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Donald Trump is reshaping the Middle East. Will it work?

Tensions are building between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The consequences could be disastrous.

President Donald Trump talks with Saudi King Salman

President Donald Trump talks with Saudi King Salman during a presentation ceremony of The Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud Medal at the Royal Court Palace, Saturday, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

When President Donald Trump entered the White House, he was emphatic about the state of the world around him: "I inherited a mess at home and abroad," he declared in February, adding that the Middle East in particular was "a disaster."

In trying to reckon with that "disaster," Trump seems to have set his stall in Riyadh, tacitly encouraging the kingdom's ambitious crown prince to shake up Saudi foreign policy and embark on a dramatic series of confrontations across the region. Two articles published over the weekend show how battle lines in the Middle East may be hardening as a result.

Reporting from Lebanon, my Washington Post colleagues examined how the region's political turmoil has actually boosted Hezbollah. The powerful Iran-backed Shiite organization was part of a coalition government led by a Christian president, Michael Aoun, and a Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri — at least until Hariri resigned during a visit to the Saudi capital this month, a move many observers think was forced by Riyadh.

"The Saudis hoped that Hariri's resignation would create an electroshock . . . that the Cabinet would be immediately dissolved, and Hezbollah and its allies would have to step down from ministries and other important positions of power," Raphaël Lefèvre, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said to my colleagues. "Of course, this never happened."

Instead, after finally returning to Beirut last week, Hariri "suspended" his resignation and held meetings with his coalition partners. That doesn't mean everything is back to normal: On Monday, he reiterated his threat to quit if Hezbollah doesn't agree to a new power-sharing agreement in the country, although the details of such a new deal remain murky. But the political maneuvering has hardly strengthened Saudi Arabia's hand in its rivalry with Iran.

Indeed, the opposite may be the case. Hezbollah is gaining credibility as an anchor of stability in Lebanon, a state racked by divisions and a history of strife. Thousands of its members have fought in the increasingly sectarian war in neighboring Syria, but at home Hezbollah is trying hard to reach across Lebanon's confessional divides.

Hezbollah is firmly embedded in communities across the country, providing vital social services such as schools and hospitals. "The group has billed itself as a defender of all of Lebanon's communities, and seeks to cultivate Sunni allies inside and outside the government," wrote my colleagues Louisa Loveluck and Erin Cunningham.

For that reason, Hezbollah struck a calm and conciliatory tone after Hariri's resignation. Other players in the Middle East, including Egyptian President and Saudi ally Abdel Fatah el-Sissi urged caution. "The region cannot support more turmoil," he said.

But at a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo last week, Saudi Arabia successfully pressured the regional body into issuing a communique condemning Hezbollah as a "terrorist organization," ratcheting up the pressure on the Lebanese organization and its Iranian sponsor. A military escalation would have dire consequences.

"It is unrealistic of Saudi leaders and the Trump administration to expect that it can be supplanted by a popular Lebanese groundswell against it or removed by a foreign military force without causing catastrophic damage to Lebanon," wrote Mohamad Bazzi of New York University.

That tension is also affecting the climate in Tehran, where a post-Trump nationalist tide is shifting the country's politics, according to a New York Times story from the weekend. Trump and his key lieutenants have made no secret of their contempt for the nuclear deal negotiated with Iran, and they have echoed Saudi talking points on Iran's perfidy in the Middle East. Last month, Trump undermined the deal by refusing to certify Tehran's compliance with the nuclear accord, even though international monitors say Iran is playing by the rules.

According to Times correspondent Thomas Erdbrink, that sense of animosity toward Iran has moved even the country's cynical urban middle classes closer to the positions of Iran's doggedly anti-American hard-liners. "There are many here like me, who don't care for the Islamic Republic and its rules," a Tehran university theater student told Erdbrink at a ceremony commemorating an Iranian soldier killed in Syria. "But today is about something bigger than that; one of us has been killed. At the same time, this American president is breaking our hearts with his rhetoric and threats. We have to choose sides. I choose for my country."

Hawks in Washington have stressed for years that it's not worth seeking to differentiate between Iran's various political camps, some of which are backed by swaths of the public seeking real change. Rather, they see Iran as a homogeneous state, ruled by a theocratic "Hitler of the Middle East" — to use the phrase deployed by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in an interview with Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

But this posturing is possibly causing more harm than good. Although some smaller countries have little choice but to get on Riyadh's anti-Iran bandwagon, the Saudi approach risks unsettling a part of the world racked by instability.

"Our loyalty to Saudi Arabia may actually have contributed to the kingdom's many mistakes in Yemen, among other challenges and missed opportunities," wrote Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, referring to the ruinous Saudi-led intervention across its southern border. "Forcing countries like Jordan to choose between Washington and Tehran may simply put them in Iranian crosshairs, with no likely major benefit to our own regional influence."

"To average citizens of the region, the power plays involving Iran, the Gulf States, Turkey, Russia, and the US and other regional actors have only complicated their lives, leading to chaos, war, displacement, and poverty in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq and raising fears of further conflict," BuzzFeed's Borzou Daragahi wrote. "Saudi popularity has been steadily declining, according to independent polling data. Another survey conducted last year shows that Arabs view the U.S. and Israel as greater threats than Iran."

In this context, Washington could play a more moderating role in an attempt to defuse tensions and stoke much-needed diplomacy between Tehran and Riyadh. "Since shutting Iran out of the region altogether is simply implausible, we need to think hard about which aspects of Iranian influence we find most problematic, and which ones we can live with," O'Hanlon advises. That sort of thinking seems nowhere in sight.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

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