On March 1, the Valdai Discussion Club held an expert debate on the priorities of the new US Administration in the Middle East, hosting speakers from the Middle East conference, which concluded a day prior. Fyodor Lukyanov, Valdai Club Academic Director, introduced the topic of discussion by talking about US President Donald Trump’s first speech to Congress, which, he noted, was mostly on the topic of domestic politics, with some messages on foreign policy priorities, particularly Iran.
Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely (Retired), Chairman of the Stand Up America Foundation and the Legacy National Security Advisory Group, said that Donald Trump’s administration has only been in office for six weeks, but has already accomplished many things regarding border security and illegal immigration, as well as excessive regulation and federal agencies.
Vallely also noted the importance of the new $54 billion increase to the US military budget, and that it is necessary because of the degradation in the US armed forces following 15 years of war. He added that he expected Donald Trump to begin making statements on foreign policy, particularly on North Korea and the South China Sea in the next few weeks.
Vallely added that the Middle East is a priority for the Trump administration, particularly relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He also said that the United States may renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal.
“I think we’re going to get rid of a lot of bad stuff in Iran deal, it was not a good deal for America. It was a good deal for Iran. So you give them $155 billion, they could go and continue to support HAMAS and Hezbollah,” Vallely said.
Vallely also said that he personally believed that Iran was a nuclear-capable country, and that it has been a challenge to America, particularly considering the confrontations between US and Iranian navy ships in the Persian Gulf.
“They try us again and it’s not going to be good for them, if they challenge our ships in international waters like they did and embarrassed us. Trump will not take it. Obama was very weak, Obama was not a fighter. You could push him over and he would get back up and go play golf,” Vallely said.
Jamal Khashoggi, former general manager of Al Arab News Channel and media advisor to the Saudi ambassador Prince Turki Al Faisal, said that Saudi Arabia did not hide its enthusiasm for Donald Trump’s presidency. He noted that the Saudis hoped to cooperate with Obama, but relations went very cold because Obama did not pressure Iran in the region.
Khashoggi added that another issue for the Middle East has been a lack of good governance and that this led to an explosion of popular uprisings in the Arab republics in 2011. However, as the US and Saudi Arabia did not do enough to assist those states, the popular uprisings led to civil wars, which also attracted al-Qaeda and ISIS.
“President Obama missed that opportunity to help the democratization of the Middle East. And probably we also missed it, we should have contributed more to helping those Arab republics. It might sound ironic, that we are a monarchy and helping the republics, but if they are what they claim to be, democracies, they should have functioning democracies,” Khashoggi said.
Talking about reconstruction in the region, Vallely said that it was important to involve youth, particularly those 20-to-30-years-old, in the reconstruction, in both Syria and the Gaza Strip and West Bank, to provide employment and steer societies away from militarization.
Answering a question from Alexander Maryasov, former Russian Ambassador to Iran, on Iran’s role in the region and cooperation with the US, Vallely said that the goal of the US is to make Iran disengage from its military role in Iraq and Syria. He added that although both Iranian and US forces were assisting Iraqi forces against ISIS, it was difficult to call that as cooperation.
Replying to Vladimir Sazhin, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies, on the prospects of a regional alliance involving Saudi Arabia and Israel, Khashoggi said that Saudi Arabia was not interested in relations with Israel until the Palestinian issue is resolved. He added that such a relationship would make Saudi Arabia lose legitimacy in its confrontation with Iran.
Discussing relations with Russia, Khashoggy said that the Syrian crisis may become a situation that relaunches and improves Saudi-Russian relations, particularly in the fields of oil, energy and investment. On the issue of nuclear deterrence, he said that no Saudi official will admit to seeking nuclear weapons, although if Iran does acquire them, there may be popular pressures to acquire them, which will lead to a regional arms race.
On the issue of US military doctrine following the military budget increase, Vallely said that the US will begin to focus more on targeted operations, rather than land wars. He added the US security budget will now have a greater focus on domestic security and border control. Answering a question on whether that would mean attacking drug cartels with air strikes in Mexico, he said that while he personally would like to, it is possible that the new US head of border patrol will take a more proactive position than before.