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Could Iran, Turkey and others take advantage of US post-election doubts?


Iranian and Turkish media is taking a “wait and see” approach to the US election. The usual shrill voices have been quiet for a few days, wondering like the rest of the world might happen. Turkey’s media is infamous for transmitting the narrative of the increasingly aggressive regime in Ankara. That means it usually telegraphs Turkish military operations before they happen, for instance threatening invasions of Syria, Iraq, or talking about the need to challenge Greece.  This week Turkey only hinted at new crises. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thrives on military crises, often threatening Armenia, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel and other countries. In recent weeks there was concern Turkey might shift from trying to boost Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia, to threatening Greece, Cyprus, US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria, or even Israel.  At the same time Iran’s regime is highlighting its ballistic missiles, and sending foreign minister Javad Zarif on an “American tour” that will begin in Venezuela. Venezuela is close to both Turkey and Iran, much as Hamas is backed by Ankara and Tehran. This gives these regimes a chance to stir up trouble as the US post-election indecision roils Washington. There is no indication yet that Iran or Turkey will exploit the election outcome.The reason that Iran and Turkey are wary is that Turkey tried desperately to lobby the Trump administration, to the extent that Erdogan was the leader Trump listened to the most in phone calls in 2018 and 2019, frequently calling the White House to order the US to leave Syria. All those demands made by Turkey could fall on deaf ears and even result in anger by Trump if Trump feels betrayed. Trump views foreign policy as personal and transactional. Erdogan is weighing what to do next. His team has already slammed Biden and the Democrats. He accuses the US of backing “terrorists” in Syria, even though there have been no terror attacks from US-backed Kurdish forces from Syria.  Iran is thinking the opposite of Turkey. While Ankara is worried Trump might be angry if he feels betrayed by a new Turkish move against Greece, Syria or Israel, Iran is hoping to appear to play the role of “good cop” for the next few months if Biden is about to take charge. Iran wants to re-assure a future Biden administration that it is responsible and show that it suffered under Trump’s sanctions. Any crazy attacks by Iran, for instance on US forces in Iraq, or against Israel directly, would hurt its chances to start things off on the right foot with Biden.Other regimes will be studying closely the results. China and Russia are the most important in this regard. Russia was accused of meddling in 2016 to support Trump. Now those accusations have largely left US media coverage. But can Russia pull off another “reset” as it did with the Obama administration. Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin is surely wondering how to handle Biden, especially given Biden’s previous involvement in Ukraine and his knowledge of Russia’s role.China has tough relations with the Trump administration. It too will want to be nice for the next months, slowly sponging up influence globally but without provoking whoever is in the White House in January. It has a global reputation to repair anyway.  

This leaves other actors out there that might try to exploit the US domestic chaos to achieve their goals. However, it is not clear if there are those who would go to war while the US is distracted. Would Hamas challenge Israel or will the Taliban try to march on Kabul? Those are certainly possibilities because there is knowledge that Trump may want to have one more troop withdrawal before January. That could be in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. There is lack of clarity. Nevertheless, as the US outcome becomes more certain Iran and Turkey may begin to make their moves or Turkey may demand one more last minute favor from the Trump administration. 

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