Iran deal dead and buried
How will the Trump presidency impact on the Middle East? Yassamine Mather looks at the possibilities
There are many predictions about US foreign policy under Donald Trump’s presidency and in some ways, until a nomination for secretary of state is made, it is too early to assess the impact of US policy internationally or even in the Middle East. However, we can say with a level of certainty that the Iran nuclear deal is dead and buried, irrespective of the new administration’s policies in the rest of the region.
The two themes consistently repeated by Trump during the presidential campaign were, firstly, his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal - he called it the “worst deal” ever negotiated; and, secondly, his opposition to the current policy on Syria - he claimed that Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad were the only forces fighting Islamic State, as opposed to US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar. On the face of it contradictory statements: on the one hand, supporting the Syrian allies of Iran’s regional policies; on the other hand, promising to “tear down the Iran nuclear deal”.
Anyone who knows anything about the region will tell you that the Syrian civil war and the question of Iran’s nuclear deal are interconnected. The US position on Assad has little to do with the ‘Arab spring’ or the Ba’athist government’s suppression of its own opposition, and everything to do with weakening Iran’s regional ambitions; and the conflict with Iran had nothing to do with the country’s nuclear capabilities (all independent nuclear scientists confirm this), and everything to do with the country’s regional ambitions, including its expansionist policies in Syria in alliance with the Assad regime (now supported by Russia). Hence the obvious contradiction in the two pillars of Trump’s Middle East policy. However, let us not allow rational thought to infringe upon the president-elect’s foreign policy.
Secretary of state
Irrespective of his final choice for secretary of state, the men - and one woman - he has been considering speak volumes about this lack of clarity when it comes to the Iran deal. All are united in their opposition to the nuclear deal, and all are keen to facilitate regime change from above in Tehran.
- John Bolton is a leading figure from the neoconservative Project for the New American Century and has consistently called for regime change in Iran. George W Bush gave him the post of ambassador to the United Nations, which he held for two years until the Senate blocked his long-term appointment. He was a strong supporter of the Iraq war and had called for an invasion as early as 1998. Despite the disastrous consequences of that policy when it was implemented in 2003, Bolton has no regrets: “I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct …, although I think the worst decision made after that was the 2011 decision to withdraw US and coalition forces.”
In a recent interview published by the Huffington Post, Bolton said: “The only long-term solution is to change the regime in Tehran … I am not saying that the overthrow of the Iranian regime will solve all the problems of the region, but it will annihilate the threat.” In the past Bolton has openly criticised the current administration’s attitude towards Tehran - like many other neoconservatives he is a supporter of Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year he was enraged that US victims of 9/11 were allowed to sue the Saudi regime for alleged complicity in the 9/11 attacks.
- Rudy Giuliani has, according to the Wall Street Journal, “suggested several times that he would be interested in the post” of secretary of state. His position seems to reflect the contradictions in the Trump camp. He had stated that Trump would cancel the nuclear deal on his first day as president, but, when asked how he would deal with the diplomatic aftermath of such a move, he replied: “You have to set priorities. So if the priority is, let’s eliminate Isis, maybe you put that off a little bit and you get rid of Isis first. And then you get back to that.”1
However, by the end of last week, Giuliani seemed to be losing ground as a candidate, mainly because for many years he had been paid as a lobbyist by Saudi Arabia and Qatar - the very countries named by Trump as financial contributors to the Clinton Foundation and Hillary’s election campaign, for which “she certainly should have been indicted”, according to Giuliani. It now turns out that he himself was accepting huge fees and lobbying on behalf of overseas interests. Giuliani’s nomination would cause problems within Congress because of Saudi connections to the funding of jihadist groups, including al Qa’eda and, according to some, even IS.
- By the end of last week another name emerged: Mitt Romney. If anyone believes the nomination of a mainstream Republican as secretary of state would mark a more moderate foreign policy, they should think again. At least as far as the Middle East is concerned, he is no different from Bolton or Giuliani.
In the summer of 2015, as the nuclear deal was being signed in Vienna, he wrote:
The generational calamity that will result from president Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran will last a very long time indeed. This can be said with perfect confidence because of two undeniable facts. First, Iran is led by suicidal, apocalypse-seeking, America-hating, Israel-denying theocratic fanatics. If these ayatollahs have nuclear weapons, they will use them, someday, somewhere. Iran is a major, long-time state sponsor of terrorism; its leaders are entirely bereft of restraint, decency and respect for human life. Second, the Obama deal prescribes a pathway for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. The agreement’s defenders contend that it will delay Iran’s nuclear program by 10 to 15 years (about one half of a generation). Perhaps. But no-one can say that the deal will prevent Iran from getting the bomb.2
In fact throughout his presidential election campaign in 2012 he promised “regime change in Iran”.
- The one woman in the frame, Nikki Haley, has now been nominated by Trump as US ambassador to the UN. She is no supporter of the Iran deal either. In 2014, as governor of South Carolina, she signed a law prohibiting that state from investing funds (or negotiating contracts) with companies that had invested in the Islamic Republic’s energy sector. In 2015, she signed a statement with 14 other Republican governors opposing the Iran nuclear agreement and promising to keep state-level sanctions against the country intact.
As we await clarification of Trump’s foreign policy beyond the slogans and election promises, it is worthwhile looking at the reaction to his election in the Middle East. As predicted, IS celebrated the result. The group would like nothing better than to see religious conflict between Muslims and Christians in the US itself, and Trump’s proposed register of Muslims might be a step in that direction - it might even “lead to civil war”.3
The IS-affiliated al-Minbar media network was delighted:
Rejoice with support from Allah, and find glad tidings in the imminent demise of America at the hands of Trump ... Trump’s win of the American presidency will bring hostility of Muslims against America as a result of his reckless actions, which show the overt and hidden hatred against them.
But Iran was not quite so enthusiastic. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei said:
The Trump presidency has little impact on the Islamic Republic … We have no judgement on this election, because America is the same America. We neither mourn nor celebrate, because it makes no difference to us.
Of course, he might change his mind if ‘regime change’ becomes official policy.
The reality is that the Iran deal is in real trouble. According to professor Pejman Abdolmohammadi of the London School of Economics,
Trump’s presidency will dismantle the western political and diplomatic network, guided by the USA, UK and EU states, which worked for years on the historic nuclear deal between Iran and the west, successfully implementing it in 2015. This deal is allowing Iran to slowly re-enter the global arena. With president Obama, John Kerry, Jack Straw, Federica Mogherini and others in the network declining in influence, Rowhani will lose key international support. Geopolitically, if Trump opens up more diplomatic ties with Russia, Rowhani’s government would be further weakened. Russia is one of the main allies of the Islamic Republic and is particularly supportive of the conservative front. A Russian deal with Trump would undermine Iranian pragmatists and impede progress towards a more stable position in the region. It will strengthen both the Revolutionary Guards and the office of the supreme leader.4
Although European companies have started negotiations with Tehran, continued US banking sanctions hinder any serious progress with the reintegration of Iran into the world economy. And the US Senate has continued to vote for legislation in support of sanctions, including, last week, the sale of civilian planes to Iran - legislation which Obama is threatening to veto.
But this demonstrates that the Republican-dominated Congress and Senate are unlikely to block the ending of the deal. As for Bolton, Giuliani and Romney, they will hope the obstacles will be severe enough to force Iran to return to nuclear enrichment, which might be used to justify US military intervention. What can be said with a level of certainty is that Trump’s election will damage Hassan Rowhani’s attempts at winning a second term as Iran’s president. For Tehran the only consolation is that, with a misogynist in the White House, the United States will not be in a position to criticise Iran on women’s rights.
Although the Israeli state had invested quite a bit in the Clinton election campaign, rightwing Israeli ministers seem happy enough with Trump’s victory. According to minister of education Naftali Bennett,
The era of a Palestinian state is over. Trump’s victory is an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state … which would hurt our security and just cause. This is the position of the president-elect, as written in his platform, and it should be our policy, plain and simple.5
Likud party members were celebrating the likelihood that Trump will legitimise Israeli sovereignty over occupied east Jerusalem and support moving the US embassy there. The vice-president-elect, Mike Pence, is a long-term ally of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac). In 2009 he told an Aipac convention: “Israel’s enemies are our enemies; Israel’s cause is our cause. If this world knows nothing else, let it know this: America stands with Israel.”
However, the Zionist state’s enthusiasm is not shared by many in the Jewish community in the United States. Exit polls suggest that only around 25% of American Jews voted for Trump. The day after his election, according to The Atlantic,
A man discovered that someone had painted swastikas on an abandoned storefront in South Philly, placing the symbols next to Trump’s name and the words “Sieg Heil” ... Maybe it was an anti-Trump protestor. Maybe it was an anti-Semite. Either way, it underscored the ways in which Trump’s election has evoked the persistent Jewish nightmare: that America will become like Germany in 1938. Jews, who have a keen eye for the repetition of history, might be forgiven for worrying about the fragility of American democracy.6
The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz went further:
The election of Donald Trump has shattered the Jewish idyll, all across the board. Although one must give the president-elect the benefit of the doubt that he is not an anti-Semite himself, he has frequently promoted disparaging Jewish stereotypes in his personal statements.7
For example, this was Trump’s response to media claims that the Jewish lobby was making large contributions to the Clinton campaign:
The Jews don’t give me money because they know I can’t be bought. So they’re doing everything they can to destroy me. We’ll see how to deal with this thing once I’m in office, but I promise you, it won’t be pleasant.8
Of course, Trump and his team will moderate their comments now that they are in power and we can expect that the administration’s continued support for the Israeli state and his positions on Iran will win him allies in the Jewish community in the United Sates.
However, it is right to say that in the immediate aftermath of the Trump victory there were stark differences between the reactions of the Jewish community in the US and those of Israeli officials in the Zionist state. Not surprisingly soft Zionists, apologists for the Israeli state within the British ‘left’, as well as supporters of bourgeois liberalism in the US left, have been relatively quiet on the potential threats of a Trump presidency.