THE future of the relationship between the incoming Trump administration with Russia and Iran has become a major issue for the mandarins of the Republican Party, which had nominated the tycoon for the presidency, and for the leaders of the US’ European allies. The main concern is the apparent bond emerging between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President-elect Donald Trump and the implications for Syria and Ukraine but also what it entails in terms of the lack of balance between Putin’s experience and shrewdness and Trump’s inexperience and foreign policy illiteracy. The controversy regarding the future of the nuclear deal with Iran follows two different directions between the European leaders keen to maintain the agreement and leaders of the Republican Party who want to tighten the conditions of the deal’s implementation and monitoring mechanisms in parallel with preparations for snapping back sanctions on Tehran and returning the military option to the table in the event of Iranian breaches.
Some are even calling for preparatory steps, through key appointments in the Trump administration, ahead of the date of expiry of the deal in nine years to preempt any bid by Iran to develop and acquire nuclear weapons. Currently, everyone is holding their breath in anticipation of the formation of the next US cabinet, especially with regard to posts such as the secretary of state, defense secretary, attorney general, national security advisor and homeland security’s top post. The lineup contains many names but few know the identity of the pillars of the incoming Trump administration, which will most likely include a blend of traditional figures of the establishment and right-wing extremists to appease Trump’s support base. What is clear, however, is that Donald Trump has started acclimatizing himself to the post and its requirements, but at the same time, he has not divorced himself from the campaign version of the Donald, the unilateral and stubborn businessman who overcame all obstacles on his path to the White House.
This is precisely why some are worried about the baggage this unconventional personality could be bringing to the US presidency and the crucial decisions entrusted upon it. Some are calling for giving Trump time to get to know his policies before rushing to judgment, at least until his inauguration in mid-January. However, every step made from now until then will be closely watched, whether it comes from Russia in Syria or Iran in Iraq, because in one way or another, the coming administration will chart a different course from its predecessors’.
In truth, President Barack Obama had already delivered some of the promises Trump subsequently made in his campaign, during his two terms, especially with regard to deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal records. Obama earned himself the reputation of being “deporter-in-chief” for having forced more than 2.5 million people out of the country between 2009 and 2015. Trump has begun climbing down from his position, saying the first batch of deportations would affect two million immigrants who broke the law and not all 11 million of them.
Russia is in permanent need of an enemy in the West, especially the US. It is also not yet ready to abandon its bid to settle the battle in Aleppo and this will not affect its ambition to begin a truce with the US under Trump
Similarly with the issue of Trump’s proposed wall between the US and Mexico, a third of it has already been built. Now, Trump is saying parts of his wall will be fences, and insists he is a construction expert who will know where walls or fences would work best.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump spoke in a threatening and hostile manner about China. Now, this rhetoric has given way to a more pragmatic discourse towards the Chinese leadership.
Trump met with Obama at the White House for nearly an hour, although the scheduled time was only 15 minutes. Afterwards, Obama said Trump was not ideological but was pragmatic, and must be given a chance to lead the country. Donald Trump also after the meeting praised the man with whom he had exchanged the bitterest of insults. When he was asked about what they spoke about, he first mentioned the Middle East – the region he had placed at the bottom of his priorities and reduced to the issue of the war on terror.
Even his rhetoric on Saudi Arabia has changed since his election. His positions regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict indicate that he will not fulfill the traditional promise all presidential candidates make regarding moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. They also suggest he won’t be “neutral” in the sense of avoiding the issue, and could work for a political settlement by reviving talks. If he decides to become a more neutral mediator, this could mark a qualitative shift, though this is unlikely to happen of someone like Rudy Giuliani or John Bolton becomes secretary of state.
Giuliani, a former mayor of New York City, has his eyes trained on the post. However, he would be one of the worst picks. John Bolton is more experienced in foreign affairs, but he is a neocon and supports military interventions, in contradiction of Trump’s campaign promises regarding remaining out of others’ wars and rejecting US interventionism.
What is completely unlikely is for Trump to pick a Democrat for the post. However, this does not mean he may not pick a figure who would pursue Barack Obama’s line of appeasement with Russia or even Iran, to a lesser degree. On the Middle East With regards to Iran, Trump will not be a carbon copy of Obama. He will neither appease Tehran at the same level nor be willing to hold up the nuclear deal as the key benchmark for US-Iranian engagement. Tehran will therefore be likely to come under more scrutiny with respect to its nuclear program. The Trump administration will be more willing to re-impose sanctions in the event of any Iranian attempt to circumvent the restrictions under the deal. The administration will likely query the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over the tiniest detail and could bring back all options to the table, including the military option.
Still, this will not mean the Trump administration will be biased against Iran’s regional forays, or ally itself to the Gulf nations against Iran. At most, the Trump administration could re-examine relations with Iran in terms of the latter’s regional expansionism, if developments in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon require it rather than because of calculations related to the Arab Gulf powers.
Indeed, Iran remains a de-facto partner in the US priority-war on ISIS and so-called Sunni terrorism. The attacks of 9/11 remain a key factor in US relations with the Sunni Arabs, which benefits Iran’s position in the relationship with the US, especially given that Tehran leads the Shiite world and claims to be the spearhead of the war on Sunni terror. However, if key posts in the US government come to be occupied by figures that link the nuclear deal opposed by Trump to Iran’s regional dominance schemes, things and policies could evolve differently.
Russia is another matter. The European nations are aware of the repercussions of the personal rapprochement between Trump and Putin for the main US policies vis-a-vis the EU and NATO. Britain is the leading power, taking strict positions against Russian policy in Syria and Ukraine and pushing for accountability for war crimes and the use of chemical weapons.
In anticipation of a potential Trump-Putin détente, the EU is drafting plans to confront Russia, not militarily but strategically by stepping up pressure on the Russian and Syrian governments. This includes sanctions and diplomatic isolation as well as legal action for war crimes committed by Russia or Syria.
Russia is, however, not complacent and is not assuming it will have special relations with the US when Trump takes the helm. Some in Moscow may believe Trump owes them something because of Russian covert actions against his opponent Hillary Clinton. However, some measure of realism also forces the Russians to think what it means for the Republicans to control Congress and assist Donald Trump in affirming US leadership in the international arena.
Russia is in permanent need of an enemy in the West, especially the US. It is also not yet ready to abandon its bid to settle the battle in Aleppo and this will not affect its ambition to begin a truce with the US under Trump. There is extra time from now until 20 January during which new facts could be imposed on Trump’s vision for US-Russian relations.
It is still too early to predict what Trump’s presidency will do in foreign policy. The man is still adjusting to the post and the post could condition the man. What is constant is that there is a long-term US foreign policy that goes beyond personal considerations. This article was first published in al-Hayat on Nov. 18, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
[Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989]