To hear Donald Trump tell it, a vote for him in 2024 is a vote for world peace.
“We’re at the brink of World War III, just in case anybody doesn’t know it,” the former president said in announcing his reelection bid. He has repeatedly blamed President Joe Biden for Russia’s vicious assault on Ukraine, saying it would not have happened on his watch. Trump claims that Biden’s support for Ukrainian resistance risks a nuclear war with Moscow and that he could end the fighting within 24 hours.
His supporters, from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), are echoing the refrain: Vance argues that Trump ran the “most cautious and the most careful foreign policy we’ve had in this country in a generation.”
The narrative serves Trump’s goal of seeming like an outsider fighting a flawed establishment and suits his strategy of seeking votes by appealing to Americans’ fears. But it ignores the issue that would likely pose the biggest foreign policy challenge of a second Trump presidency and one Trump has shown little capacity to handle peacefully: Iran.
“If he returns to power… I think the odds of him being able to deal with Iran are not promising at all,” said Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group think tank.
The Islamic Republic looms large for the former president.
After leaving the presidency after the 2020 election, Trump reportedly said he kept a Defense Department document about Iran that he knew was classified, according to a 2021 recording whose existence CNN revealed this week. He also retained intelligence findings about Iran’s missile program, according to The Washington Post. Those files represent some of the most sensitive material in the trove of documents federal prosecutors suspect Trump mishandled. (Trump has previously asserted all the documents he kept were declassified and has denied knowledge of the recording. His attorneys claim they cannot find the document mentioned in the recording, The New York Times reported on Friday.)
And as president, Trump vetoed a bipartisan attempt to make it harder for him to order military action against Iran and reveled in torpedoing President Barack Obama’s landmark 2015 deal to limit Iranian nuclear development.
Trump twice risked a war with Tehran during his last year in office. He first ordered the assassination of Iran’s top general, risking a cycle of tit-for-tat violence that tenuous diplomacy managed to prevent. After losing the 2020 election, he came close to launching another strike and risking a major conflagration, according to Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Today, relations between Iran and the U.S. are extraordinarily tense. Trump’s decision to scrap the Obama-era deal led Iran to boost its nuclear capabilities, and the Islamic Republic could now build a nuclear weapon within months if it chose to, the U.S. and its allies believe. Trump-era sanctions, which Biden has maintained, are squeezing Iran’s economy and hardening Iranian leaders’ position toward the West.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces and fighters aligned with Iran are in close quarters in the Persian Gulf and in Syria, where a suspected Iranian drone attack killed an American contractor in March. Post reporting suggests Iran is readying new assaults.
The nuclear issue has long been seen as the most likely source of an all-out conflict: U.S. presidents (including Obama) have always said they would consider a military response if Iran moved to develop a nuclear bomb, and Israel has also mooted the idea. Right now, officials working on the issue say they are alarmed by Iran’s advances in enriching uranium and its approach to the International Atomic Energy Agency ― and few people involved see hope of a real resolution to the question until after America’s 2024 election, which Trump could win if he becomes the GOP presidential nominee.
“Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced now than it has ever been,” one Western official said, describing his government as “extremely concerned.”
Trump acknowledges the higher chances of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon and insists he knows how to keep that from happening. Yet in a second Trump term, the U.S.-Iran diplomacy that was at the heart of the last nuclear deal would be difficult to achieve both because of Tehran’s view of the former reality television star and real estate mogul and also because of the extremely different circumstances from previous periods of negotiations. Meanwhile, Trump’s 2024 agenda would weaken guardrails on his approach to the delicate issue and make it hard to win foreign support that would enable a fresh agreement.
“Because of what he did by taking Iran’s nuclear program out of a box and putting it in a microwave, Iran actually has way more leverage than was the case when Trump walked into the Oval Office in 2017,” Vaez said. “If you look at Trump’s career, Iran’s nuclear program is the only thing that he failed to bankrupt.”
The upshot: Trump would face an unprecedented challenge ― with a proven record of seeing violence as the best response.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
A Crisis Deferred
Biden’s chance to address the nuclear issue has almost certainly slipped away.
After Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 deal, the five other parties to the agreement ― France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany ― tried to sustain the accord. They pushed for Iran to comply with limits and monitoring requirements and tried to deliver some of the economic benefits for Iranians the deal was meant to provide.
Biden, who pledged to “rejoin” and build on the agreement during his 2020 campaign, did little to ease U.S. sanctions. His team did participate in European-sponsored indirect talks with Tehran, and by August 2022, both sides weighed in on a draft proposal for restoring the deal. But Iran then sought additional changes to the text, and the U.S. said it could not offer more, in a nod to Biden’s sensitivity ahead of the midterm elections.
The move frustrated world powers. “The Iranians chose not to take the deal,” argued the Western official, who was not authorized to comment on the record.
Since then, two developments have made the August agreement “no longer viable,” the official said: Iran’s domestic crackdown that began in September and Tehran’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Those factors make engagement less politically palatable in the West and help Iran skeptics argue the international community must further penalize the regime.
All the while, the nuclear problem is getting worse. In February, United Nations inspectors said a heavily protected Iranian nuclear facility contained uranium particles of 84% purity ― not far off from the 90% purity used in a bomb. Iranian officials, who have long denied wanting nuclear weapons, called the high enrichment level unintentional. The U.N. eventually said it had received a possible explanation from Iran, but experts saw its new assessment as unlikely to satisfy global concerns about the program.
Biden administration officials are now once again indicating they could engage Tehran. Meanwhile, European governments are hoping to deter Iran by warning its leaders they would re-impose embarrassing U.N. sanctions on the country if it crosses the weapons enrichment threshold, Reuters reported.
Some onlookers are hoping for a big step toward a resolution: Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat now at Princeton University, argued in a recent opinion article that Biden could establish “a new security and cooperation mechanism” by talking to Iran directly and offering compromises.
Yet the president is already effectively tied up in next year’s election, and the situation is fundamentally different from where it was last August. “There was at that moment a common desire to strictly separate the nuclear file from other sensitive issues,” said a second Western official who was not authorized to speak on the record.
The most likely positive development would be a modest thaw that is designed to avoid a flare-up or embarrassment ― a detente involving some kind of halt on Iranian nuclear advances and signs of earnest, if limited, diplomacy.
Iran knows “that if they go too far it would trigger a major crisis in the region,” the second Western official argued.
Its program is “obviously at a very advanced stage, but we shouldn’t necessarily assume that means they are on a path to a weapon,” the first Western official said. “If they want to come to the table and act in good faith, then we’re open to talking.”
Vaez, the analyst, believes both Tehran and Washington “would like to put a lid on the situation until there is less uncertainty about the political trajectory of the United States.”
“That requires some kind of an understanding, albeit narrow, that would help them achieve that objective,” he continued, noting the possibility of Iran and the U.S. trading detainees.
Such a compromise could “create time and space for both sides until they know who the next U.S. president would be,” Vaez said. “I don’t expect a deal that would resolve the nuclear crisis in a sustainable fashion.”
What Else But War?
The combination of an urgent nuclear question and a reelected Trump is almost certainly explosive.
An essential factor in any renewed agreement would be shifting Iran’s calculus: convincing Tehran it is worthwhile to change its current course and address international concerns about weapon development.
It’s hard to see how Trump would inspire goodwill in the regime.
His unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 deal ― despite Iran’s general compliance ― began the current crisis. And his killing of Iranian leader Qassem Soleimani is considered an Iranian national tragedy.
“There’s just so much bad blood there between the Iranian leadership and him as a result of that single act,” Vaez said. “What the Iranians want to do to him is not to shake his hand but to put a dagger in his back.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s talk of “peace through strength” suggests he would be loath to suggest the kind of U.S. steps that could inspire serious talks by, for instance, easing up on his historic “maximum pressure” approach to the Islamic Republic.
Iran could, in fact, interpret Trump’s return as an impetus to become more assertive and speed closer to possessing weapon-grade material, observers worry. Though Tehran’s dialogue with its regional rivals ― notably Saudi Arabia ― has inspired some calm in the Middle East, it also makes it easier to envision an Iran-U.S. conflict in which the Saudis and other U.S. partners dodge fire as Washington and Tehran focus on each other.
Trump’s demonstrated instincts and stated second-term goals pose further hurdles to diplomacy.
While in office, he alternated his orders for U.S. troop withdrawals with inflammatory rhetoric toward unpredictable players, including the leaders of North Korea, Pakistan and Russia. He is likely to remain close to Iran hawks, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and says he would use a second term to increase his control over the federal workforce, which could have a chilling effect on national security experts, stopping them from tempering his approach.
Additionally, he wants to inflame U.S. ties with China, a key player in the previous nuclear deal.
One of the Western officials said his government believes Beijing could be a moderating influence in any eventual settlement on the nuclear issue.
“China does not want a crisis in the region that would impact heavily its supply of oil and energy, and they don’t want to have a new member of the nuclear club,” the official said.
China’s heft has grown because sanctions have made Iran extremely dependent on earning money by selling oil to Beijing, noted the other Western official, calling that sway “a significant lever.”
Still, “it remains to be seen to what extent the Chinese are willing to use that lever,” the official continued.
Trump’s most significant diplomatic effort with China was no triumph: Experts say his revised trade deal with the country failed to bolster U.S. exports while his tariffs, sustained so far by Biden, are still hurting U.S. economic growth. And the increasingly anti-China consensus in Washington suggests Trump would see little potential benefit in cooperation with his counterpart, Xi Jinping.
To Vaez, another Trump term in the White House means an Iran policy of perpetual danger.
“It’s a formula for another four years of confrontation between Iran and the U.S. without any possible offramps,” he said.