Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s newly reelected president, is known for a pragmatic approach on foreign policy. However, his second term will be more challenging as a new alliance against the Islamic Republic is being shaped in the region.

The Trump administration is leading a coalition of Iran’s regional adversaries, Israel and Saudi Arabia, who perceive a common threat from Iran’s interventionist policies. All three countries will present major foreign policy challenges to Rouhani in his second term.  

Iran missed a great opportunity to resolve its long-standing issues with the United States when President Barack Obama was still in office. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) could have served as a model for additional direct talks between the two countries. However, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rejected further negotiations beyond the nuclear deal.

Unlike its predecessor, the Trump administration has taken a harsher stance on Iran, while reluctantly fulfilling its JCPOA commitments. Reports suggest that Washington has yet to come up with a comprehensive Iran policy; however, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently hinted that he would be open to a dialogue with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, “at the right time.” That seems unlikely in the near future.

Washington’s harsh rhetoric will make it more difficult for Rouhani to reach out to the US. During his first press conference after his decisive victory in the May 19 elections, Rouhani described US-Iran relations as a “curvy road” and stated that his administration is waiting for the Trump administration to settle down and become “intellectually” more stable. During the campaign, Rouhani suggested that he would try to get the United States to lift non-nuclear sanctions, which would require further negotiations with Washington. In Saudi Arabia, Tillerson called on Rouhani to end Tehran’s ballistic missile program and “network of terrorism.” However, it is very unlikely that Iran will abandon its ballistic missile program or give up support for groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah; Rouhani’s political latitude to re-open a dialogue with Washington on such sensitive matters appears limited given the dominant role of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

President Trump’s decision to make Riyadh the first stop of his first foreign trip also undermined the opportunities for US-Iran détente. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in a de facto cold war since the beginning of Arab Spring in 2011. Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria, and Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen remain major sources of dispute. While Rouhani’s administration has tried to alleviate tensions with the Kingdom, bilateral relations continue to deteriorate. Responding to reports of a massive $110 billion US arms sale to Saudi Arabia, Khamenei launched a fierce verbal attack on the Kingdom and said that the “incompetent” Saudi leaders are being “milked” by the Americans.

Iran is naturally concerned about further militarization of the region. In particular, the sale of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system to Saudi Arabia will increaseIran’s insecurity, by diminishing the deterrence of its ballistic missile arsenal. Theoretically speaking, this could encourage Iran to expand its missile program even further. It was not surprising that the IRGC was quick to unveil a new “underground city” of ballistic missiles after the news broke of the arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

The Trump administration is also pushing the notion that by aligning itself closer with Saudi Arabia against Iran, it can facilitate an Arab-Israeli peace deal. While the prospects for such a deal appear minimal, it is evident that Saudi Arabia sees President Trump as an ally in curtailing Iran’s activities in the region. The massive arms sales indicate that the US is more than ever committed to bolstering the Saudi military.  The Saudis have further hinted at the possibility of closer security ties with Israel, which would bring Iran’s two major adversaries against it on the same front.

Israel is primarily worried about the ongoing war in Syria. Israel sees the presence of Iran-backed backed Shi’ite militias in or near the Golan Heights as a serious threat and is concerned that Iran could use these forces to launch attacks on Israeli territory in the event of a future conflict. This explains recent Israeli bombing in Syria, which has targeted arms shipments to Hezbollah. Given the strategic importance of Syria and Israel’s military might, it is very unlikely that Iran will change its policy of maintaining a “contingency” force in Israel’s backyard. One can argue that Hezbollah is Iran’s “Deterrence by Punishment” force should Israel decide to attack the Iranian homeland.

Rouhani’s first term coincided with an American president who was willing to recognize Iran’s security concerns. However, the current developments in the region are not in Rouhani’s favor. The Trump administration has openly sought to isolate Iran and has redoubled the US commitment to Israel and Saudi Arabia. To deflect this pressure, Rouhani should take advantage of the growing rift between the US and the European Union and move closer to the EU. European countries have recognized Iran’s importance in combating Sunni Muslim extremist groups such as the Islamic State and are eager economic partners. Rouhani should also fully utilize his presidential powers to gain a greater say over Iran’s “deep state” and pursue a less confrontational approach in the region.  While the Saudis seem impervious to his call for dialogue at the current time, rifts in the Gulf Cooperation Council present opportunities for Iran to strengthen relations with Qatar, Oman and Kuwait.

Sina Azodi is a former Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a graduate of Elliott School of International Affairs (B.A & MA), George Washington University. He focuses on Iran’s foreign policy and U.S.-Iranian relations.  Follow him on Twitter @azodiac83