Friday, June 25

For Trump, Defying Mideast Truisms Produced Breakthroughs and Backfires


JERUSALEM — He moved the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, breaking with those who said it would ignite the Muslim world.

He withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and ordered the killing of a top Iranian general, defying those who said those moves would lead to war.

He brokered treaties between Israel and two Arab states, disproving those who said such deals could only follow the creation of a Palestinian state.

Again and again in the Middle East, where volatility has burnished or battered previous presidential legacies, President Trump has run roughshod over conventional thinking, advancing key policy aims or fulfilling campaign promises in ways that experts warned could set off a conflagration or blow up in his face.

Mr. Trump approached the region more like a businessman than a politician, alternately squeezing adversaries and dangling economic inducements, and snagging opportunities where he found them.

In January, Mr. Trump took aim at Iran’s regional militia network, ordering the killing of its architect, General Suleimani.

Iran has also dialed down provocative activity in the Persian Gulf in recent months, which administration officials cast as a direct result of American pressure. Iranian politicians, however, say it reflects a fear that conflict would only help Mr. Trump win a second term.

Mr. Kushner said Mr. Trump’s policies gave the United States a strong negotiating position. “The table’s set. Iran right now is stone-cold broke,” he said. “The goal here hasn’t been to make a deal. The goal here has been to try to set the table to make a good deal.”

But such talks seem remote. Iranian politicians said the Suleimani killing would bar the country’s leaders from negotiating with Mr. Trump.

“Even if he gets re-elected, it will be impossible,” said Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, a reformist politician.

For now, Iran’s militia network remains active, and its nuclear program is up and running, and rapidly approaching the ability to build a bomb.

Regardless who wins the November election, Mr. Trump has brought about changes in the Middle East that the next administration must take into account.

The momentum toward normalization agreements could continue, with Saudi Arabia, whose stance toward Israel has warmed under Crown Prince Mohammed, looming as the largest potential prize. A future United States administration could use that enticement to press Israel for concessions toward the Palestinians. But there is much concern in Israel about how the Palestinians would react to their abandonment by more of the Arab world.

With Iran’s government in dire financial straits, some of its regional allies have questioned how long it can hang on. The next administration could use that distress as leverage, even if in the pursuit of drastically different objectives.

Mr. Trump’s transactionalism may also have limits: Sudan’s new leaders have so far refused to normalize relations with Israel despite substantial financial incentives because doing so could leave them “morally compromised” among their people, said Ofer Zalzberg, Middle East director at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute for Interactive Conflict Transformation.

Still, the id on display in Mr. Trump’s policies has earned measured praise in unlikely quarters.

Even some critics said Mr. Trump’s lack of interest in traditional talking points about democracy and human rights had brought a new frankness to age-old discussions about the United States’ dealings with autocrats.

“It takes away the illusions some people have convinced themselves of, that we used to be a force for good,” said Amy Hawthorne, deputy research director at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

“The harm is significant,” she hastened to add. “We don’t get that soft power back right away.”

And Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group and a former senior Obama administration official for the Middle East, said Mr. Trump’s record held at least one lesson for his successors: The prospect of blowback from critics and allies need not be paralyzing.

“They may not like what we’re doing,” he said, but Mr. Trump had shown that “if it’s in our interest to do it, we just need to forge ahead.”

David M. Halbfinger reported from Jerusalem, Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon, and Farnaz Fassihi from New York.



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