Analysis

Iran Could Be the Big Winner of the Donald Trump Presidency

Many Middle East leaders have congratulated President-elect Donald Trump, but silent Tehran may have the most to gain from his victory.

An Iranian demonstrator holding an anti-U.S. placard in a rally in front of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, on November 3, 2016.
Vahid Salemi/Reuters

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi wasted no time. As soon as Donald Trump’s election victory was clear, he issued a statement congratulating the president-elect and the American people, saying he hoped Trump’s presidency would “imbue new spirit into the path of Egyptian-American ties with more cooperation and coordination in the interests of both the Egyptian and American people.”

For Sissi, this “new spirit” means sweeping away the remnants of outgoing President Barack Obama’s policies. In Egypt, Obama is perceived as having supported the Muslim Brotherhood and having waited too long before lending American backing to Sissi’s military coup in July 2013.

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But beyond a sense of satisfaction over Hillary Clinton’s defeat – since she was expected to perpetuate Obama’s policies – the statement also arose from anxiety over what Trump’s foreign policy might turn out to be.

For now, it’s a vague policy that in part projects an American “withdrawal from the world” back to its own borders, under the slogan of “America First” – meaning that the rest of the world, and certainly the Middle East, can wait.

But Egypt cannot wait. It needs to know right now that the American president is on its side.

The outlines of this still-nascent foreign policy leaves Middle East countries without international “guidance,” and with fast-growing doubts over how well the coalitions that have been formed there will survive.

Will the Western coalition in the fight against the Islamic State endure even through the end of Obama’s term, when there is no guarantee that Trump would want to keep it going? Will the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, mainly in Yemen, be sustainable without American backing should Trump decide that “his” United States is exempt from previous commitments? Will the “pro-Western” and “anti-Western” definitions that have become attached to the region’s countries over the last few decades mean anything anymore?

All the dilemmas suddenly facing the region’s leaders will also be affected by the relations that emerge between Russia and the United States. The big worry is that the Iranian-Russian coalition in Syria will expand to Iraq as well, should the United States decide that its job is done once Mosul is liberated from ISIS.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi
Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

If the friendly and conciliatory attitude that Trump evinced toward President Vladimir Putin during the campaign continues once he is in office next January, it could be interpreted as American acquiescence – or at least indifference – to the continued Iranian-Russian seizure of power centers in the region.

This expectation is already roiling Saudi Arabia, where numerous articles in the press are saying that, from now on, the main challenge will be to halt the spread of Iran’s influence. Also, the Saudi kingdom can’t count on Trump’s promises to reopen and rework the Iran nuclear deal. Legally, he cannot do so, since the accord is not just between the United States and Iran, but also between five other powers and Iran.

Additionally, new life is being breathed into “the European option.” The panic that has gripped European leaders over Trump’s election could help close the rifts within the European Union, so that the EU puts forward its own independent Middle East policy, free from the need to coordinate positions with unruly and unpredictable Washington.

If Trump continues to be perceived as the world’s bully, who won’t hesitate to give the finger to any traditional policy, and as the friend of Putin, the EU may feel compelled to play the responsible adult – whose job is to save the world from the madness that has overrun the United States and from the ruthless judoka in Moscow.

But this scenario will not reassure Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or the forces currently fighting in Syria and Iraq. The EU has not made a name for itself as being able to undertake major military moves or advance diplomatic negotiations – be it in the war in Syria, in Iraq, Yemen or in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Generally, the EU reacts to or joins in others’ initiatives.

The EU does not wield any power among the Syrian rebels, nor with the Iraqi government and the Kurds. As an “auxiliary power” to America’s moves, the EU supported the sanctions on Iran, but its members were the first to lift the sanctions.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel are rightfully worried that the EU cannot provide a substitute for punitive measures if and when the need for them arises. In this context, and despite his threats to upend the nuclear deal, Trump’s election is good news for Iranian supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for the Revolutionary Guard and the country’s conservative elements.

On the strategic level, if Trump decides to take an isolationist stance, it would open up the Syrian and Iraqi fronts to Iran. If he tries to fiddle with the nuclear deal, Iran will be able to portray the United States as the party violating the accord and enlist the aid of others, especially the EU, to keep the sanctions lifted for the long term.

The election of Sheldon Adelson’s close friend Donald Trump might turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the Iranian regime.