Will Trump Drag the USA into Another Middle East Quagmire?

During his presidential campaign, Trump continuously emphasised his view that the rest of the World were making fools of the USA. He showed every sign that if he achieved power, he would use the US’s formidable military strength to humiliate some target nation, demonstrating to the world the mighty muscle that the US possesses. The will is there. The only question is against whom? 

Russia has an equivalence of nuclear weaponry with the US and anyway, there are other plans for Russia. China is another highly capable nuclear power, but apart from that, they own an enormous chunk of the US’ national debt and have a vast military machine themselves. 

So the middle- east? The region has been enduring large scale wars ever since the terrible 8 year Iran - Iraq war, that finished before the 1990 US coalition’s involvement under President George HW Bush, on behalf of invaded Kuwait. This smashed Saddam Hussein’s forces, freeing Kuwait. Then in 2003 George HW’s son, George.W.Bush, led a coalition to invade Iraq itself. His two presidential terms came and went, with continuing outbreaks of fighting in the region.  Then came the Syrian uprising in 2011 which quickly evolved into a Sunni –Shia holy war, not yet finished. 

Here Saudi Arabia with its Wahhabi Gulf allies, plus Turkey, were seeking to crush the Iranian backed Shi’ite government of the Assad family. Saudi has been a successful investment for the USA and the oil relationship continues. Trump electioneering, announced that he would smash ISIS the most prominent of the rebel groups - a spin-off from 'al Qaeda in Iraq', who taken territory from Iraq and Syria and declared their independence as the Caliphate. In doing so they have also ‘graduated’ to permanent international terrorism

But the destruction of ISIS has been underway from Obama’s time and whilst the US is co-ordinating it and the air attack, there are allies on the ground taking casualties. Trump can hardly take the credit if that campaign succeeds. To meet his purposes, the chosen enemy needs to be a nation state, ripe for humiliation. 

The most obvious remaining target is the still non-nuclear Iran, residually unpopular in the US since the overthrow of the Shah when mullah-supporting students occupied the US Embassy and held US embassy staff and diplomats prisoner for a year – a humiliation that lost the then President Carter, his re-election campaign. 

The nuclear agreement of 2015 with Iran is one of the great successes of the Obama administration. But, you would never guess this from what the new U.S. President Trump has said about it. He has never stopped denouncing it. Thus, Iran will occupy, once again, a major role in international affairs for the next few years. The big question is will Trump scrap the deal or will he renegotiate it, if the Iranians would even consider that? 

The first option, canceling the deal altogether, would necessarily imply a hostile alternative. The ‘5+1’ nuclear deal involves all five Security Council permanent members (U.K, France, Russia, China, USA), plus Germany. It’s not bilateral, thus, technically, Trump would only be canceling American endorsement for the agreement. But, American endorsement is the essential one that everyone needs. Without it, the U.S. Senate can resume enforcing sanctions against companies doing business with Iran. It means that Airbus, as well as Boeing, would face problems fulfilling its multi-billion dollar deal with Iran Air, because many components are American made.

It means that ENI, Repsol and Total would face as many obstacles developing Iranian oil fields, as would Exxon-Mobil. Moreover, it would in no way prevent Trump from launching a unilateral attack against Iran’s nuclear research facilities near Qom. 

If Washington scrapped the deal, it would leave Israel feeling more vulnerable. Therefore, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Israel would be tempted to act on their own – just as they did in 1981 against the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. Netanyahu’s proposed go-it-alone, pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear research facilities, was denied by Israel’s own generals, even before the Obama government stopped it. The outcome in Israel was a divided public opinion and political will. With Netanyahu’s attack plan frustrated. Israel is hyper-sensitive to Iran because it is potentially a threat with which Israel might not be able to handle alone.  They have created a very different situation effectively dominating the surrounding Arab states, none of which will tangle with them militarily. Iran also has allies and in such a situation, potentially great-power allies and Israel knows that it must, to survive, retain the US protective umbrella. 

The chain of events leading up to an American, not to mention an Israeli attack, is barely thinkable. It would read like the script for a World War III scenario. The Iranian nuclear facilities are protected by Russian supplied S-300 missiles. They have proven highly capable of fulfilling their defensive functions. To bypass such defenses, neither the American nor the Israeli air forces’ have sufficient numbers of F-35 or F-22 stealth jet planes to be assured of returning safely to base. Non-stealth jets would be useless against the S-300. 

They would also need a friendly base from which to take off. Iraq would never allow the USAF to launch an attack against Iran from its territory. Neither would Turkey. Israel is probably too far away. Saudi would like to, as with refuelling US or Israeli jets, but that could be an act of an endless war they wouldn’t win. An aircraft carrier group in the Persian Gulf would be too vulnerable, providing an ideal target for Iranians to escalate response to any attack on nuclear research facilities, into an all-out war. 

Attacking Iran would be a very bad idea and the Republican Congressmen in Washington who would have to authorise such an attack, are surely aware of that, as they are seeking to become accustomed to Trump as Commander in Chief.

Common sense, if that has any part to play, would be that if Trump doesn’t like the deal, he should renegotiate it. Military options are simply too dangerous. 

Hints of Iraq
Yet, George W. Bush received similar concerns before he unleashed the invasion of Iraq. Then, as perhaps now or the near future, the war machine and friendly media worked in tandem to prevent the public from fully understanding the stakes. The trouble is that Trump and his team are extremely hostile towards Iran. This means that military action, no matter how dangerous, remains an option that Trump would consider. In his ‘domination’ rationale, he needs an opponent and Netanyahu for example, where Iran was concerned, would be cheering him on.

The anti-Iran rhetoric from the Oval Office and Trump, has already broken Obama’s policy of establishing a kind of equilibrium between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Will the European signatories of the agreement with Iran, oppose this American turnaround? Surely, they will oppose it, but what is their power – especially in the current anti-EU climate and at least three elections that potentially risk breaking the Eurozone, in 2017? The EU States have also understood that the Trump administration laughs at them. The White House will pursue any direction it wants, not worrying about the repercussions. Trump, or at least those around him, understand that there are no guarantees that the ‘traditional’ US allies would agree or participate in an attack against Iran. Still, last January, British warships conducted an exercise with Bahrain and the Gulf emirates, simulating an attack on Iran. 

Iran Obstructs Trump’s Plans for Rapprochement with Russia
But what about that relationship with Russia? Obama wanted a reset, putting Moscow in ‘time out’. Trump appeared to be pro-Putin and Iran could certainly get in the way of any Washington-Moscow rapprochement. If there was a honeymoon, it already came and went. The relationship between Washington and Moscow will soon endure important tests for the Russians, which should clarify the veracity of the alleged rapprochement. The first concerns the Crimea. Will the United States endorse the annexation of this Ukrainian territory by Russia, or do nothing? The second is missile defense. Will the United States give up the idea of installing missiles in Eastern Europe, as Putin has demanded? Trump supports the defense industry and tensions with Russia generate big profits for the defense industry. Raytheon has sold Patriot missiles to Poland already. The tensions in Eastern Europe alone could net several billions for the likes of Lockheed Martin and other defense contractors. But the Russians expect this. They may even tolerate it, because it gives impetus to their own successful military equipment manufacturers. Then there is Washington’s relationship with Beijing. As important as this will be, the China Sea does not yet command the political immediacy of the fourth and major issue: Iran. 

Trump wants, and needs Russia to drop its alliance with Iran. But, so far, he has already shown that he has little to offer in return. Nikki Haley, the new U.S. ambassador to the UN, has not spared Russia from criticism in an outburst at the UN. Ms. Haley was as critical of Russia as her predecessor Samantha Power had been. Had Haley been less intransigent about Russia’s role in Crimea and Donbass, Putin might have taken it as a sign that giving up Iran would give him a free hand in Ukraine. But, no such trade was offered. Thus, Trump has nothing important enough for Moscow to tempt them into abandoning Tehran. Moscow may maintain its diametrically opposed perspective to President Donald Trump or his senior officials. That said, Russia would certainly remain open to finding points in common with Trump, even while dismissing Trump's qualification of Iran as a "terrorist state" - albeit that all the terror carried out in the west has been Sunni inspired, not from the Shiites of ultimately Iranian loyalties. 

Russia has a warm relationship with Iran. Yet it is no secret that Moscow and Washington have diametrically opposed views on many international and regional policy issues. In the meantime, Russia’s minister of foreign affairs Lavrov, has made it clear this would not be an obstacle to establishing normal communication and mutually beneficial, pragmatic relations, between Russia and the United States. Where Trump’s ambitions against Iran are concerned (or either of them), Russia will find a partner in China to monitor aggressiveness and balance in Trump’s erratic international policy. Trump began this confrontation with little understanding of Iran, yet it remains a convenient enemy for him to target. Israel and the Arab Gulf states are in lockstep sharing the new U.S. administration antipathy toward the Islamic Republic. 

Iran Has Options of Its Own
Yet, Tehran has some big cards to play to keep the Trump threat in check. The US Central Command has thousands of troops in Iraq and the Gulf that could be vulnerable to Iranian reprisals. Iran is a tough opponent. Any confrontation must consider Iran's strong position in Syria and Iraq; and its ability to thwart Trump's commitment to eradicating the Islamic state. But, Iran’s ‘trump’ card, if you will, is it’s strong leverage in Iraq. Iranians can mobilize thousands of Iraqi Shiite militias across the country. American advisers would become vulnerable to the attacks of such militias, were Trump to attack Iran’s nuclear facility. 

Iranian backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have attacked Saudi – and even American – ships. That could provide a rather thin ‘ArchDuke Ferdinand- Sarajevo’ type of pretext of a century ago, for Trump to retaliate. Yet, if Trump starts any war against Iran, he has hinted heavily about that possibility already. The reasons for this war would have nothing to do with attacks on Saudi ships. After fifteen years of invasions and wars in Iraq and Syria, where Washington has installed a kind of puppet government in the first, while trying to do the same in the second – and failing – the Ayatollahs in Tehran it seems, have gained unchallenged power in their nation. Last 29 January, Tehran tested a ballistic missile. Trump already believes he may have there the casus belli to justify an attack - or at the very least new sanctions and an end to the nuclear deal.

Shiites are the majority in Iraq. It seems normal that next-door Iran wants to expand its influence. But, this presents an obstacle to U.S. hegemony in the Persian Gulf and the Levant. This obstacle flies in the face of Trump’s nationalism and his campaign theme of making “America Great Again.” The pretext has already manifested itself. 

The world hopes that all this is simply Trump playing his New York tycoon role and a game of high stakes poker, as in a Sergio Leone movie. Trump may pretend to be ready to scrap the nuclear deal – perhaps adopting more sanctions – to send a signal to Israel and the Gulf States that his administration would be friendlier to their interests than was Obama’s. 

Trump’s advisors may have pointed out that, all things considered, it would be best to leave the Iran nuclear deal intact. 

Trump’s belligerence may have weakened Iran’s current pragmatist, President Rohani. There is an election in May. Iranians, who have yet to benefit economically from the 'nuclear' deal, may mistrust more openings to the West – they may vote for a conservative President. In the aftermath of Hashemi Rafsanjani’s death in January, the political situation for reformists has become more complicated. Trump’s belligerence exacerbates the political fallout. Rafsanjani was one of the Islamic Republic’s founding fathers, ‘an Iranian Jefferson’ of sorts. After the fervor of the first Revolutionary decade and the Iran-Iraq war, Rafsanjani championed the pragmatist cause. In 2009, he understood the anger of the 'Green Movement' and challenged then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani’s death has created a political vacuum. He was critical to the May election and its confirmation of a pragmatic course. He was aware that Iran would either need to change to survive, or face a traumatic collapse of the regime. Trump’s hostility has favored Rafsanjani’s enemies. 

There’s no sane solution for Trump, given the multiple challenges, than to re-examine the nuclear deal with Iran for improving it – not scrapping it. But Iran very likely will jib at any more provisions. It was no walk-over to be accepted there in its existing form. Common sense says it’s a done deal - leave it alone, but is common sense even a factor in Trump’s world? 

The US may consider eliminating some of the provisions contained in the Agreement such as the fact Iran can conduct research and development on nuclear centrifuges, during the first 10 years. If not, Tehran, which in addition to its traditional allies, Syria and Hezbollah, can now count on major strategic and Security Council allies: Russia and China. For its part, Iran remains a more open and tolerant country than many – if not all – of its neighbors. It boasts an advanced civil society, more so than commonly believed, although like them it is particularly harsh on its prisoners. Iran is also key to helping the United States resolve the great challenges that it faces in the Middle East, from Syria to Iraq and Yemen. 

Trump wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’. Thus, he above all, should understand the value of give and take in negotiations, or is this just blind optimism? 
Alessandro Bruno 

Alessandro Bruno