Recent events have, once again, confirmed that the Iran-Arab-US antagonism is centre-stage in West Asia and the Palestinian question has been relegated to the side-lines. The latter does attract some occasional attention, especially, if a round of Israel-Hamas violence occurs, as it did earlier this month. On the other hand, Iran's relations with Arab countries and the US are being constantly monitored by the international community for their potential impact may be high and world-wide.
The Jamal Khashoggi murder, even though Iran is not involved at all, illustrates the point. Khashoggi, a renowned Saudi journalist, was living in exile in the US; he was a contributing columnist of the Washington Post. He had become a severe critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's dictatorial policies which have led to the imprisonment of even the regime's mild and constructive critics. On October 2 a hit squad of fifteen Saudi officials who had come from Riyadh brutally killed Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The killing team went back to Riyadh after carrying out what was obviously a planned operation.
The murder caused an international outcry forcing the Saudis to acknowledge that Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate. While the hit team members have been arrested and Saudi prosecutors have announced that they will seek the death penalty against five of them the question under focus is: who ordered the kill? Many suspect that Mohammad bin Sultan did so though the Saudis have denied the charge. Naturally, the US media has taken great interest in the case. President Donald Trump has been under great pressure to hold the Crown Prince culpable particularly as the CIA is believed to have assessed with high confidence that the Crown Prince's ordered the murder. Trump has brushed all this aside citing Saudi Arabia's strategic and commercial importance to the US.
Instead of focussing on the crime and Saudi conduct Trump is more concerned with Iran! In the process he comes through virtually as a Saudi propagandist but obviously that does not worry him for his obsession with Iran, which is matched by that of the Gulf Arab states, overshadows everything. This is clear from Trump's statement of November 20 on the Khashoggi murder.
After declaring "The world is a very dangerous place" Trump launched a diatribe against Iran. He said, "The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilise Iraq's fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up the dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens) and much more. Likewise, the Iranians killed many Americans and other innocent people throughout the Middle East. Iran states openly "Death to America!" and "Death to Israel!" Iran is considered "the world's leading sponsor of terror."
In the statement Trump praised Saudi Arabia for agreeing to spend millions of dollars to fight "Radical Islamic Terrorism" and noted its commitment to import US arms worth 110 billion. He concluded that the US-Saudi relationship would hold firm. Thus, justice for Khashoggi is manifestly secondary to Trump's America First policy. On Mohammad bin Salman's culpability Trump said that the full facts of the case may never be known; therefore, he said, may be the Crown Prince had knowledge of the planned murder or maybe he did not!
The battle lines that had earlier divided West Asia have been redrawn though publicly Arab countries refrain from accepting the new realities. Israel is no longer the common Arab enemy. Many Arab states now have not-so-secret ties with it while some openly maintain contacts. Thus, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman on October 26 and held discussions with Sultan Qaboos and three days later the Israeli culture and sports minister was seen in Abu Dhabi. For Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab countries Iran has become the main enemy. These Arab countries are in violent contestation with Israel in the arenas that Trump stated in his anti-Iran comments.
By imposing sanctions on Iran, after walking out of the nuclear deal, Trump has sought to close Iranian manoeuvring space in the region. The sanctions will damage Iranian economy. The extent of harm will partly depend on how far Trump will go in seeking to stop the flow of Iranian oil. He has given an exemption from the oil sanctions to eight countries, including India, because of the conditions of the international oil market. Significantly, he has also exempted the Chabahar project because of its importance for connectivity. Despite this show of pragmatism Trump's opposition to Iran will not get diluted for its aim seems to be nothing less than regime change.
The relegation of the Palestinian issue to the margins has also been partly the cause of the rise in sectarian differences in West Asia. In turn sectarianism is now impacting on the manner in which countries are responding to the prevailing conflicts in West Asia. The Yemen war and the Syrian civil war demonstrate sectarian divides as does the Lebanese situation. On its part Iran continues to strongly intervene in the Palestinian issue through its support to Hamas. Iran's Hezbollah connection also makes it an important player in Lebanon. This contributes to the deep Israeli animosity towards Iran.
All in all, Iran will continue to be the main reference point for developments in West Asia for the foreseeable future.