couldn't be greater: In Saudi Arabia, Donald Trump joined in the sword dance - a dance of war, as King Salman explained to his American guest. And in Iran, the people were dancing in the streets to celebrate the landslide victory of moderate reformer Hassan Rouhani in the presidential election, and the rejection of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi.

Despite, or maybe even because of the war dance, the mood in Saudi Arabia is also one of joy and celebration. Trump's speech on Sunday has been seen as turning the page on US relations with the Arab world generally, and Saudi Arabia in particular. It didn't just mark the end of the Obama administration's critical stance on the kingdom, it also declared its geostrategic adversary, Iran, to be the biggest villain in the region - one best left in isolation, as it was during the George W. Bush era. And because isolation alone might not have been enough, Trump arrived bearing arms contracts worth some $110 billion (98 billion euros) for his hosts - a deal of historic proportions.

No vision of peace

It's a bitter irony that, while visiting the homeland of nearly all of the 9/11 attackers, Trump singled out Iran alone for supporting terrorism. He made no mention of the fact that Riyadh has been supporting the so-called "Islamic State" and other jihadist groups with money and arms, as former US Vice President Joe Biden made clear in a speech he gave at Harvard University in the fall of 2014.

von Hein Matthias Kommentarbild App
DW's Matthias von Hein

In his speech, Trump spoke of a "vision of peace, security and prosperity in the region." But if that truly is his vision, then he would have given a different speech. In the face of the geostrategic rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, there was no word about moderation or balance. Instead, the president seemed bent on confrontation. Even though he devoted roughly a third of his speech to Iran, he did not once mention the presidential election. Of course, Rouhani is also a man of the establishment. But despite his weaknesses and those of the system itself, he is still Iran's best hope for more civil rights, and a more open society. He needs support for his efforts to repress the hardliners.

Instead, Trump chose to feed the Saudis' exaggerated fears about Iran's influence in the region. He explicitly gave his approval for Saudi Arabia's murderous military intervention in Yemen as an important part in the war on terror. If he is really serious about wanting "Muslim boys and girls to grow up free from fear and safe from violence" then he should have asked his hosts to end the Yemen conflict.

Europe's role

His failure to do so means it is now up to Europe. Europeans must refuse to join in the sword dance. They must refuse to heed the calls to isolate Iran and instead maintain dialogue and economic ties with Tehran. And they must attempt to start a regional dialogue aimed at creating a new security structure that takes into account the interests of all states in the region. The fact that EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini was one of the first to congratulate Rouhani on his re-election on Saturday morning was a positive first step.

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