Donald Trump focuses fire on Iran’s support for ‘terrorists and militias’

Donald Trump, on his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank, has escalated his war of words against Iran, demanding that Tehran immediately stop its financial and military support for “terrorists and militias” and reiterating that it must never be permitted to possess nuclear weapons.

Trump referred to the Iran issue repeatedly on Monday, expanding on his speech in Saudi Arabia the day before in which he blamed “Iran’s rising ambitions” for violently destabilising the Middle East.

“The United States and Israel can declare with one voice that Iran must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon – never, ever – and must cease its deadly funding, training and equipping of terrorists and militias, and it must cease immediately,” Trump said in at a meeting in Jerusalem with the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin.

Trump added that he had detected, too, “a growing realisation among your Arab neighbours that they have common cause with you in the threat posed by Iran”. He returned to the theme during a joint press appearance with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Monday evening.

Trump also appeared to inadvertently confirm that Israel was the source of classified intelligence material he shared with Russian officials.

At the press event with Netanyahu, Trump insisted that he had “never mentioned the word Israel” during his recent meeting with Russian officials in which he divulged classified information that reportedly came from Israel.

Trump’s visit to Israel was initially presented as an attempt to make a breakthrough in the moribund peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, but any talk of a deal has been overshadowed by his focus on Iran.

In his comments on arrival, Trump said he believed there was “a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace” to the Middle East peace process, but throughout the day, Iran seemed to concern him more.

Arriving at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, Trump flew first by helicopter to a Jerusalem under heavy security, where he became the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall, Judaism’s most holy site, whose capture by Israeli paratroopers 50 years ago during the six day war is being marked this week.

Trump, wearing a black kippa, stood for a few moments in silent prayer in the men’s section of what is known in Hebrew as the kotel, with his hand placed on the wall, while his wife Melania and daughter Ivanka prayed in the women’s section.

Trump and his family were unaccompanied by senior Israeli officials for their private visit to the Western Wall plaza. Trump also made a visit to the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Returning to the subject of Iran later in the day, in off-the-cuff remarks to Netanyahu, Trump added that the Islamic republic appeared emboldened by the historic nuclear deal with Barack Obama.

“It was a terrible thing for the United States to enter that deal. Iran will never have a nuclear weapon, that I can tell you.”

Trump’s repeated focus on Iran prompted a response from the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who insisted on Monday that stability could not be achieved in the Middle East without Tehran’s help.

“Who can say regional stability can be restored without Iran? Who can say the region will experience total stability without Iran?” Rouhani added.

Speaking at his first press conference since his landslide victory in Friday’s presidential vote, the moderate Iranian cleric dismissed the summit Trump attended at the weekend in Saudi Arabia as a “ceremonial [event] that had no political value and will bear no results”.

The latest comments follow Trump’s remarks in Riyadh on Sunday. He said: “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region.”

Trump’s analysis – essentially relying on the old saw that the enemy of my enemy is my friend – has not, however, necessary been vindicated by recent history in the region, where Israel and Sunni Arab’s shared enmity for Iran has not equated to a common cause.

On the first leg of his trip in Saudi Arabia, Trump lashed out at Iran, accusing it of fuelling “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” and calling for its international isolation “until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace”.

That refrain echoed the Saudi King Salman’s description of the Iranian government as “the tip of the spear of global terrorism”.

The focus on Iran as a source of instability comes as Trump has pointedly avoided blaming Sunni states – including Saudi Arabia – for their own role in supporting extremist groups and terrorism.

The United States brands Iran a “state sponsor of terrorism”. It says Tehran’s support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria’s civil war, Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war and the Hezbollah Shia political party and militia in Lebanon have helped destabilize the Middle East.

The emerging approach by the Trump administration marks a sharp break with the policy of Barack Obama, who had sought to engage with Iran.

Instead, Trump appears to have chosen to pick sides in uncritical alliance against Iran, not least with Saudi Arabia – agreeing $350bn in arms sales over the next decade – and giving explicit support to the Saudi-led campaign against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, a campaign that has drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups.

Speaking on Monday, Rouhani said: “You can’t resolve the issue of terrorism by giving money to super powers. I don’t think people of America would trade the blood they gave in 9/11 in exchange for money raised in arms sales.”

Rouhani also noted the irony of Trump’s remarks, coming, as they do, after an Iranian election that strengthened moderates in the country.

“Mr Trump visited the region at the time millions of our people went to the polls. He went to a country whose people haven’t even seen ballot boxes and elections don’t have any meaning for them. I hope one day Saudi Arabia also drives its national strength through elections. Power should not pass on through inheritance, but through elections,” he said.

Azadeh Kian of Sciences Po University in Paris said: “Battle lines are being drawn and it’s worrying, especially when it comes just a day after the election victory of Rouhani, which showed a real dynamic in favour of democratisation and opening in Iranian society.”