In recent days an attack on Tower 22, a US base in Jordan near the Syrian and Iraqi border, has highlighted tensions between the US and the terrorist groupings that look to Iran. Tehran has denied participating in the planning of that attack and we expect US retaliation to be aimed at the Islamic resistance in Iraq group, which said it was responsible. These events remind us of the importance of the Middle East to US politics and markets. This is the background to our review of the Middle Eastern foreign policy issues in the US election.
Whilst the styles of the two US presidential candidates are so very different in how they conduct diplomacy – and in their attitude to global quangos and international rules – both want to keep the US out of foreign wars.
US policy in the Middle East is not as important as it once was because the US is now self-sufficient in oil and gas. Donald Trump wants to isolate Iran and impose tough sanctions to throttle back their money to disrupt. President Joe Biden wants to negotiate a settlement with Iran but now needs to respond to Iran’s military attacks on US personnel and bases. We do not expect a major regional war with the US directly fighting with Iranian forces.
Trump to stop ‘World War Three’
There is a big difference in approach between the foreign policies of former President Trump and President Biden. The current president works as a top diplomat in the circles of international diplomacy, seeking compromises and using careful language. However, he does sometimes make a mistake and stumble over his words. He works through his Secretary of State and his Ambassadors.
Mr Biden believes in the international treaty and rules framework. In office, President Trump made it more personal, based on more lively and public relationships with other world leaders. He would sometimes shock to try to change the outcome or push a negotiation. He saw the world in terms of deals. He felt that he needed to show strength and threaten action against hostile states whilst seeking a deal. He was no great friend of international organisations, which he often thought were wrong or unhelpful to the US.
In practice, both men share some of the same aims. Neither wishes to use military force if they can avoid it, and neither have aggressive aims abroad. Both wanted out of Afghanistan. Both want to discourage China from military moves against Taiwan – and both disapprove of Russian encroachment in Ukraine. Both are broadly pro-Israel. Neither are isolationists, but do not want their administrations dominated by a big war in the way Vietnam did for President Lyndon Johnson, or 9/11 in the case of President George Bush.
Mr Trump says he will stop World War III. By this, he means by that there are serious threats to world peace from Russia in Ukraine and eastern Europe, from China in Taiwan and Asia, from Iran and terrorist groups in the Middle East, as well as that from North Korea. He believes it is only if he is in charge, being and sounding strong, will Russia, China, Iran and North Korea behave themselves better. He points out that, on his watch, Russia did not invade Ukraine. It took Crimea under President Obama and has taken parts of southern Ukraine under President Biden. He thinks isolating Iran in the Middle East is important. He reminds people Hamas did not attack Israel when he was in office, though he forgets the problems in Yemen that started before 2020.
Donald Trump sees oil and gas as a crucial weapon. If the US has a surplus of its own oil, it can help its allies and use the oil weapon against threatening states. Mr Trump is very critical of Joe Biden for the abrupt departure from Afghanistan and the loss of that country to the Taliban. He points out that Iranian oil finances much of the terrorism.
President Biden sees it differently. He thinks Trump’s language can be destabilising. He seeks to smooth over conflicts and difficulties, as he tried with Iran in his early months. He blames Mr Trump for the events in Afghanistan, claiming the Taliban drew strength from Trump’s troop withdrawals before the final exit. He thinks conventional diplomacy will produce a result for Israel over Hamas – and will probably wish to engage in talks in due course over settling the Russia/Ukraine war. He does not want to extract more oil and gas or use oil and gas as a weapon. He talks to Saudi and other large oil producers about cutting back their dependence on fossil fuels, as he is signed up to the Paris ‘net-zero’ treaty. Mr Biden sees himself as a better friend of the allies and the international bodies than the maverick Trump. Donald Trump sees Mr Biden as weak – and therefore dangerous.
The importance of Iran
The central difference between the foreign policies of President Biden and former President Trump is in their attitude to Iran. President Trump regarded Iran as a centre of evil, financing and encouraging terrorist movements in Gaza, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere and seeking to undermine US influence in the region. President Biden arrived in office believing he could ease sanctions against Iran progressively to rebuild the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with his European allies. This plan revolved around a deal with Iran to prevent the country completing work on a nuclear bomb in return for less friction over trade and other matters.
Mr Trump in office pointed out that the JCPOA just concentrated on nuclear development. He was also concerned about the development of missiles and the disruptive actions Iran and its proxies were undertaking throughout the Middle East, despite the agreement. He was concerned that maybe the nuclear developments were proceeding in secret anyway.
Iran in recent years has built stronger alliances and trading links with Russia, China and Venezuela
When he failed to get a better deal, Mr Trump withdrew from JCPOA and toughened sanctions. He doubled down on a policy of isolating Iran to the extent he could – and sought to starve Iran of revenue through tough trade bans. The present Trump view is that Mr Biden has been weak about Iran, which has allowed it to build up more oil and gas revenues and to use these to sponsor more terrorism and disruption. Under Trump, Iranian oil sales were considerably lower than today. Last October they were running at 1.4 million barrels a day, despite some sanctions remaining in place.
President Biden has faced provocations from Iran and its satellites and associates, with Iranian attacks on Saudi Arabia, support for the Houthi in Yemen, a threat to Western shipping, and attacks on US military bases in Iraq and Syria. Under these pressures, he has progressively strengthened the sanctions on people and reimposed some of the trade ones he had loosened. He has recently been criticised by Republicans for allowing Iran access to $10bn of cash that was frozen, allowing the rogue state more money to finance enemy groups to the West. The White House claims the money will be used by Iran for humanitarian purposes and will not seep out to finance the regional wars.
Iran in recent years has built stronger alliances and trading links with Russia, China and Venezuela. Russia’s attitude to US sanctions on Iranian oil and its approach to the JCPOA has been shaped, in part, by Western responses to the invasion of Ukraine, seeking to link the two in any deal.
Approach to Saudi Arabia
President Trump was a strong ally of Saudi Arabia. Saudi is the Sunni leader against Iran, which speaks for the Shias. Mr Trump still says he loves Saudi and claims a close relationship with the Crown Prince. This is orthodox US foreign policy, where successive presidents wanted a close partnership with the Kingdom.
Saudi moderated OPEC and turned on the oil taps a bit more if prices went too high or supplies were squeezed. In return, the US supplied plenty of arms and assisted Saudi in its position in the Middle East. President Biden wanted a cooler relationship with Saudi, disliking features of the Kingdom’s governance and wanting to lecture Saudi on the need to get out of oil. When after the invasion of Ukraine oil and gas were scarce, President Biden discovered Saudi was not so willing to help as a result of his pro-Iran tilt to Middle Eastern policy.
Under President Biden, Saudi has developed the idea of a wider OPEC+ grouping to give the oil cartel greater market power and has joined the BRICs grouping to back that, with fossil fuel revenues and oil supply controls as well. There has even been some move to lessen Saudi tensions with Iran with Chinese intermediation and now as a result of the common cause of all Arabs against features of Israel’s war on Gaza. Towards the end of President Trump’s term there were indications of a possible peace treaty or diplomatic normalisation between Israel and Saudi, which was delayed by the pro-Iran policy of the early Biden presidency and now by the big blow of the Gaza war.
The UAE and Qatar
President Trump’s strategy of isolating Iran rested on creating a grand alliance of Israel, UAE, other Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. With Afghanistan as a friendly democracy and Egypt at peace with Israel the US would enjoy a strong position against the Iranian circle of terror. The climax of his policy came in 2020 when UAE signed a peace treaty with Israel and established normal diplomatic relations.
Today, the US is using Qatar as well as Egypt as an intermediary to seek compromise in the Israel/Hamas war. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also conducted several rounds of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East and works with a range of other countries to try to avoid a wider conflict. So far, Iran has mainly used her proxies, though there have been several attacks on US bases in Syria and Iraq, and now Houthi attacks on western shipping in the Red Sea.
President Trump was a friend of Israel. He transferred the US Embassy to Jerusalem, which was a contentious move for the Palestinians. He spoke up for Israel and tried a peace proposal which the Palestinians thought was too pro-Israel. He did not condemn the West Bank settlements. Today, Mr Trump is a bit more cautious, blaming the Hamas/Israel war on his successor for being weak on Iran. He has been critical of Israeli communications, saying they are losing the battle for world opinion. He has also advised them to be careful how they conduct the war.
President Biden started from a strongly pro-Israel position. He supported Israel’s right to defend itself and take retaliatory action for the terrorist murders. The US vetoed United Nations resolutions that were not sufficiently pro-Israel. He has since moved positions, stressing more strongly the need to avoid civilian casualties in the follow-through action and seeking a temporary ceasefire or humanitarian pause.
Both Presidents wanted out of Afghanistan. The long Afghan wars had caused much loss of life and huge expenditure of military materiel and money. They had become unpopular at home. President Trump was desperate to get all the troops home before the end of his first term. It is said he issued the order for the final withdrawal, only to rescind it when he was warned it might have bad consequences. So, he went to the polls with some troops still left in Afghanistan though most had withdrawn successfully. The US kept its Bagram base, offered plenty of military and police advice to the Afghan government and had some troops and plenty of equipment if local forces needed backup.
When Joe Biden took office, it has been suggested he turned down advice to strengthen the US base with more troops in the light of Taliban recovery. Instead, he went ahead with complete and sudden withdrawal of personnel. He left behind large numbers of vehicles, ammunition and other supplies. The evacuation became shambolic, allies were unhappy about a lack of information and coordination with them.
Afghanistan was quickly taken over by the Taliban delighted that the US had finally left and benefitting from the big military supplies they abandoned. Mr Trump makes much of the losses of equipment and vehicles and reminds audiences of the withdrawal, blaming Biden. Mr Biden says he did well to get everyone in the US forces out because he inherited a weak position.
Either way, the loss of Afghanistan is a major policy disaster for the US and the West. A long and expensive attempt to create a democracy at peace out of the warring Afghan factions failed. The Taliban that the West spent so much blood and treasure fighting won in the end – and benefitted from all the dollars spent on trying to help their country. The war had been waged by both parties in government.
Strengthened positions for Russia and China
The result of all these changes has been to increase Chinese and Russian influence in the Middle East. Under Chinese tutelage, Iran and Russia have developed alternative markets and financing systems to sell their oil - despite US and Western sanctions. This grouping is welcome in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. It has its satellite militaries with Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. The world is divided into the two blocs, one led by the US and one by China. They have competing oil markets and different financing systems for their sensitive trades.
If re-elected, President Biden will doubtless want to see a deal with Israel in Gaza and try to get talks going about how to settle Palestine. This may only be possible if there is a change of Israeli government when an election is held. Mr Trump would seek to rebuild his anti-Iran alliance and would want to squeeze Iran’s finances until he could do a better deal.
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