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Nervous U.S. Allies Brace for Iran Fallout

Gulf and European countries are eyeing Trump with trepidation as they fear more reprisals from Iran.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman
U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrive for a meeting at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. Eliot Blondet/AFP via Getty Images

Caught off guard by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to order the killing of the most powerful Iranian general, the United States’ longtime Gulf and European allies are eyeing Washington nervously and bracing for further retaliation from Tehran. 

The strike on Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was an unexpected blow to Tehran after months of a muted U.S. response to the regime’s increased aggressiveness across the region. And it seems to have demonstrated that the United States was serious about enforcing the president’s red line—the death of an American. 

But it also caught close U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe flat-footed and—despite an apparent de-escalation in the wake of a token Iranian missile attack on Jan. 8—has sparked fears of an uptick in violence that would be primarily felt in their backyard. Trump’s unpredictable behavior and inflammatory rhetoric have these nations worried that, while the U.S. president will respond forcefully when American lives are at stake, he may not have their backs if regional interests are threatened. Trump, for instance, declined to respond after Iran allegedly struck key Saudi oil facilities last September, a surprisingly subdued response for an administration that has said protecting Saudi Arabia is a policy priority. 

“On the one hand, they are happy that Trump is willing to sanction and pressure and take Iran down a notch,” said Ilan Goldenberg, an expert on Middle East issues with the Center for a New American Security. But on the other: “They are nervous that he is unsteady and goes too far. … No one really knows what Donald Trump will do.”

Although there is no love lost for Suleimani, who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition forces in Iraq alone, behind closed doors, Gulf nations, in particular, blame the United States for unnecessarily escalating the crisis, current and former officials told Foreign Policy. After the strike, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly was so alarmed that he dispatched his younger brother Khalid bin Salman, the deputy defense minister, to Washington to urge restraint. 

Riyadh’s vulnerability to Iran was on sharp display in September by the drone and missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing facility. Next time, officials worry that Tehran could go after even more critical infrastructure—such as desalination plants, which provide clean water to the population. 

Barbara Leaf, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, said Gulf allies are watching Trump with trepidation—particularly his comments signaling that he wants to bring U.S. troops home from the Middle East and touting U.S. energy independence.

“There is huge relief, even glee, I’m sure in private quarters, but great uncertainty on both counts: How will the Iranians ultimately respond because [the missile strike] was just an initial dish on the menu, and then what does the U.S. administration intend to do, and what is its larger strategy?” Leaf said.

Top administration officials insist that killing Suleimani will make Iran think twice before lashing out at the United States again, though they still acknowledge that Iran poses a lingering threat. “We now enjoy a great position of strength regarding Iran. It’s as good as it has ever been, and Iran has never been in the place that it is today,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a speech at Stanford University on Monday. “We have reestablished deterrence, but we know it’s not everlasting, that risk remains. We are determined not to lose that deterrence.”

Retired Gen. Jack Keane, a close confidant of the president, said the attack on Suleimani was a “turning point” that has caused Iran to reevaluate its dealings in the region. Keane noted that the retaliatory strikes on U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq, which did damage to infrastructure but did not cause a single death, were “rather insignificant” compared with the regime’s rhetoric. 

It is “noteworthy” that Iran took direct responsibility for the strikes, rather than handing the job over to proxies, because it wanted to “control the outcome,” he said.

“Khamenei blinked,” Keane said, referring to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “He’s only done it twice in 40 years, and both times it had to do with American use of force.” 

But privately, some current and former officials said U.S. allies were not so sure. “None of them think we’ve deterred Iran,” one former U.S. administration official said. 

Many Gulf and European partners are “panicking” because no one understands the U.S. strategy or can predict what Iran will do next, said Ariane Tabatabai, an analyst with the Rand Corp., a U.S.-based think tank. She said she was struck by the lack of coordination ahead of the attack and confusing messaging from the administration afterward. 

With its actions over the last six months since Iran started lashing out, the United States has sent a signal that it will respond only if U.S. interests are threatened—and even then the red line is unclear. In the eyes of U.S. allies, the Trump administration’s response to Iran’s aggression is difficult to predict. After Iran shot down a U.S. drone in June 2019, Trump said he approved and then abruptly called off strikes against Iranian targets.

“We will go from 0 to 100 if there is a single American casualty, but we’re not going to do anything if Iran attacks major facilities” in the region, Tabatabai said.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, two countries that have taken a hard line on Iran, were likely more supportive of the strike than some other countries, but there is still concern about the impact on the region, Tabatabai said. The Emiratis are also tough on Iran but have economic interests—for example, tourism and the flow of energy—that could be hurt by any escalation in the region. Oman and Qatar, meanwhile, are more sympathetic to Iran and have tried hard to balance the opposing interests in the Gulf. 

Among America’s Western allies, countries with forces in the region, such as Britain and Canada, have moved to temporarily withdraw or reposition their troops, bracing for further Iranian reprisals. NATO also paused its training mission in Iraq after Suleimani’s killing, citing concern for the safety of its personnel. These moves exacerbated tensions between Washington and its European allies, who privately remain angry that they weren’t notified in advance that the United States would carry out a strike on Suleimani—even after Trump sought to ease tensions with Tehran, experts and several European officials said.

Tom Tugendhat, a top Conservative member of the British Parliament, complained about allies being left in the dark on such decisions. “I’ve long believed that the purpose of having allies is that we can surprise our enemies and not each other, and it’s been a pattern, sadly, which has been a bit of a shame, that the U.S. administration of late has not shared with us, and that is a matter of concern,” he said in an interview with BBC News after Suleimani’s assassination.

“European allies are understandably frustrated,” said Rachel Rizzo, a Berlin-based expert on trans-Atlantic relations with the Center for a New American Security. She said keeping allies in the dark on major policy decisions is part of a pattern under this administration.

“The fact that no allies were notified of the impending strike is exactly the kind of surprise from the Trump administration that places stress on the U.S.-European relationship,” she said. “It’s similar to when the administration suddenly announced it was pulling U.S. troops from Syria and the Europeans were caught totally off guard.”

Although Iranian officials have ratcheted down rhetoric in recent days, experts caution against taking Tehran at its word that the conflict is over. While they acknowledge that Iran’s direct retaliation is done, the regime will likely enlist its many global proxies to carry out attacks against Western forces. 

“They are going to take their time, and they are going to revert to the playbook of indirect action—that’s where they have the advantage,” Leaf said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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