Donald Trump's Middle East Policy Is a Disaster
President Donald Trump will confront a major contradiction: on the one side, he has made noises about tearing up the US-Iran deal, and on the other side, he wants better relations with Russia. Can he have both?
Incoherence has been at the heart of a great many of the policies articulated by Trump. He has moved away from his postures easily – after his election he has ducked the question of repeal of President Obama’s health insurance reform and of the Muslim ban. He demoted the wall on the US-Mexico border to a fence. His surrogate – Walid Phares – told BBC that Trump would not tear up the deal with Iran. ‘Ripping up is maybe too strong a word,’ Phares said. ‘He’s will take that agreement, review it, send it to Congress, demand from the Iranians to restore a few issues or change a few issues, and there will be a discussion.’ Even this is unlikely. Most rationally Trump would have to bury his denunciation of the Iran deal.
Trump’s supporters seem unwilling to extract a price for these flip-flops. So, it is hard to measure the problems he will face if he speaks out of both sides of his mouth and if he pushes policies that appear to rub against each other.
On foreign policy, however, it will be difficult to do too many contradictory things.
Russia’s major ally in West Asia is Iran. There is no question that the Russian and Iranian position on Iraq and Syria is closely aligned. Both Moscow and Tehran would like to see the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad remain in power, and to see that the various extremist rebel groups be vanquished. Iran understands this struggle in terms of its regional tussle with Saudi Arabia as well as its logistical support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese political movement. Russia’s main goal is to retain its regional role through Syria, but also to prevent the further collapse of the regional order. Neither is eager for regime change in Damascus, even though they differ on whether Assad himself has to remain in power. Russian goals in Syria, Moscow suggests, cannot be implemented without the assistance of Iran. That the Russian intervention took place with close coordination with Iran – notably Major General Qassim Soleimani – says a great deal about Moscow’s reliance upon Iran and, therefore, its commitment to Iran.
One of Trump’s closest advisors – Lt. General Michael Flynn – has been fierce in his condemnation of regime change. ‘They’ve gotten us into mess after mess for the wrong reasons,’ Lt. General Flynn said in relation to the liberal humanitarian wing of the foreign policy establishment. He had in mind not only the war on Iraq, but also the regime change operation in Libya. If Trump picks Lt. General Flynn to be his National Security Advisor, then, it is clear that he will break with the regime change consensus in Washington.
Trump has said that he would stop the funding of ‘moderate’ rebels in Syria since ‘we have no idea who these people are’. Whether he is motivated by Islamophobia or by an accurate assessment of the ideological horizon of the rebels is not particularly relevant. Trump told the Wall Street Journal that his priority would be to fight ISIS. This aligns him, he said, with the Syrian government, with Russia and with Iran. ‘Syria is fighting ISIS,’ he said, Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria.’ Trump, therefore, understands that there is a linkage between the government of Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran. If his administration would like to reduce the battle in Syria to a war against ISIS, then he would have to withdraw the US commitment to the ‘Assad Must Go’ slogan and cooperate with Syria, Russia and Iran on the battlefield. Of course, this cooperation is already on going, but only in the fight against ISIS. It appears that the Trump administration would extend this to the fight against the al-Qaeda proxies and other extremists in Syria’s western heartland.
Trump’s attempt to simplify the fight against ISIS would unravel if he decided to renege on the Iran nuclear deal. As I show in my book – The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Nation – the nuclear deal must be understood in the context of the emergence of Iran as a regional power. It was two US-driven wars – against Afghanistan’s Taliban and Iraq’s Ba’ath – that removed Iran’s two neighboring adversaries from power. The US, Israel and Saudi Arabia tried to push Iran back to its borders. The Syria Accountability Act of 2003, Israel’s war on Lebanon of 2006 and the sanctions regime against Iran attempted to garrote the country. None of these succeeded, which is why the Obama administration went into negotiations to end the sanctions. That nuclear deal is anathema to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump has made noises about tearing it up. The statement quoted above on Syria indicates Trump’s view that it was the nuclear deal that made Iran powerful – ‘because of us,’ he says. But it was not the nuclear deal, as I showed in my book, but the US wars on Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the emergence of China, Russia and India as close economic partners of Iran that gave Tehran its regional prominence. Even if Trump tears up the nuclear deal, there is no guarantee that the Europeans would restart sanctions. Adventures by the West against Iran, Russia and Libya have starved Europe of its energy reservoirs. Neither China nor Russia would join a new sanctions regime. If the US rips up the agreement, it would be isolated on Iran. Only Saudi Arabia and Israel would be pleased, but their joy would not compensate for the loss of important partners in Iraq and Syria.
One of the main arguments against the Iran deal made by the Republicans was that Iran would not abide by its protocols. More than a year later, Obama said in his press conference on Monday, there is no evidence of any Iranian deceit. In fact, Iran never had an eye on a nuclear program to begin with, and certainly has made no movement towards a nuclear weapon during this year. Iran is confident that Trump cannot move any real agenda on Iran. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said that the Iran deal has made ‘our economic relations with all countries expanding and irreversible.’ Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, more ominously, suggested to Trump on state radio that he should not play with ‘the tail of the lion.’ Iran seems nonplussed by Trump’s rhetoric about the deal. They are fairly certainly the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese – if not also the Indians – will stand for the deal and not against it.
Would Trump unravel the nuclear deal merely to please Tel Aviv, Riyadh as well as his base of ‘forgotten Americans’? Or would his enthusiasm for a new link with Russia override his pledge to tear up that deal? Impossible to predict precisely what Trump would do. What is clear, however, is that the noises he has made about a concentration on ISIS cannot take place at the same time as he alienates Iran, and therefore, Russia. It is more likely that Trump will abandon the policy of regime change on Syria, and will ignore his own campaign statements about Iran.
But – and this is key – Trump’s own policy is going to be severely constrained by the arms industry. The US weapons manufacturers make a great profit from the wars in West Asia. It is what drives the massive aid for weaponry that the US government has recently delivered to Israel ($38 billion over ten years) – for Israel to use US taxpayers’ money to buy weaponry produced by US arms manufacturers. During the Obama administration, the US government has given the green light for US arms manufacturers to sell over $115 billion of weaponry to Saudi Arabia. Arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have also helped fatten the bottom line of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing and General Dynamics. None of these arms merchants would like to see their market share decline. They thrive on war, and are offered bipartisan support in the US political world.
What a Trump administration would not do – but which someone must broker – is a Grand Bargain between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ever since the US removed the barriers on Iranian ambitions between 2001 and 2003, the tussle with Saudi Arabia has spread from one end of the region to another. It is time for this conflict to end. It has already destroyed Syria and Yemen, and is likely to destroy other countries. The United States and its weapons manufacturers would likely prefer that this conflict endure, so as it provide the US with a reason to meddle in West Asia and provide massive profits for its arms merchants.
(Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter(AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South(Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution(University of California Press, 2016) This article was first published on Alternet)