Trumpism: The Geopolitics of the United States, the Middle East and Iran



During his presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump promised to make “America great again,” relieving it from the burdens of global leadership and cutting back involvements and investments in the world.1 He said he would move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and “tear up the Iran nuclear deal” (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) that the United States negotiated and signed in 2015 with Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers -- the US, the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany. At some point, he arrogantly went further and stated that Iran "should write us a letter of thank you" for "the stupidest deal of all time." He also hinted that he might cooperate with Russia and with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS).2 In the White House for less than nine months, Trump has greatly increased military aid to Israel and agreed to massive arms sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Bahrain while expanding US military operations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Somalia. Most recently, he supported Saudi Arabia’s initiative to blockade the small Persian Gulf state of Qatar. But more egregiously, he ordered a Tomahawk missile strike on Syria and later approved the Air Force dropping the most powerful non-nuclear bomb or the “mother of all bombs” on ISIS targets in Afghanistan. His Iran-bashing continues as he plans to “decertify” Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement.3

At issue here is American foreign policy in the Middle East, the rhetoric of “the Iran threat” to US and world security, and the containment of Iran. This rhetoric is repeatedly enunciated by the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel while Russia and Iran continue to cooperate in Syria, and it is highly possible that China will join the duet. What are the aims of the Trump administration’s foreign policy? How will Trump bring into reality his rhetoric of “America first” and making America “great again”? To what extent will his expansive militarization of the Middle East fulfill that goal and what would be its significance for a possible Iran-Russia-China alliance as an opposite pole against the alliance of US-Israel-Saudi Arabia and a few smaller Arab states? Is there an “Iran threat,” and what will Trump’s increasing militarization mean for Iran’s foreign policy?

Trump’s domestic and international policies change rapidly if not daily. Stephen Sestanovich, writing for The Atlantic, cites “the brilliant incoherence of Trump’s foreign policy,” saying that Trump wants “to cast aside the entire post–Cold War order” and repudiate “everything that America has tried to achieve since 1945 or perhaps, 1776...”4 The late former National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said that Trump has no foreign policy.5  On the other hand, historian Vijay Prashad has argued that Trump’s policies are “disastrous” and that even if he tries to reverse some of them, he will be constrained and trapped by the arms merchants.6

But perhaps the most relevant of all explanations can be found in Harry Magdoff’s The Age of Imperialism, which documents the existence of an American empire, built on a complex system of military spending not only for direct profit but to protect the stability of friendly regimes abroad. For Magdoff, imperialism is not a matter of choice but is the lifeblood of capitalism. Today’s imperialism uses military power to accompany and protect capital accumulation, no matter how repressive the receiving allies might be.7 US policy in the Middle East is one of many examples.


What are the overall US foreign policy objectives in the Middle East? Broadly speaking, the erosion of the bipolar world and the East/West confrontation has given rise to devastating conflicts between the United States and the Middle East and North Africa. The US, in purely military and political terms, has reached an unprecedented level of global power by demonstrating its advanced military and intelligence technology against the Middle East, North Africa, East Asia and other regions. With its “hi-tech” wars and “surgical strikes,” its forces have destroyed properties and killed and injured millions in Iraq (1990, 2003-), Libya (2011), Syria (2011-), and Yemen (2015-). Both Iraq and Libya contain large reserves of petroleum. The US objective was not only to replace the declining power of the Soviet Union but to assert Pax Americana and its global reach.8

In maintaining its global hegemony, the United States has been historically interested in neutralizing progressive forces while often allying with repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and Israel. During the cold war, the US sought to portray the Soviets as an enemy or “bogeyman in order to legitimize its military build-up abroad. After the fall of the USSR, however, first Islam and then Iran became the new bogeymen that had to be contained and controlled, if not annihilated. Concomitantly, support for Israel and its colonial settler state[9] remains a fundamental goal of US foreign policy. The US and Israel join KSA in their Iran-bashing. Nevertheless, Iran remains an ever-growing force in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.


Recent US administrations have had a particular interest in Saudi Arabia. Barack Obama sought to strengthen the alliance with the Saudi monarchy. US support of Saudi aggression in Yemen served as a political gift to Riyadh, which was vehemently critical of the nuclear agreement with Iran whereby Iran would stop its nuclear program and the United States would lift its biting economic sanctions. Trump has honored Obama’s policies.

Trump has economic interests in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other smaller Persian Gulf Arab states that are arrayed against Iran – of course, with no concern for human lives and human rights in the Middle East.10 In both Israel and Saudi Arabia, Trump had plans for building towers and real estate, but they are now postponed.11 Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is an investor and real estate developer in Tel Aviv. According to the New York Times, over the last decade, his firm has been involved in nearly $7 billion in acquisitions, many of them supported by foreign partners. Kushner has been associated with bribery cases in Israel and New York that have not been widely publicized.12 Donald Trump, Jr., Trump’s son, is another link to the Middle East. He built the Trump International Gulf Club in Dubai.13 During a 10-minute speech in Mara Lago, Trump praised his Emirati business partner Hussain Sajwani and his family, saying that “the most beautiful people from Dubai are here tonight, and they’re seeing it and they love it.” CNN identified Sajwani as a billionaire developer who has “paid Trump millions of dollars to license the Trump name for golf courses in Dubai.”14  

As a major trading partner with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, the US exchanged goods worth about $35 billion in 2016, according to the US Census Bureau.15 KSA has been the largest arms buyer in the world and perhaps the most oppressive country in the Middle East in terms of human rights and women’s rights, in addition to massive killings and bombardments of Yemen. In 2017, it allocated $51 billion, or 21% of its budget to military spending. In his trip to Riyadh, Trump offered “partnership” to the Saudis and signed a military pact with Saudi Arabia to sell $110 billion worth of arms, totaling $350 billion during the next ten years.16 The deal was to bolster counterterrorism and contain Iran’s regional power.

Trump’s main interest lies in business deals, and Saudi Arabia is the largest customer of the US arms industry. As the world’s leading arms exporter, the US makes nearly half of its arms sales in the Middle East. While the arms deal was being discussed in Riyadh, a parallel business forum was held there which included senior executives from about 45 US companies, including defense contractors Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, GE, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and oil services firms and investment groups.17

In Riyadh, Trump pledged to conquer “extremism” and “Islamic terrorism.” But he failed to mention the finding of a recent report by the Institute for Gulf Affairs, that approximately 400 Saudi and Kuwaiti nationals living in the United States, mostly on government scholarships, have joined terrorist groups, mainly ISIS. Some of these recruits hold dual citizenship, according the report. They are among the nearly 80,000 Saudi students and family members who are currently in the United States.18 

More recently, Saudi agents, and by implication the Saudi government, are charged with having been involved in the “operational and organizational” activities that led to 9/11 hijackers, according to new documents published in September 2017. It is shown that “fresh evidence submitted in a major 9/11 lawsuit moving forward against the Saudi Arabian government reveals that its embassy in Washington may have funded a ‘dry run’ for the hijackings carried out by two Saudi employees, further reinforcing the claim that employees and agents of the kingdom directed and aided the 9/11 hijackers and plotters.”19 Andrew Cockburn wrote that over 600,000 people have signed the lawsuit.20


The Saudi regime has also been engaged in a brutal bombardment of Yemen. The involvement of the US in Yemen began in 2002 to combat and destroy what it calls “al-Qaeda targets,” in particular with its drone strikes. Under Obama, in 2015, American military ventures increased dramatically on behalf its ally Saudi Arabia, which led a coalition composed of Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. The US provided “intelligence and mid-air refueling for Saudi bombers (many of them American-made F-15s sold to that country)” and sold “$1.29 billion worth of bombs … together with $1.15 billion worth of tanks, and half a billion dollars of ammunition. And that, in total, is only a small part of the $115 billion total in military sales the United States has offered Saudi Arabia”21 before Trump’s massive military deal.

In the period of 18 months up to August 2016, there were 8,600 strikes on Yemen. Civilian targets included school buildings, hospitals, markets, mosques and economic infrastructure. Gatherings like weddings and funerals came under attack, too. Saudi and American killing and bombing innocent Yemenis has caused significant destruction of Yemen’s infrastructure and has created famine, and led to the outbreak of cholera.22 During the Riyadh meeting, Trump made no reference to Saudi atrocities in Yemen.

Why Yemen? The country has little oil and is the poorest country in the region. But its geography offers strategic significance as it lies along one of the main oil trading routes on Bab el-Mandeb strait, which is located between the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden. Yemen’s civil war began in 2011 as a local conflict between authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh and supporters of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi who was installed by the Saudis. Disliking the Saudi monarchy and its conservative religion (the Wahhabi/Salafi branch of Sunnism), the Houthi (Zaidi branch of Shi’i) forces joined the struggle,23 while al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who are supporters of Osama bin-Laden, expanded their violence in Yemen. As the Saudi onslaught began against the Houthis, the Houthis liberated much of Yemen. But KSA claimed that Iran helped funding and backing the Houthis. Despite Saudi and American media propaganda condemning Iran’s “terrorism,” there is no evidence that Iran aided the Houthis in the armed conflict. According to a report by Thomas Juneau in the Washington Post, the Houthis “are not Iranian puppets.” Their struggle is local and the intelligence assistance they receive from Iran is based on their own request, and is “limited and far from sufficient to make more than a marginal difference to the balance of forces in Yemen, a country awash with weapons.” Juneau concluded, “There is therefore no supporting evidence to the claim that Iran has bought itself any significant measure of influence over Houthi decision-making.”24

The genocidal Yemen war instigated by the Saudis and supported by the US may be part of the same regional rift that has been developing since the collapse of the Soviet Union. At this juncture, there are two warring poles. On the one hand, there is the coalition of Arab Persian Gulf states with Saudi Arabia at its forefront, a mighty regional military power that accuses Iran of supporting the Houthi power struggle;25 Israel as a colonial-settler state; and the United States that showers Riyadh, Tel Aviv and the smaller Arab states with advanced weapons. On the other, there is Iran that is stepping up its advisers to help the Houthis drive the Saudis out of Yemen,26 working closely with Russians to assist Assad’s regime, and expanding trade and economic ties with China; Russia that aims to deter the US and advance its economic and military interests; and the Chinese that work closely with Iran.

These new alliances are not based on a Shi’i-Sunni discord; rather, they are centered on major political conflicts in a volatile region that has been poorly understood and torn by imperialist designs. It should be noted that while most of Iran’s allies are Shi’is, there are also a large number of non-Shi’is in their camp. For example, Syrians are mostly Sunnis with almost equal numbers of Alawites, and Christians and Jews; most Iranians are Shi’is plus some Sunnis, Jews and Christians.27 On the other hand, Saudis are mostly Wahabbis/Salafis, but there is also a minority of Shi’is and Ahmadis, as well as many foreign workers (perhaps one-third of the population) whose religious identity remains unknown.28 While the regime’s intolerance toward the Shi’i minority is noteworthy, Iran’s monarchy had amicable relations with the House of Saud and its Royal family, and even collaborated in the formation of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum of the Exporting Countries), which stood up to the multinational oil companies.29


One of the slogans of the 1979 Revolution in Iran was “death to US imperialism.” Ayatollah Khomeini called for the “export” of the revolution and of Islam, as well as the overthrow of monarchies, including Saudi Arabia, in the Middle East.30 Prior to the Revolution, however, Iran was the “darling” of the US, an ally, a staunch advocate of capitalism, Americanism and Westernism, and a sub-imperialist power in the region. According to President Jimmy Carter in Tehran in 1978, Iran was “the island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world.”31

The Revolution set the stage for conflicted Iran-US and Iran-Saudi-Iraq relationships. Fearing Iran’s revolutionary zeal, Saudi Arabia supported Iraq in invading Iran in a long, bloody combat meshed with chemical warfare and mustard gas, attack of oil tankers and bombing cities (1980-88). The US and other Western countries, as well as Israel supported Saddam Hussein’s merciless war without any remorse for civilian casualties. Subsequently, the US blocked the promised loans by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in 1994, and then imposed the policy of “dual containment.” The Bush administration went further and classified Iran as a “rogue nation,” and later, part of an “Axis of Evil.” In 2009, under the Obama administration, the first digital weapon in the world named Stuxnet hit Iran’s nuclear facilities and Iranian scientists were ambushed, ostensibly by Israel and the US. More US sanctions placed additional strains on Iran’s economy.

According to a BBC report, “antipathy towards Iran is the one thing that Washington's disparate allies in the region agree upon. So Tehran-bashing has been a prominent theme for Donald Trump both in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Hostility to Iran is the glue that binds [my emphasis] what some would like to believe is an emerging coalition between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf States together.”32 In short, the USA, KSA and Israel have now joined hands to condemn Iran and argue for revoking the nuclear deal.

At this juncture, Iran’s foreign policy faces threats to the country’s territorial integrity, its sovereignty, and even its survival, given that Iran is surrounded by US forces, allies, and bases in neighboring countries. This has required: (a) stopping the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11, (b) allying with the Shi’i majority in Iraq, (c) allying with the Hezbollah (Party of God) in Lebanon, (d) working and linking with Russians and Chinese in Syria against pro-US and pro-Israeli militias and forces, (e) helping the Houthis in Yemen, and (f) destroying al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militarily not only inside Iran but in Syria and wherever it can.

Recently, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister said that Iran’s policy objective is to advise on the frontline whenever it is “invited” to do so. Whereas the US bombs and kills, Iran advises upon invitation and has no intention to be a regional hegemon, nor does it believe in hegemony anywhere in the world. In addition, he underlined that Iran will fight to protect its people and Iran’s sovereignty. For him, Iran’s goal is to neutralize al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS), the Taliban, and al-Nusra (Syrian Freedom Fighters—now Tahrir al-Sham – that have been supported by the US and KSA). Iran wants security and stability, he reiterated. Iran sees its role primarily as adviser to governments.33

Despite centuries of animosity, Russia and Iran are now allies and have decided that regime change in Syria is unacceptable. Historically Russia annexed several Iranian territories in the 18th and 19th centuries, but since the fall of the Soviet Union, the two neighboring states have generally enjoyed close relations, in particular in the Caucasus alongside Armenia. Russia and India have become key trading partners while the US is increasing its sanctions on Iran. Russia also helps Iran with its military equipment and has helped to develop Iran’s nuclear capability. In 2015, Iran, Russia, Iraq and Syria agreed to cooperate in collecting information about the Islamic State with a view to fight them and stop their advances. As the US-Iran confrontation escalates, Iran finds itself pushed further into the camp of Russia. China has also become a strong economic partner with Iran. The Shanghai Cooperation Council, with Russia and China at its top, extended membership to Iran in 2006.34 Thus, Iran-Russia-China relations became a major force against the US and its Middle Eastern allies.


Why has Iran been a prominent theme for Trump to attack and criticize? Trump sees the 2015 nuclear deal as “the worst deal he has seen” and has sworn to “rip it up” and to place additional sanctions on Iran. His Iranophobia is based on the premise that Iran is a threat to Israel and is the "the world's leading sponsor of terrorism" because of its support of Hezbollah and regimes in Iraq and Syria. James Mattis, United States Secretary of Defense has gone further and referred to Iran as the greatest threat to the United States. Including Iranians in the Muslim Ban, Trump claimed that he was protecting the nation against terrorist threats.35 Never mind that Iran had nothing to do with 9/11, or al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS).36

US officials see Iran as a hegemon in the Middle East that has brought a shift in the regional power structure. It is, however, important to point out that the devastating Afghanistan war, Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, the US invasion of Iraq and building of the Green Zone, and the full support given to KSA in Yemen and Syria are what have brought Iran to the forefront, enabling it to fill the power vacuum created by the United States. Iranians remember the US overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, its support of the brutal Iraq regime in its eight-year war against Iran, and its full support of regional dictators and of Israel with its apartheid policies toward Palestinians, full incursions into Lebanon, and repeated and loud criticism of Iran.37

Thus, Iran’s growing involvement in the regional politics of the Middle East must be placed in the context of the Iranian Revolution and its struggles to maintain its independence and sovereignty in a world that is surrounded by American and Israeli might and military.


Born to a Shi’i family in Iran, I travelled frequently to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and other parts of the Middle East, and my parents hosted Sunni and Alawite friends from Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. I never experienced religious sectarianism as it is reported in the United States.

Current conflicts in the Middle East are not based on Shi’i-Sunni antagonisms but on misperception of the reality.38 In US attempts to legitimize its aggression, the reality of intervention and military and economic wars is often masked. By couching these wars in terms of “bad Muslims” (Iranians) like “bad Indians” vs. “good Muslins” (Saudis) like “good Indians,” the US government seeks to mobilize the electorate in defense of “national security.” Despite its ideological manipulation to twist facts, conflicts in the Middle East remain political, not religiously-based.  Perhaps Edward Said was correct when he pointed out that distortions are often based on fear of the other, in order to control, contain, and dominate it.39 

At this juncture, two antagonistic poles are developing in the Middle East. On the one hand, the fear of the growing weight and dominance of Iran has given rise to greater American, Israeli and Saudi hostility toward Iran (and Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon). On the other, Iran’s increased backing of Syria and of the Yemeni Houthis (along with Russia and China)40 has created another center of power in the region. Both the US and Russia are arming and helping their regional subordinates with intelligence, funds, and bombardments. It now seems that Assad’s regime will stay in power, and possibly also the devastated Houthis. But politics in the Middle East is unpredictable.

Noam Chomsky suggests that there is no good reason for the US to see Iran as a menace.41 Iran has a relatively low military budget in comparison to other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. All the world and American agencies that have been systematically monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities have reported no violations. Trump’s promises of making “America great again” and relieving it from the burdens of global leadership has so far proven hollow as the coalition of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Persian Gulf states continues to daunt and threaten Iran. Iran is not North Korea, but adding another nuclear state in the Middle East (besides Israel) and in the world would be another blow to peace.

There is little to conclude beyond stressing that the US and its regional partners remain offensive and destructive while Iran’s strategy is defensive.


*Portions of this article were presented at the Left Forum, New York, in May 2017; as an interview at WBAI,; and at the 29th Conference of North American and Cuban Philosophers and Social Scientists, Havana, June 2017. I am grateful for comments from Ruthie Indeck, Marion Kaplan, Victor Wallis, Hester Eisenstein, Ludmila Melchior-Yahil, and Carl Martin.

1. This did not mean his own personal investments!


3. See international Atomic Energy agency.



6. Vijay Parshad,

7. Harry Magdoff. The Age of Imperialism: The Economics of U.S. Foreign Policy, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969. It should be noted that there are generally multiple reasons for military involvements (arms sales, oil, investments, trade opportunities, and geopolitical positioning). Arms sales play a big role for Trump, as shown by his huge deal with Saudi Arabia. See I. Hossein Zadeh. The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism, London: Palgrave, 2007.

8. See Hamideh Sedghi, "The Persian Gulf War: The New International Order or Disorder?" New Political Science, 11:1/2, Spring-Summer 1992.

9. Ilan Pappe. Ten Myths about Israel, London: Verso. 2017.

10. This also applies to the continuation of the US war in Afghanistan, with its rich mineral deposits.


12. and



15. See Jeremy Venook, “Donald Trump's Conflicts of Interest: a Crib Sheet,” Atlantic, May 31, 2017,



18. “From American College Campuses to ISIS Camps How Hundreds of Saudis Joined ISIS in the US” or visit This was reported by Gulf 2000 through on June 1,2017.

19. Paul Sperry. “Saudi Government allegedly funded a ‘dry-run’ for 9/11.” New York Post. September 9, 2017.

20. Andrew Cockburn. ‘Crime and Punishment: Will the 9/11 Case Finally Go to Trial?” Harper’s Magazine. September 10, 2017.

21. Rebecca Gordon. “Why is the US at War in Yemen and Will Trump Escalate?” Informed Comments. December 12, 2016.


23. For background, see Steven C. Caton. Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006; and Sheila Carapico. “The Unending War on Yemen” Interview, August 31, 2016,

24. Report by Thomas Juneau, For a brief explanation of the Yemen war see

25. As of this writing, it seems that the Syrian war is almost over in favor of the Assad regime and the US has conceded that Syria is now a Russian affair. See also Nataliya Vasilyeva’s report from Aleppo, “Russia says Syrian government controls 85 percent of country,” September 12, 2017.

26. Unlike the Saudis and the US, Iran does not bomb or send drones or missiles to destroy those whom it opposes in Yemen. See Gordon (n. 21) and Javad Zarif’s interview by Charlie Rose, July 7, 2017, as cited in the following note 33.


28. The Saudi regime is known for its intolerance and violent behavior toward political and feminist dissidents and Shi’i minorities and pilgrims. (See Hamideh Sedghi. “Third World Women’s Perspectives on World Politics,” in F. D’Amico and P. Beckman, eds., Women, Gender and World Politics. Amherst, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1994.) It has attacked Shi’i mosques and killed Shi’i pilgrims and clerics. It has even punished some members of the royal family; Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef was removed and arrested overnight by another member of the House of Saud, Mohammad bi Salman (all Wahhabis).  See B. Hubbard,, “Saudi King’s Son Plotted Effort to Oust His Rival.” New York Times, July 18, 2017.

29. It should be noted that both regimes were quite antagonistic toward the Soviet Union and quite friendly toward the US.

30. Ervand Abrahamian. A History of Modern Iran. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2008.

31. Hamideh Sedghi, Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling and Reveiling. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 2007. Chapters 3-4, and 7.


33. See Javad Zarif interview (n. 26).

34. Financial Tribune. September 16, 2017.


36. Note that after the 9/11 attacks, Iran helped the US to defeat the Taliban and currently, it is fighting the attacks of ISIS on its soil. See

37. On Iran-Israel relations see Trita Parsi. Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, New Haven: Yale University Press. 2008.

38. Hamideh Sedghi, “Muslims in the West’s Imagination: Myth or Reality?” Socialism and Democracy. 19:2, 2002.

39. Edward Said. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1978.

40. On Chinese involvement in the Middle East, see Middle East Report special issue: China in the Middle East, no. 270. Spring 2014.

41. Noam Chomsky. 4/26/2017,