Donald Trump’s latest foray into the tinderbox that is Middle Eastern geopolitics has again stirred up tensions in a region facing its greatest diplomatic crisis in decades.
Days after seemingly crediting himself with having inspired dramatic moves by Saudi Arabia and others to isolate Qatar, and thus ushering in the region’s “biggest diplomatic crisis in decades,” the president sent a backhanded note of condolence to Iran in the wake of Wednesday’s twin ISIS terror attacks in Tehran.
Trump responded to the unprecedented terror attacks, which killed at least 13 people in the Iranian capital, with a coded statement that said he was praying for the victims — and blamed Iran for its own woes.
“We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote,” Trump said in the statement.
A clearly furious Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded on Twitter Thursday, describing Trump’s statement as “repugnant.”
“Iranian people reject such U.S. claims of friendship,” Zarif wrote.
Wednesday’s terror attacks, which struck Iran’s parliament and a mausoleum of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have fueled rocketing tensions in the Gulf between the major regional rivals, Shia-majority Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which support opposing sides in conflicts throughout the region.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks — its first successful strike against Iran, whose Shia leaders it regards as apostates, and which it has been increasingly targeting in its propaganda efforts in recent months. Iran said the attacks had been carried out by Iranians who had joined ISIS.
But Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps quickly accused Saudi Arabia and the U.S. of being behind the attacks. Zarif also appeared to accuse Saudi Arabia of having a hand in the attacks Wednesday. “Terror-sponsoring despots threaten to bring the fight to our homeland. Proxies attack what their masters despise most: the seat of democracy,” he tweeted, a likely reference to comments made by the Saudi deputy crown prince last month threatening to bring the “battle” to Iranian soil.
The Middle East in crisis
The attacks come amid already heightened tensions in the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia and other Arab states moved to isolate Qatar this week over the Gulf state’s alleged support for Islamist radicals in the region and its ties with Iran. That move followed a visit by Trump to the region last month, when he made a speech in Riyadh blaming Iran for fomenting instability in the Middle East.
After initially taking credit for the moves to isolate Qatar (“Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” the president tweeted Tuesday), Trump called Qatar’s leader Wednesday with an offer to help Gulf countries resolve the growing diplomatic crisis, through a meeting at the White House if necessary. The change in tone may have reflected Trump’s growing recognition of Qatar’s importance to the U.S.; more than 11,000 U.S. and coalition forces are deployed to al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, where missions in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are overseen.
U.S. investigators suspect that a fake news story planted by Russian hackers at Qatar’s state news agency may have triggered the diplomatic feud, CNN reported Wednesday. Russia has denied the allegation.
The diplomatic row has extended far beyond the Gulf. On Wednesday, Turkey fast-tracked its plans to deploy extra troops to Qatar — reportedly to train regional security forces and conduct joint exercises — in a critical show of support for the small Gulf state as it faces isolation from its neighbors. Turkey set up a base in Qatar, its first in the Middle East, under an agreement signed in 2014.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticized the Saudi-led moves to isolate Qatar, saying dialog is a better way to resolve the issue, while Turkish officials have stressed the country is eager to remain neutral in the dispute, the most serious diplomatic crisis between Gulf nations in decades.