As Donald Trump saunters into the sunset of his presidency – unlamented, unhonoured, unsung – it is already possible to assess the carnage he is leaving behind, not just in his own country, but in several parts of the world which experienced the hammer-blows of his virulent attention. West Asia is the one region that he gave the most attention to, and it is here that we see the worst aspects of his legacy.
Even during his election campaign, it was clear that there would serious problems in his interactions with the region. At a 2015 rally in New Hampshire, he robustly agreed with a supporter who said: “We have a problem in this country: it’s called Muslims.” In November 2015, he assured his supporters that he would “certainly implement” a database to track Muslims in the country.
In his first week as president, he signed Executive Order 13769 which banned entry into the US of Muslims from selected Muslim countries --Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Following this order, more than 700 travellers were detained, and up to 60,000 visas were cancelled. But he was selective about the countries he targeted; about Saudi Arabia he gushed: “They [the Saudis] buy apartments from me. They spend $ 40 million, $ 50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
“Trump Doctrine” for West Asia
In May 2017, Trump broke tradition: instead of visiting neighbouring countries and allies in Europe, he made Riyadh his first foreign destination as president. Here, he experienced the best hospitality the desert kingdom was capable of offering and, apparently giving up his negative perceptions about Muslims, engaged with the rulers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and leaders of selected countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – Iran was not invited.
He offered the assemblage “closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce”, but also insisted that they “drive out” from their societies those who claim inspiration from Islam as they commit terror around the world. The visit to Saudi Arabia set out the broad principles of the president’s foreign policy in West Asia, which the US media began to dub the “Trump Doctrine” for the region.
The doctrine had five prongs: one, close relations with Saudi Arabia; two, visceral hostility towards Iran; three, full support for Israel’s maximalist agenda; four, encouragement to Saudi Arabia and Israel to build a bilateral strategic partnership, and, five, the promise of a settlement of the Israel-Palestine issue through a “deal of the century”.
Iran: ‘maximum pressure’
Through Trump’s term, the Islamic Republic remained the object of sustained attention on the part of the administration. The president’s principal effort was to undermine the nuclear agreement with Iran, an important achievement of the Obama administration, and triumphantly replace it with a “better” deal. A year into his presidency, in May 2018, Trump withdrew the US from the agreement, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and reinstated all earlier sanctions on Iran, buttressed by fresh constraints.
These included reducing Iran’s oil imports to zero and denying Iran access to global banking facilities. After this, the sanctions regime became farcical – every other day, fresh sanctions were announced and embraced different Iranian institutions, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and even prominent leaders personally. The US’ confrontation with Iran took a diabolical turn when the head of the Al Quds Brigade, General Qassem Soleimani was assassinated in a US drone attack in Baghdad in January this year.
This sanctions regime was referred to as a policy of “maximum pressure” in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table to conclude the “better” deal promised by the president. Most commentators doubted that the US, having unilaterally withdrawn from a solemn agreement which Iran was fully complying with, would get Iran back to negotiations.
Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo in May 2018 spelt out “12 points” that Iran would have to comply with before fresh discussions could begin; these included: complete termination of Iran’s nuclear programme and its ballistics missiles development; end of support for “terrorist” groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and total withdrawal from Iraq and Syria.
No-one believed this list could be the basis for negotiations. After a detailed analysis of Pompeo’s demands, Joseph Trevithick, writing in The War Zone Wire, concluded: “All told, the vague strategy Pompeo outlined … seems to be a prelude to an argument for military action rather than a realistic approach to negotiations.”
Given the extreme nature of these demands, it became clear that the administration’s senior officials had no expectation of a new agreement; their sole motive was regime-change. They hoped to inflict so much pain on the common people that they would express anger against the government through mass protests and thus bring about a change of regime, replacing the Islamic order with a new political order on western lines that would serve US interests. While there were public demonstrations in different parts of Iran, they were put down by security forces, with no threat being posed to the ruling authority at any time.
In response to these pressures, Iran initially exercised what it called “strategic patience” so as to give time to its European partners in the JCPOA to help relieve sanctions. However, the US’ secondary sanctions that penalised any entity that did business with Iran deterred European corporations from engaging with Iran either to participate in projects or invest in the country.
This led Iran to combat the US and its regional allies through low-key confrontations: there were instances of tit-for-tat hijackings of oil tankers and even small skirmishes in the Gulf waters. These included the shooting down of an American drone that had come into Iranian airspace and an attack in September 2019 on Saudi oil facilities that stopped half of Saudi oil production for a few days. It was blamed on the Houthis in Yemen and, while there were suspicions that Iran might have been behind the attacks, this could not be conclusively proved. There was no US retaliation for this assault.
Similarly, after the Soleimani killing, Iran responded through Shia militia with rocket attacks on US assets in Iraq – not so lethal as to evoke a major US attack, but sufficient to signal that Iran was undaunted, was capable of striking back and remained in control of the levers of power in Iraq.
Iran has also expressed its displeasure with the US and the poor support it has received from the Europeans by deliberately and incrementally reducing its compliance with the JCPOA provisions relating to uranium enrichment and by starting centrifuge development, thus reducing the breakout time for weapons production. By mid-November, Iran was said to have increased its stockpile of enriched uranium to more than ten times the amount allowed under the JCPOA. On 18 November, the director general of the IAEA said that Iran was now using the next-generation centrifuges that can enrich fuel faster.
After the recent US presidential election results, two reports have affirmed that the Trump administration’s obsession with Iran has not abated: one, that Trump has contemplated a military assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but has been dissuaded by his officials; and, two, that the administration would announce a new sanction on Iran every week till Inauguration Day.
It is clear, as Marco Carnelos has noted, that Trump would like to use his last weeks in the White House “to leave his own legacy in the form of poison pills to his successor”. These sanctions are linked not to Iran’s nuclear programme but to its human rights violations, support for terrorism and its ballistics missiles programme and hence will not be easily overturned by the incoming Biden administration.
Israel and the “deal of the century”
Trump’s ties with Israel offer a sharp contrast from the situation relating to Iran. Here, the US interest is not just in Israel’s security; Trump is personally committed to the political fortunes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At crucial moments, Trump has taken decisions to benefit Netanyahu’s election prospects.
These have included: the shifting of the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognising that the occupied Golan Heights as part of Israel, and accepting Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as legal. All these decisions have overturned US positions of several decades and have been clear violations of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 242 and international law which reject co-option of occupied territories by the occupying state.
Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights was approved by Trump in March 2019 as a “quickie” in response to Netanyahu’s specific request for support in the forthcoming election. Trump issued a presidential proclamation declaring that the Golan Heights were part of Israel. He later told the Republican Party’s Jewish Coalition: “I went, ‘bing’! – it was done.” He boasted he had done something no previous president had done, but, as Martin Indyk points out, no previous Israeli government had wanted to do this as it violated a core principle of UNSCR 242.
These presidential initiatives, with wide-ranging implications, have neither benefited Netanyahu electorally nor have they promoted the settlement of the Israel-Palestine issue through the much-vaunted “deal of the century”. Trump’s peace plan, officially titled "Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People", was formally unveiled at a White House press conference, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on 28 January 2020.
It has been rejected by the Israeli settlers as it envisages a Palestinian state. It has also been rejected by the Palestine Authority due to its one-sided character; the conditions the Palestinians have to fulfil before obtaining statehood are: total demilitarization, recognise Israel as a Jewish state, not join any international organisation without Israel’s approval, abandon all international legal action against Israel and the United States, and comply "with all the other terms and conditions" in the 180-page plan.
The plan also requires that the administration of Gaza come under the Palestine Authority or any other entity acceptable to Israel. The plan rejects a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, and proposes instead a Palestinian capital on the outskirts of the city.
A day after the plan was released, Jeremy Bowen of the BBC wrote: “Essentially the Palestinians … are being given a surrender document, told to accept that Israel has won, and with its American friends will shape the future. … There is a chance Palestinians will be afflicted by more anger, despair and hopelessness.”
Saudi Arabia: principal ally among the Arabs
The kingdom has been the US’ principal ally in the Arab world and central to the realisation of US interests in the region. Bilateral ties have been transactional, but very substantial and of mutual advantage -- for the Trump family in the US and for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia.
Trump has frequently trumpeted the billions of dollars the US would earn from defence sales and the investments its companies made to realise the prince’s grandiose dreams. In return, MBS obtained political support from Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner as he sought to consolidate his position in the country, particularly within the royal family. Trump’s backing for the prince was crucial and ensured that he could ascend the ladder to the monarchy by elbowing out two senior princes, one of whom, Mohammed bin Naif, was very close to the US security establishment.
With Trump backing him, MBS could also take harsh action against domestic dissidents and human rights activists, as also break the clout of senior royal family members and prominent local businessmen. Trump also extended full support to MBS in the context of the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist and dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in October 2018.
Two other initiatives of the prince have been more problematic: the siege of Qatar and the war in Yemen. Initially, Trump seemed to buy the Saudi narrative that Qatar was supporting terrorism, but later realised that Qatar was a valued US ally in that it housed a major US air base at Al Udeid and was also a big buyer of US weaponry. Since then, US efforts have been directed at bringing the estranged neighbours together, but the divide has not been bridged.
Trump has been subjected to some domestic pressure in regard to the war in Yemen, mainly on account of the wanton destruction wreaked by Saudi forces, the humanitarian crisis the country faces, and the rather limited progress Saudi Arabia has made against its Houthi enemy. But Trump has remained with the prince and shrugged off all attempts at imposing an arms embargo from the Congress. MBS has sold the war to Trump by shaping it as a conflict with Iran, with Iran seeking to expand its “baleful” regional influence through its sectarian allies in Yemen by arming them with weapons and lethal rocketry.
For this support from the White House, MBS sought to back his mentors in two areas that were important to them: the “deal of the century” and “normalisation” of ties with Israel. In 2017, MBS assured Kushner that he would get the Palestinians to support the deal. He got Mahmoud Abbas to come to Riyadh and insisted he back the peace plan prepared in Washington, in return for $ 10 billion in Saudi funding. Abbas rejected this offer and, on return, publicised the pressures to which he had been subjected.
This was also one occasion when the Saudi monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, disagreed with his son: the ruler summoned a meeting of Arab leaders to reject the American plan for Palestine and the decision to change the status of Jerusalem.
“Normalisation” of ties with Israel
The “normalisation” of relations of some Arab countries – the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan – with Israel was announced in August-October, on the eve of elections in the US and at a time Netanyahu was experiencing acute pressures at home due to the criminal charges against him for corruption. The normalisation was promoted by Trump who celebrated the event at the White House.
This major initiative has been realised with Saudi support, though the kingdom is not itself in the ranks of countries joining the normalisation process. Instead, what Trump and Netanyahu have achieved is the next-best: Israeli media reported that, on 22 November, Netanyahu and Pompeo met MBS at NEOM city, in Saudi Arabia.
Though all three persons are aware of Trump’s electoral defeat, they had their own reasons for going ahead with the meeting: Saudi Arabia and Israel want to project a united front against Iran to the Biden administration, seeking to pre-empt possible initiatives from the incoming government to open dialogue with Iran, reinstate the JCPOA, and perhaps move towards improving ties.
More immediately, while Netanyahu may wish to project himself as a great statesman and diplomat, petty politics is clearly part of the calculus for both MBS and the Israeli prime minister. In Israel, the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition is falling apart and the country is expected to lurch to a fourth round of elections, when Netanyahu will highlight his diplomatic achievements on behalf of Israel. MBS is possibly using the meeting to obtain the backing of the US rightwing and sections of the Israel lobby to ensure he has a smooth passage when Biden takes charge and human rights concerns relating to the kingdom don’t become a priority for the new administration.
Trump’s support base: the evangelists
Trump’s West Asia policies are largely influenced by the interests of the US’ Christian evangelist community. Said to number about 80 million in the country, this community is located across the US but is particularly prominent in certain states where their numbers can make a crucial difference to the electoral outcome. These states are: Florida: 2 million evangelists; Pennsylvania: 1.4 million; Michigan: 1 million, and Wisconsin: 0.6 million.
All these states were won by Trump in 2016 with margins as narrow as 11,000 in Michigan, 23,000 in Wisconsin, 46,000 in Pennsylvania, and 114,000 in Florida. Overall, in the 2016 elections, 79 percent of the evangelists voted for Trump, their support in crucial swing-states perhaps seeing him through to the White House in January 2017. In a poll in August 2020, 90 percent of evangelicals expressed satisfaction with Trump’s performance, as against Protestants 62 percent, Catholics 64 percent, and Jews 33 percent.
Evangelists have a long history of defining Protestant doctrine and belief in the US. Their core beliefs are being “born again” and the historicity and authority of the Bible. After the Second World War, the movement split between ‘fundamentalists’ who upheld the central beliefs of the faith and the modernists who sought accommodation with the contemporary world, including non-believers. The central figure in the latter movement was Billy Graham (1918-2018), while Jerry Falwell (1933-2007) was pastor, televangelist and conservative activist. Falwell’s Moral Majority movement had the slogan “Make America Great”, which Trump later appropriated and added “Again” to it.
Evangelist leaders traversed a long way from deep hostility to Jews to support for Israel. During the Nixon presidency, Billy Graham spoke of the Jewish “stranglehold” on the US that was taking the country “down the drain”. This was soon corrected as evangelists came to understand the place of Israel in realising the full flowering of their doctrine.
The doctrine provides that, once the Jewish State is established in the “Promised Land” and the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, is reconstructed, the Anti-Christ will emerge to destroy the temple. This will usher in a seven-year period of Tribulation, setting the stage for the “Second Coming” of Jesus Christ. All Jews will then either accept Christianity or perish violently. Jesus will then preside over 1000-year reign of perfect justice and happiness.
The main role in disseminating affiliation with Israel has been played by evangelists called “Christian Zionists” who support Israel, particularly its rightwing parties and militant leaders. Christian Zionists have been interpreting events in West Asia as fulfilling this Biblical prophecy: the Balfour Declaration, the setting up of the State of Israel, and Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, all these events are viewed as marking the progress of the prophecy.
Christian Zionists are now the “majority theology” among white American evangelicals: in a 2015 poll, 73 percent of them as said that events in Israel are prophesied in the ‘Book of Revelation’. For many Christian Zionists, Islam and Muslims are the hallmarks of the anti-Christ who should be forcibly removed from the “Promised Land”. In 2002, in an interview, Falwell described Prophet Mohammed as “a terrorist, a violent man, a man of war”.
Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, encouraged Bush to go to war on Iraq, seeing it as a “holy war on Islam”. Later, he told Obama to keep out Muslims from the US until “this war with radical Islam is over”. During his campaign, Trump frequently reflected these sentiments: in January 2016, he told students at the evangelical university: “We will defend Christianity from Islam.”
Throughout his presidency, Trump assiduously cultivated the evangelists, seeing them as crucial for his political survival: four out of six preachers at his inauguration in 2017 were evangelicals. He appointed prominent evangelists to high-profile positions – Mike Pence as Vice President and Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State.
In January 2020, Trump, who had been “pro-choice” over the previous 20 years, joined the “March for Life”, a pro-life movement, an important evangelist position. He gave open access to the White House to evangelist pastors – John Hagee and Robert Jeffries – who had considerable influence on him.
As Julian Borger, writing in The Guardian, has pointed out, the Bible-based views of Christian Zionists directly “colour [the administration’s] views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and indirectly, attitudes towards Iran, broader Middle East geopolitics and the primacy of protecting Christian minorities”. Theologians quoted by Borger see evangelical influence in the US’ total support for Netanyahu, indifference to Palestinian interests, and the general perception that “the US [is] locked into a holy war against the forces of evil who they see embodied in Iran”.
Pompeo has been very open about his beliefs. In Cairo, as he explained his government’s West Asia policy, he said he was in the region “as an evangelical Christian”, and then added that in his office: “I keep a Bible open at my desk to remind me of God and his work, and the truth.” Pompeo’s obsession with Iran is seen by some observers as resulting from his evangelical faith.
Pence, Pompeo and the evangelist pastors at the White House have influenced several of Trump’s policy decisions in West Asia. John Hagee has said that at a dinner at the White House in November 2017 he told Trump about God moving in 50-year cycles, starting with the Balfour Declaration and then the 1967 war. He then recommended: “This is the year to move the embassy, and it’s time to declare the declaration, because these are blessed days from the Bible.”
Later, Trump himself confirmed that the moving of the embassy to Jerusalem was fulfilling a commitment to the evangelicals; he said: “And we moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. It’s for the evangelists. You know what’s amazing about it: the evangelists are more excited about it than a Jewish people.” Trump seems unaware that the Christian “second coming” calls for the annihilation of the Jewish people!
Trump was not so much backed by the powerful “Israel lobby” as by powerful Jewish individuals, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Early in his last campaign, Trump had been neutral on the Israel-Palestine issue: he had questioned the need to arm Israel to the extent of billions of dollars; backed the two-state solution, and refused to commit on recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This changed when Adelson from the hard-right, with strong anti-Arab positions, entered the scene with several million dollars for the Trump campaign.
The outlook for West Asia
Trump’s approach towards West Asia has been defined by the absence of a vision, so that, as Steven Cook has written recently in Foreign Affairs, what we have seen is “the scattershot quality of his encounters with the region”. Many important decisions made by the president were impulsive, yielded some short-term advantage, or served the interests of dubious elements who had temporarily got the attention of the president. Was Trump “akin to a puppet or useful idiot for a series of foreign policy advisers”, as Oscar Rickett writes in Middle East Eye?
Overall, Trump leaves behind a very damaged West Asia: the confrontation with Iran has been without any broad strategic framework, with the sanctions and confrontations being directed at a hapless population with no end or purpose, while the regime – increasingly bitter and bellicose – remains firmly in place. In fact, under sustained pressure from the US, Iran is gradually tying its interests to new players in the region – Russia and China – whose presence in West Asia will transform the regional strategic landscape, to the US’ disadvantage.
Trump’s pampering of Netanyahu has not aided the prime minister in attaining his electoral interests, but the impulsive shift of the embassy to Jerusalem, approving the annexation of Golan Heights, and recognising Israeli settlements as legitimate, have undermined decades-old understandings of legal positions, while making it impossible to work credibly with the Palestinians towards a truce, if not a settlement.
Trump’s embrace of the Saudi crown prince has done little good for either side: the US has hardly got the defence orders and investment openings that the president had been so openly salivating over, while, absent any US constraint, the kingdom has sunk into a harsh tyranny, with a global image for intolerance and cruelty. And, for the US president, the war in Yemen has not been the humanitarian disaster that it is, but only an opportunity for greater sales of weaponry. Amidst this carnage, the GCC, the one functioning institution for regional cooperation, lies mortally damaged and is unlikely to recover.
Whether the president had planned it or not, West Asia today is a tinderbox that could enflame due to a thoughtless act or a misunderstanding of the intentions of the other confronting you.
As Biden prepares to enter the White House, he is already deluged with advice about what his first actions should be. This is largely on account of the wounds Trump has inflicted, both at home and abroad. West Asia looms large in these advisories, particularly in relation to the nuclear agreement with Iran and the re-building of ties with that country.
The new president’s first priority will be to repair the damage at home – fighting the pandemic and reviving the economy. And then, working on relations with allies and China, both mortally wounded by the outgoing presidency. But West Asia will still demand urgent attention because the security scenario is fragile as too many wounds are festering and too many fronts provide openings for conflict.
One grave danger that Biden and his team will need to avoid is the situation the US had found itself in about two years ago, described by Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes in Foreign Affairs as “a kind of Middle East purgatory – too distracted by regional crises to pivot to other global priorities but not invested enough to move the region in a better direction”.
The present-day problems in West Asia are inter-connected, with regional and extra-regional nations involved in diverse conflicts across the landscape. Thus, what is required is not an Iran policy, a Saudi policy, or an Israel policy, but a cohesive approach that understands the links between them. Finally, what West Asia needs is a cooperative security arrangement that, incrementally, moves from confidence-building measures to bilateral dialogue that then leads to a regionwide conclave. This is the challenge before the new administration.
(The author, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.)