What may change in the Middle East if Trump is re-elected?

by Prof. Dr. Ahmet Uysal

During the 2020 elections, Biden said that he would return to the Nuclear Deal, but after coming to power, he did not renew the agreement with Iran by putting forward heavy conditions. If Trump wins the US elections, he can be expected to adopt a tougher stance towards Iran. The tensions in Palestine and Yemen in particular could lead to this, but it is unlikely that this toughness will escalate into a major conflict to stop Iran. This is because Trump needs the fear of Iran for his Arab-Israeli normalization project.

Donald Trump came to power after winning the 2016 elections in the US with his conservative and nationalist rhetoric of “America First”. Through his administration and especially through his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump shook the balances in the Middle East that had been shaken by the Arab Spring. He was going to continue the projects he had started in the Middle East in his second term, but he lost the election in 2020 under the extraordinary conditions brought about by the coronavirus, and again, unusually, he refrained from accepting the election results. In the intervening period, Trump has been plagued by legal cases, especially accused of the congressional raid and the disclosure of classified documents.

By portraying the lawsuits against him as a ‘political operation’ and political revenge against his party, Trump has managed to maintain the support of the Republican base with the rhetoric of victimization. Gearing up for the 2024 presidential elections, Trump managed to get his most important rival in the party, Ron Desantis, to withdraw from the Iowa caucuses in favor of him, and won the New Hamshire caucuses against his less ambitious rival Nikki Haley. His candidacy is now all but assured. Opinion polls also show that Trump has a good chance of winning against Biden.

Relations with the deep state and elites

The US deep state does not like Trump, but it remains to be seen whether this resistance will be enough to prevent him from running for president. But in the intervening period, Trump seems to have increased his dialog with some elites, and it seems unlikely that he will be prevented by a legal operation, as a conviction in an election year would be politically counterproductive. If this happens, it is not impossible that a Republican presidential candidate nominated and naturally guided by Trump will be elected. Therefore, both the world and the Middle East should prepare for a four-year Trump era.

What concerns us closely is what the new Trump era will bring for Turkey and the Middle East. In this article, we will discuss the meaning of this period for the Middle East, a critical region where three continents meet. What Trump has done in the Middle East will be the key to what he will do in the new term. Trump was and will be elected with his anti-refugee rhetoric and the votes of an Islamophobic public. When he came to power, he banned some Middle Eastern countries such as Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Iraq from entering the US. Trump’s main legacy in the Middle East is his withdrawal from the Obama Nuclear Deal with Iran and his normalization of Israel with some Arab countries through the Abraham Accords.

Unlike the Obama Administration, which angered Arab countries by making a deal with Iran, Trump adopted an anti-Iranian rhetoric before his election. After his election, he withdrew from the Nuclear Deal that allowed Obama to normalize relations with Iran and moved towards imposing new sanctions. Although some European countries opposed this, they were unable to dissuade Trump from his plan (Trump was not on good terms with his traditional European allies). The Nuclear Deal and normalization with Iran disturbed the traditional allies of the US in the region (Gulf and Israel).

Aramco attack and its aftermath

Trump has embarked on a new Middle East design by taking Israel and the Gulf Arabs with him. However, even though he gave unlimited support to Israel, he did not take the hard line to break Iran’s back as the Gulf countries expected. It did not respond to serious Iranian-backed attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where this approach was tested. In particular, the strikes on the facilities of Saudi Arabia’s largest company and lifeblood, the Aramco oil company, put Saudi Arabia in serious trouble, but there was no response from the US. In what can be considered a limited reaction representing the general anti-Iranian sentiment, Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force and the representative of Iran’s hard power in the Middle East, was assassinated on Trump’s orders. However, Trump’s actions did not lead Iran to abandon its ambitious policies in the Middle East.

During the 2020 elections, Biden said that he would return to the Nuclear Deal, but after he came to power, he did not renew the agreement with Iran by putting forward heavy conditions. When Trump comes to power, it can be expected that he will adopt a tougher stance towards Iran. The tensions in Palestine and Yemen in particular may lead to this, but it is unlikely that this toughness will expand into a major conflict to stop Iran. This is because Trump’s Arab-Israeli normalization project needs the fear of Iran. We can expect that this threat will be used as a tool at least until the normalization is completed.

When the Middle East is considered, it is seen that there is continuity in the Obama-Trump-Biden line with differences. Trump inherited Obama’s Arab Spring legacy and he did not support democratic processes. While Obama seemed to be in favor of democracy, in fact, he did not raise his voice against military coups and civil wars in the Arab Spring countries and agreed to keep Bashar al-Assad in Syria. With Trump in power, US-Iranian cooperation may diminish, but no fundamental change should be expected.

The United States is not uncomfortable with Iran’s destructive policies in the Middle East. In the Yemen crisis, for example, the US accused Saudi Arabia, not Iran and its proxies, of massacres. In Syria, despite its promises, it turned a blind eye to the massacres and even the use of chemical weapons by the Iranian-allied Assad regime. In Lebanon, Western-backed Christian groups get along well with Iranian-backed Hezbollah. The US knew of Hezbollah’s responsibility for the Beirut bombings but did not pursue it. A similar cooperation between the US and Iran is going on in Iraq, and this cooperation is also going on with the PKK.

India-Arab-Israel trade corridor

Obama’s silence on the attempted military coup in Turkey is similar to Trump’s support for the Qatar embargo (a kind of coup attempt). Although the Biden administration initially had difficulties with the Gulf countries due to the Khashoggi murder and the discomfort caused by the exit from Afghanistan, relations later became closer. The latest India-Arab-Israel trade corridor announced by the Biden administration resembles Trump’s approach. It aims to support India against China on the one hand and to accelerate Arab-Israeli normalization on the other.

Trump’s most important legacy in the Middle East is that he wants to shape the region around Israel. The traditional idea of a two-state solution has been abandoned. Trump gave Netanyahu what he wanted, saying, “It doesn’t matter if it’s two states or one state, we support the Israeli solution.” Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, annexation of the Golan Heights and support for settlement expansion. The Biden administration’s unconditional and unlimited support for Israel during the Gaza War shows continuity. It can be predicted that Trump will go further in his support when he comes to power.

The Deal of the Century and the related Abraham Accords, a very radical project of Trump and his son-in-law Kushner on Israel, continue – in the background – under Biden. Under the Abraham Accords, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and later Morocco normalized relations with Israel. Biden’s election temporarily postponed this process, but now covert cooperation with other Arab countries continues. With the arrival of Trump, this process is expected to accelerate and become more public.

In Trump’s solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, known as the Deal of the Century, a Palestinian state on paper would have no claim to Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinians in Gaza would be deported to Sinai and those in the West Bank to Jordan. First the Palestinians, then the Jordanian and Egyptian governments rejected this solution. The Gaza war can be seen as an implementation of the Deal of the Century: Netanyahu and the Biden administration behind him aim at the evacuation of Gaza. The Palestinians refuse to surrender, but Trump will want to continue this policy. Of course, until the US elections are held, the outcome of the Gaza war will also be decisive for Trump’s position.

In conclusion, the Middle East policy of Trump’s first term will continue in his second term, albeit with minor differences. While he will pursue a policy of controlled tension (or even conflict) with Iran and its proxies in the region, these conflicts will not reach the point of breaking Iran’s back. This is because Iran and the US are satisfied with this controlled tension and their compromises in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon continue. The exception may be Palestine and a little Yemen. If tensions escalate on both of these fronts, Iran can get away with saying “I have nothing to do with it”.

Iran is aware of its weaknesses both at home and in the region. The bomb attack in Iran in early January should be read as a message to Iran not to leave the agreed framework and Iran has received this message. Trump should be expected to focus on Israeli-Arab normalization in his new Middle East design. Since US presidents do not have to worry about re-election in their second terms, they act a little more freely. More surprises can be expected from an extraordinary politician like Trump. However, since he has recently been in dialog with the US economic and political elites, it would not be surprising if he behaves in accordance with traditional policies. In any case, it is clear that Trump will not support peace and stability in the Middle East.

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