Outpaced in the polls by his Democratic rival Joe Biden, United States President Donald Trump could attempt an “October surprise” in scenarios ranging from Iran to Venezuela. Will he dare to do so with 38 days to go before general elections?

The real estate tycoon faces serious problems since his erratic policy has been exposed by the more than 200,000 deaths caused by the coronavirus pandemic and an economic crisis worse than that of 2008.

While we know that polls may fail, Biden has a lead in six swing states, including those that contributed to Trump’s 2016 Electoral College victory, such as Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

According to a survey released on Thursday, Trump only leads in Ohio and Iowa among the eight states considered decisive in this campaign, yet by only one percentage point. A similar result was shown by follow-up of several media and academic polls for that day; it also stressed that Trump is trailing Biden in national polls by 42.4% to 49.8%.

As Richard Nixon , one of the presidents who supposedly inspired him, has Trump decided to play an international card to get back on the ballot on November 3?

Historians agree that Republican Nixon gave the first “October surprise” when his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, announced that “peace was at hand” in Vietnam on 26 October 1972. It was the last days before the U.S. defeat, but even so, peace did not come until the reunification of the Asian country in 1975. However, the announcement was enough for Nixon to easily beat George McGovern, who had been leading in opinion polls.

Five years later yet another Republican, Ronald Reagan , crushed in the election President Jimmy Carter while negotiating in secret the release of U.S. hostages taken by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979. The new Islamic Republic freed the 52 hostages on the day Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, in exchange for the devolution of USD $3 billion in Iranian assets seized under sanctions.

In fact, Trump himself benefited from an “ October surprise ” in 2016. James Comey, FBI director, shocked the U.S. by sending a letter to Congress on October 28, reporting that the agency had found new evidence related to the already closed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as Secretary of State.

Clinton’s lead over Trump 48%-44% rapidly evaporated during the last hours of the campaign, although this turn was not clearly shown in surveys.

Now let’s take a look at the possible scenarios for a new surprise:


A convergence of interests is being concentrated in the Persian Gulf, where for the last 40 years Israel and far-right-wing U.S. sectors have been seeking the destruction of the Tehran government. The alarms went off on Saturday after , a move the rest of the world, including major U.S. allies, rejects as illegal.

which successfully froze Iran’s nuclear program three years before, Washington said that it is implementing the “snap back” mechanism in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) contained in the deal, in order to enforce removed or set to expire sanctions .

Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified the UNSC on August 20 that the 30-day period to snap back sanctions on Iran will come to an end on September 20. He argued that Iran was in “significant non-performance” with obligations under the deal, saying that the U.S. retains the right to enforce sanctions as an original participant in the , and as a member of the Security Council.

Nevertheless, the UNSC, with exception of the Dominican Republic, has remarked that the U.S. does not have a standing to initiate the snapback mechanism. Russia and China have stood behind this position, while France, Great Britain, and Germany underscored that remain committed to the accord. Washington’s announcement, they said in a letter sent to UNSC’s president, “is incapable of having legal effect and so cannot bring into effect procedure.”

On Monday the U.S. slapped new sanctions on Iran’s Defense Ministry, and other 26 entities and people involved in its nuclear, missile, and conventional arms sectors. The measure includes those who buy or sell Iranian conventional weapons, targeting Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro , who cooperated with Tehran “to flout UN arms embargo”, according to Pompeo.

Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, stated in response to the move that it is “null and void”, yet he reiterated that Tehran is ready to exchange prisoners with Washington . However, on Wednesday the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps warned that if it tries to intercept Iranian ships in international waters “Iran will not just retaliate any U.S. attempt to inspect our ships, we will give a powerful response.”

Trita Parsi and other Middle East experts have pointed out the trap of the U.S. strategy; its Navy has already seized four Iranian oil tankers in the Atlantic Ocean and the Arabian Sea, carrying gasoline to Venezuela . If Iran reacts militarily to provocation, it will open the door to an “October surprise” with the familiar U.S. response, which will be justified by the claim of compliance with UN sanctions.

They highlight that the conditioning of the U.S. public may already have begun, through the leak of an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the American ambassador in South Africa, in revenge for .

In the diplomatic arena, established between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrein that aim to create a united front in the Persian Gulf against Tehran.


If the sanctions have had an immediate effect other than further impoverishing their peoples, it has been to strengthen the alliance between Caracas and Tehran. This year, five Iranian ships carrying fuel and chemicals arrived in Venezuelan ports after the signing of a bilateral trade agreement.

On Tuesday, the White House imposed yet another round of sanctions on Caracas, this time on five politicians who “acted as part of a broader plan to manipulate” the December 6 parliamentary elections.

The sanctions include former leaders of opposition parties who were expelled for their alleged participation in a vote-buying scheme led by Maduro. Trump ally and has called for a boycott of the process.

As part of the pressure, Pompeo toured Venezuela’s hostile neighbors last week. In Guyana , he underlined the beginning of joint anti-narcotics maritime and airspace patrols, while in Bogotá he called Colombia’s regime an “example” in fighting against drug trafficking, despite the increase of cocaine production in the country.

During his fourth meeting with Colombian President Iván Duque in two years, Pompeo praised his supposed assistance for Venezuelan migrants, as well as his support for Guaidó.

He did not even mention the grim reality in the Andean nation , where massive protests against police violence and impunity have been brutally repressed, resulting in more than 20 deaths.

Paramilitary and organized crime groups have resurfaced in rural areas, launching a wave of massacres and murders of social leaders even spread through social media. This month, the reported that the Clan del Golfo has consolidated itself as the largest “illegal armed structure” in Colombia , and forged an alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel of Mexico.

The Clan del Golfo ’s diversification of illegal activities has allowed it to engage in large-scale mining. It disputes territories with dissidents of leftist guerrillas, and another drug organization, Los Caparros , which in turn allied with the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación of Mexico .

Although a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela seems more unlikely, Trump has decided to bet on the support of the far-right regional exile to try to win votes from the Latino community in Florida and other states.

Other scenarios

Analysts have pointed to the possibility of Trump authorizing a COVID-19 vaccine before Election Day, even against the opinion of the scientific community, the Food and Drug Administration, and the pharmaceutical companies themselves.

However, rules out this possibility. In addition, a recent poll found that 54% of Americans would not submit to a vaccine authorized before the election.

International markets, for their part, held out hope that Trump—as Nixon did with his landmark visit to Beijing in 1972—would shake the world by striking a deal with China to put an end to the trade war between both giants. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case either. In his address to the 75 UN General Assembly, Trump blamed again China for unleashing a “plague” on the world.

In an inflammatory speech in which he also criticized Beijing for its carbon emissions, he insisted that the Asian country must be held accountable for the pandemic, adding that the World Health Organization “is virtually controlled by China.”

In short, it was a message for electoral purposes, yet designed for a constituency that might be insufficient to re-elect Trump.

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