Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump gestures at a campaign event ahead of the Republican presidential primary election in North Charleston, South Carolina, US, February 14, 2024.

What Would a Re-elected Trump Do with Iran?

Wednesday, 05/08/2024

On November 8, 2024, the world may expect a re-enactment of Donald Trump’s temperamental mono in foreign affairs after a four-year interval upon his possible re-election.

For those in the Middle East, the day could mark anticipation and expectation seamlessly fused as a sense of “anticipancy.”

During his presidency, two fundamental features of Trump’s tactical foreign policy toolkit were “Transactionality” and “Unpredictability.” Both tactical tools ostensibly serve to preserve and promote Trump’s cardinal national security doctrine: “America First.”

The leaders of Egypt, Israel, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia (EISQA) may already be preoccupied by a sense of informed anticipation, but they could also be keeping Trump apprised of their efforts towards a region wide peace settlement, i.e., a possible sequel to the Abraham Accords.

The most pressing question for the emerging EISQA peace quartet is how a new Trump administration would deal with an ever-unruly Iranian regime and its proxies. Whilst the response to this question may be in “Project 2025”, Trump’s tried and tested “temperamentality”has proven that he abides by no pre-ordained stratagem other than his idiosyncratic appreciation of how to fulfill the “America First” agenda.

It is imperative to note that many of Trump's domestic policies during his first term, such as the so-called “Muslim travel ban”, astonished many analysts of US public policy. Certainly, one can equally characterize Trump’s foreign policy decisions, such as abandoning the Iran nuclear deal or killing IRGC general Qassem Soleimani as abrupt or unpredictable. However, when viewed through the prism of “America First,” Trump’s actions were generally idiosyncratic for they did not comport with the precedents set by the previous administrations, and they thus caught most domestic and foreign observers by surprise.

Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 seems to offer a blueprint as to how Trump’s second administration would forge ahead in foreign policy, but equally makes allowances for Trump to act idiosyncratically based on a combination of personal rapport with world leaders and opportunism.

Trump’s First Presidency: A Catalogue of Disconformities

Trump inherited from Obama a Middle East in turmoil in his first term. In Syria, Russia and Iran supported the Assad regime against anti-Assad forces, consisting of those armed backed by US and Turkey, as well as the Kurdish peshmerga) and ISIS. In Iraq, Iran’s proxies, the Kurdish peshmerga, US advisors, and the Iranian IRGC advisors fought against ISIS, and in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and UAE were at war with Iran-backed Houthis. Trump also inherited the Iran Nuclear Deal, signed by Obama, that had lifted most sanctions against Iran.

Trump succeeded in reducing ISIS with minimal US intervention by early 2018. On this score, and only a week after US backed Syrian Democratic Forces launched an attack to vanquish ISIS in its last stronghold in Syria, Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran on 1 May 2018 and introduced “maximum pressure” comprehensive sanctions against the Iranian regime.

Feeling betrayed, Iran sought to retaliate using its complex network of proxies in Iraq and Syria. To Trump the Iranian proxies’ attacks on American bases warranted a severe retaliation, the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the IRGC top commander who was the godfather of the many militia proxies of the Iranian regime in the region and a mastermind of asymmetrical warfare.

In addition to its military achievements, the Trump administration signed extensive aid packages with Israel and Egypt, and spearheaded negotiations with the Taliban, mediated by Qatar, to begin the phased withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.

Trumps crowning diplomatic achievement was the Abraham (peace and normalization) Accords signed between Israel and Bahrain, UAE, and Morocco, through US guarantees and mediation. The Accords were propitious to engage Israel and Saudi Arabia in intense normalization negotiations.

Promises and Perils of Project 2025

In terms of foreign policy, Project 2025 is a voluminous 920 page policy paper consisting of proposals for the incumbent nominee of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, that correspond to Trump’s first term presidency. The report resonates with Trump’s vision of “America First” but also accords with him in identifying China as the greatest threat to US national security, devoting over 200 pages to it. The report states that “The United States and its allies also face real threats from Russia, as evidenced by Vladimir Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine, as well as from Iran, North Korea, and transnational terrorism…”, (93) concluding that “In this light, US defense strategy must identify China unequivocally as the top priority for US” (125).

Project 2025 and US Foreign Policy in Action à la Trump

With Biden taking over the reigns of US foreign policy, his administration has faced upheavals that were unlike any that Trump had to face. Many in conservative circles across the globe believe that Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan most likely emboldened Putin to attack Ukraine, which in turn provoked Western sanctions against Russia and led to mass Western military aid to Ukraine.

Trump’s administration will inherit a world totally remade by Covid and Russia-Ukraine War, and Project 2025 seeks to supply the upcoming Republican administration with a menu of options that would reverse many of the Biden’s foreign policy decisions. The project clearly relies on Trump’s vision of a transactional foreign policy.

It considers the President indispensable as the final arbiter of US foreign policy decision making, toeing the traditional line of “imperial presidency” in foreign policy (181). The prime directive, according to Project 2025, that Trump shall follow in executing his role as the captain of the US foreign policy is “America First”: “Rather each foreign policy decision must ask: What is in the interest of the American people? US military engagement must clearly fall within US interests; be fiscally responsible; and protect American freedom, liberty, and sovereignty, all while recognizing Communist China as the greatest threat to US interests.” (182)

Project 2025 assesses Iran to pose a dual threat to Middle East stability, first, through its network of regional armed clients and, second, through its highly expanded weaponization threshold nuclear program. It thus proposes the promulgation of an Arab-Israeli entente with the full support of the US military industrial complex. Such advice accords with what former Trump advisors still see as the most viable options to confront and contain Iran. Second, it calls for sanctions and pressures to contain Iran’s nuclear program (185).

However, Project 2025 remains ambiguous as to how the US should deal the final blow to Iran’s nuclear program or eliminate Iran’s armed proxies. In realpolitik terms, Iran functions as a Gordian knot that binds itself at once to China and Russia in an awkward security, military, and economic arrangement.

To decouple Russia from this arrangement through whatever incentives that Trump can “unpredictably” muster would help neutralize Iran’s threat. This means that Trump would have to somehow decouple Russia from China before he can make any strides against Iran. Decoupling Russia from China and Iran would mean that Trump would have to somehow break the deadlock in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Being “unpredictable” could mean that Trump may decide not to implement many anti-Russia sanctions in violation of all special Russian sanctions act and would demand the Congress to repeal such acts as an incentive to Russia in a Trump mediated peace round with Ukraine.

Trump’s intervention on Russia’s behalf through easing sanctions would sway Putin to support him against Iran, and enable him to start a process to contain Iran’s nuclear program without resorting to threats of military strikes; a possibility that cannot be discounted if Trump becomes the commander-in-chief once again. In effect, in his most unpredictable, transitional minded logic, Trump could perceive winning Putin to his side is worth isolating China and dealing with Iran at once.

Biden’s Euro-American sanctions and massive military assistance to Ukraine in the fight against Russia’s invasion have drastically changed the world that Trump had to deal with during his first term. During Trump’s first term “America First” policies provoked closer Sino-Russian military and economic relations under the Shanghai Security Organization and Euro-Asian Economic Union (EAEU). Yet, such relations completely transformed into an de facto Sino-Russian entente in the wake of Russia’s 2022 Ukraine invasion.

To complicate matters, since 2022, Iran has advanced itself to the level of a junior partner to both Russia and China as a dependable source of military ammunition and arsenal logistics, as well as being a reliable strategic oil supplier to China. Iran, Russia, and China have effectively formed a mutually beneficial de facto pact over the past four years that can be characterized as an unofficial military-economic triple entente. To contain and neutralize Iran’s threat would thus require decoupling Russia from both Iran and China.

It would come as a surprise if in his effort to deal with Iran, Trump would introduce a new version of his first term’s “maximum pressure sanctions.” However, with the complex sanction evasion networks that the Iran has developed on a global scale in tandem with Russia, “maximum pressure sanctions” would not be sufficient. Trump’s administration would have to use all the power of the US navy and its allies to stop Iran’s oil exports to China. Whereas Biden has refused to meaningfully enforce sanctions on Iran’s oil exports to China, as it is wary of a surge in oil prices that can infuriate the American consumer at the gas pump, a Trump administration will be bent on expanding US oil production in contravention of all “green” concerns of Biden democrats.

Nonetheless, not enforcing the Russian sanctions would not be sufficient to bring Putin onboard against Iran. Nor would mediating between Russia and Ukraine in and of itself decouple Putin from Xi. Trump would need to offer an invaluable prize to Putin. The only bargaining chip available to Trump is to force Ukraine to sign away some of her eastern provinces to Russia. Do the Project 2025 authors believe that Trump could offer Ukraine as a sacrificial lamb, for all intents and purposes, to Putin so that it would successfully decouple Russia from China? If one is guided by the America First directive, such an interpretation is not too far-fetched.

Furthermore, Trump may seek to arrive at a compromise with Putin over Iran. In all the 57 instances that Iran appears in Project 2025, it is abundantly clear that the authors are taking more than a cue from the precedent set by the first Trump administration’s treatment of the Islamic Republic. They are in fact rigorously applying the America First directive: “What is in the interest of the American people?” No international commitment to anyone is more sacrosanct to Trump than America First.

On a last note, one cannot discount Trump’s idiosyncratic inventiveness and spontaneity in foreign policy. If Trump’s first term is any guide, Trump may still send, say through Oman, all manner of secret messages to sway Tehran Mullahs to cut a deal with him. He is on record to have dispatched messages to that effect to Iran Supreme Leader Khamenei; especially one for direct talks through the late Japanese PM Abe Shinzo. None can put it past Trump that he would seek make a deal with the Mullahs, especially if Putin seeks to drive a hard bargain before he joins Trump against Iran.

Despite Trump’s characteristic unpredictability, four contours of Trump’s approach to foreign policy seem to have remained constant from his first administration to date: his distrust of China, his affinity for Putin and Russia, his eagerness to forge an everlasting rapprochement between Arabs, chiefly the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Israel, and his unflinching adherence to “America First” as his realpolitik compass.

The late Henry Kissinger, who counselled Trump during his presidency, quipped with much insight during an interview with the Economist last May that: “’I have never met a Russian leader who said anything good about China, and I’ve never met a Chinese leader who said anything good about Russia. They are not natural allies.” Of everything that Kissinger could have whispered in Trump’s ear, these insights must still echo in Trump’s head. Neither a territorially intact Ukraine nor a democratic Iran fair more prominently in Trump’s vision than “America First.” Accordingly, sacrificing both Iran and Ukraine at Putin’s altar is a small penance, especially if they could secure the greatest prize of all: sowing division between Russia and China.

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