US President Trump is voted out of office, but still in office. With a few measures he is now trying to cement his policy and hinder his successor Biden. It’s about Iran – and the rapid withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, which offends allies.
Elected US presidents are often referred to as “lame duck”. They are still in office and take care of day-to-day politics, but the successor is already ready to take over. Donald Trump, however, not only refuses to recognize Joe Biden’s election victory. With several foreign policy decisions, he also wants to present his successor with a fait accompli and restrict his options for action.
It is about the fulfillment of old campaign promises shortly before the end of the term of office, such as the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. But there is more to it than that: the goal is to start so many fires that it will be difficult for the successor government to put them all out, a CNN official said. The consequences are not foreseeable, but could further destabilize the Middle East and Afghanistan. And they are putting the allies, including Germany, under considerable pressure again.
The withdrawal of Western troops, including the Bundeswehr, from the Hindu Kush was planned by the end of April 2021 anyway – depending on the outcome of the peace negotiations. Its preference is still like a quick shot. “It comes suddenly, uncoordinated and leaves the allies with little opportunity to react, except to withdraw,” explains Markus Kaim, an expert on security policy from the Science and Politics Foundation. Because US troops could no longer contribute to the self-protection of German troops after their withdrawal. It is unclear, however, whether the Bundeswehr can logistically pull out at all by January. “The planning has long since begun, but it will probably be a very hasty withdrawal and a lot of the material will simply remain standing,” said Kaim.
The Afghan government’s peace talks with the Taliban will also be significantly affected by the earlier withdrawal. “The continued presence of the USA and NATO was always a bargaining chip with which the Americans and the Afghan government entered into talks,” says Kaim. “The more quickly and unconditionally you announce the withdrawal, the stronger you send the signal that you are giving up the country.” The Taliban could now be encouraged not to compromise in the negotiations. “This greatly diminishes the chances of a lasting peace solution.”
But not only the Taliban could benefit from Trump’s hasty withdrawal, but also the Islamic State, which is on the rise in Afghanistan. “The Islamic State was eliminated as a territorial entity. But that does not mean that it has been eliminated as a terrorist organization,” says Kaim, referring to estimates that 30,000 men are under arms in Iraq and Syria alone. “The Taliban has committed itself to ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a haven for Islamist terrorism. But nobody knows whether that can be relied on.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has already warned that the country could become a “platform for international terrorism” if the withdrawal was “too early or uncoordinated”.
The military options in Iran, about which Trump is said to have been informed last week according to the New York Times, are off the table for the time being. Nevertheless, he continues to try to complicate the revision of the nuclear agreement sought by Biden. Trump himself had unilaterally terminated the deal in 2018 and reinstated US sanctions that are hard on Iran.
Tehran is already praising Biden as a “veteran of foreign policy” and sees a realistic chance of an agreement. As soon as Biden should decide to return to the Vienna nuclear agreement of 2015 and implement it, Iran will do the same immediately, said Foreign Minister Mohammed Jawad Zarif. In other words: The country will again adhere to the agreed limit values for uranium enrichment if the US lift its sanctions. But it won’t be that easy. Not only because the International Atomic Energy Agency recently made new allegations against Iran.
“I expect a revival of at least the negotiations, but perhaps less of the agreement itself,” says Kaim, referring to the expiring deadlines that are mentioned in the contract. He thinks it is more likely that the agreement will be renegotiated. “Second, there is always talk of the US wanting a follow-up agreement that covers areas that have nothing to do with the nuclear program: Iranian missile armament and Iranian support for terrorism in the region,” says the expert. He does not expect a paradigm shift in the US in dealing with Iran, “but the country will again be viewed in a more cooperative manner on the part of the Biden government”.
Under Biden, however, the relationship between the US government and Israel and Saudi Arabia – who were among the most important allies in the region under Trump and are declared opponents of Iran – is likely to become more tense. “So far, the Biden government has shied away from recognizing the Netanyahu government’s settlement policy, as Trump has,” says Kaim. However, continuity and change in US politics are closely related here. “The Biden government is not interested in a military ‘adventure’ or further interventions in the region.”
However, Trump provides a fait accompli here too. His government recently approved controversial arms deals with the United Arab Emirates worth more than $ 23 billion (around 19 billion euros). These include 50 F35 fighter planes. Previously, Trump had arranged the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Emirates and Bahrain – a great foreign policy success. The goal is better economic relations between the states, but also an alliance against Iran.
Trump also wants to limit Biden’s options elsewhere: The outgoing President wants to classify the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a terrorist organization – a step that cannot be easily reversed. The Shiite Houthi rebels are supported by Iran and are fighting with the central government, on whose side Saudi Arabia and other Arab states intervened in the conflict.
Experts fear that an appropriate classification of the Houthi rebels could not only hinder the peace talks in the country, but also the urgently needed humanitarian aid. CNN quoted an employee of the US State Department as saying that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saw the move as part of the maximum pressure on Iran. He doesn’t care if this creates a difficult situation for the Biden team. “Pompeo would do anything to make things as difficult as possible for the new government,” the diplomat is quoted as saying.