On Wednesday morning, Donald Trump announced that he was tightening sanctions on Iran. Exactly how these sanctions were to be tightened when Iran is already cut off from exporting or importing all but a handful of products wasn’t exactly clear. Trump is apparently leaving it up to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to decide. Which is appropriate—because this is all about the money.
In an interview on Tuesday, Trump made that very clear. Saudi Arabia, said Trump, is not one of those countries that wants aid from the United States. “No, no. Saudi Arabia pays cash.” Trump repeated this while giving absolutely inaccurate numbers for the amount that Saudi Arabia spends in the United States and the employment that results. Just like that, Trump made clear—again—that his idea of a good ally has nothing to do with upholding democracy, defending human rights, or working toward peace and stability. It’s just cash. At least when it comes to Saudi Arabia. “We would certainly help them,” said Trump. “They’ve been a great ally. They spent $400 billion in our country over the last number of years.” No matter what “number of years” that is, Trump’s figure is wrong. And even if were right, it’s sickening.
France, a country that Trump routinely berates, sent 4,000 troops to assist the United States in Afghanistan. Germany sent 2,500. Dozens of smaller nations sent smaller contingents. Nations like Ukraine, where Trump withheld military aid for months despite desperate need, opened their air space to the United States following 9/11, provided bases for cargo flights, and sent its own troops as part of the NATO ISAF mission.
Saudi Arabia did nothing. It provided no troops. It provided no support. It didn’t open its landing strips for U.S. planes traveling to Afghanistan. It provided … nothing.
And it’s not as if its status as a majority Muslim nation meant it couldn’t have helped in the conflict. Qatar, that tiny nation right next-door which Saudi Arabia is still blockading and which Trump has joined in attacking, did allow U.S. bases there to be used as staging grounds for Afghanistan and offered other facilities for assistance. Egypt provided field hospitals. Turkey helped. Oman helped. Kuwait helped. Saudi Arabia … did not. Its sole contribution to events around 9/11 came in contributing terrorists.
But Trump only measures allies in dollars. Especially dollars coming to his own pockets.
Trump’s $400 billion figure on Tuesday comes after he repeatedly claimed that he had made a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi dictator Mohammed bin Salman. That never happened. In 2018, Trump said that nonexistent arms deal meant “over 40,000 jobs in the United States.” That, like the top line number, was backed up by no data at all. Now Trump has simply bumped the numbers to $400 billion and “a million and a half jobs.” Because sure, why not? He’s just making these numbers up after all. It’s not as if anyone is going to challenge him.
CNN reported on Tuesday that Trump is “trapped between two impulses.” On the one hand, he would actually prefer to simply bluster—because, as a professional bully, this is what he knows best. On the other hand, his very good friend bin Salman may force Trump’s hand. The Saudi ruler may well insist that Trump actually use some of that “ammunition” he’s been bragging about.
As Trump drags the nation toward war over who is quickest to slip him money on demand, the BBC points out that the intrinsic problem between Saudi Arabia and Iran isn’t something that can be solved readily. At its heart this is a religious conflict. Saudi Arabia is the center of Sunni Islam. Iran is the largest home to Shia. That conflict has been going on for centuries.
There’s another factor that’s equally intractable. The ouster of the Shah in Iran was viewed by the Saudi monarchy with the same sort of horror that European monarchs displayed in the face of the French revolution. If the Shah could fall … could the Saudi king?
The Saudis previously hesitated on open conflict with Iran because the long-running war between Iran and neighboring Iraq sapped their power and kept the Shia world divided. Then the United States went into Iraq in 2003, taking out Iran’s rival and opening the door to a Saudi-Iran split of the Middle East. The Saudis took that as an opportunity to simply clean the board and take it all.
The Saudis now dominate a sphere that includes the UAE, Jordan, and Egypt. Iran’s support is more scattered. But with Iraq still more or less off the field, Syria and Yemen are meat grinders for this power-play of Shai vs. Sunni, monarchy vs. theocracy.
This is not a conflict that can be resolved with a hands-off missile strike. It’s not a conflict that can be resolved with decades of Iraq-style occupation. It’s not even clear this is a conflict that can be resolved. But it can be made worse, and Trump is working really hard on that point.