World Politics

As Trump officials double down on Iran, allies' nervousness over US policy grows

Key Points
  • White House officials have been making the rounds in the region, reiterating the U.S. administration's signature fierce rhetoric against Iranian geopolitical ambitions.
  • But the pledges of continued U.S. support directly contradict what's been described as President Donald Trump's isolationist drive. 
  • Trump announced in December via Twitter his decision to withdraw all American troops from Syria, a country previously described by administration officials as key for staging a pushback against Iran.
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It's been a confusing couple of weeks for U.S. allies in the Middle East.

White House officials have been making the rounds in the region, reiterating the U.S. administration's signature fierce rhetoric against Iranian geopolitical ambitions.

But the pledges of continued U.S. support directly contradict what's been described as President Donald Trump's isolationist drive, which in its latest manifestation saw the announcement via tweet to withdraw all American troops from Syria — the very theater that officials had previously spotlighted as key to pushing back on Iran.

"You have a tweet from the president about withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria after months of working together with our allies in the Arab world, with the interagency and State Department, Pentagon," Fred Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, told CNBC's Hadley Gamble in Abu Dhabi on Saturday. "And suddenly everything's changed with a single tweet."

Trump's December decision drew a barrage of criticism from lawmakers and security experts alike, who warned that the so-called Islamic State was not completely defeated in the war-torn country and that an abrupt departure would be abandoning U.S. local partners on the ground. So Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security advisor John Bolton, among others, have been sent to reassure allies of U.S. commitment in the region — but it may be too late to quell their fears.

Pompeo laid out his framing of America's vision for the Middle East during his speech in Cairo on Thursday. "When America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance," he said.

But the message's divergence from Trump's own policy decision was not lost on observers and allies.

"There's a nervousness — one wants to believe that message," Kempe said. "But I'm hearing from officials in the Middle East more concern about American predictability over time. They want to believe there's this permanent shift on behalf of allies to stand up to Iran, there are a lot of signs that's really there, but they're made nervous by the Syria shift."

Senior Trump officials 'not credible representatives'

Regional officials in countries heavily impacted by U.S. policy have quietly expressed concern.

Trump's sudden policy changes are "worrying ... to all U.S. allies in the region," former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the Washington Post in December. "It's a question of trust. This will cause many governments to rethink their alliances with a superpower that can really can just abandon them."

Trump has repeatedly defended his position on Twitter, writing most recently on Sunday evening, "Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions." He added that "Russia, Iran and Syria have been the biggest beneficiaries of the long term U.S. policy of destroying ISIS in Syria - natural enemies. We also benefit but it is now time to bring our troops back home. Stop the ENDLESS WARS!"

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Meanwhile, regional experts as well as Israeli officials have sounded the alarm over what they see as a clear vacuum that the Iranians will be gunning to fill — likely in tandem with allies Russia and the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.

The lack of a coherent policy process in the Trump administration has clear consequences, says Amanda Sloat, a former senior advisor to the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"It affects the conduct of diplomacy and perceptions of allies," Sloat told CNBC via email. "Rather than deliberative inter-agency discussions, Trump issues tweets or proclamations and his staff then scramble to implement them in a rational way. Senior officials and envoys are not credible representatives of the president, as he has repeatedly undermined their statements."

Administration officials, meanwhile, continue to assert they are delivering a clear message. Brian Hook, senior advisor to Pompeo, told CNBC on Saturday that "The mission has not changed at all, there are plenty of ways to accomplish the mission, and we are going to stay very hard at it, I promise you."