Day: February 6, 2017
Iran for the moment appears to be taking a low key approach to responding to new US sanctions aimed at its ballistic missile program and support for Hizbollah. It is continuing to test missiles and radars, without however any indication as yet that they are nuclear capable. That is the minimum we should expect of them.
Iran as I understand it has already blocked Americans from entering, in response to Trump’s travel ban. They can do much more. It is easy for the Iranians to hassle the US Navy in the Gulf and the strait of Hormuz. US troops are particularly vulnerable to Iranian surrogates in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Hizbollah maintains capabilities to strike the US not only in Lebanon but also elsewhere, including inside the US. Use of these capabilities could significantly escalate the conflict with the US, which would likely respond with military force, either openly or clandestinely.
Whatever happens, the likelihood is a significant deterioration of already pretty bad relations between Washington and Tehran. Trump, who denounces the Iran nuclear deal regularly in stentorian tones, may even be aiming to get Iran to renounce it. This would leave the Iranians free to pursue nuclear weapons without however any real possibility that the US could restore the multilateral sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table. Military action would quickly become the only option for stopping the Iranian nuclear program from producing everything needed for nuclear weapons.
We should therefore appreciate the low-key approach the Iranians have taken so far. By far the best bet for the US on the nuclear weapons front is strict implementation of the deal. Even hard-line opponents of it are coming down on that option. It just doesn’t make any sense at all to do anything else.
Even with full implementation (on both sides), relations between Iran and the US are unlikely to improve during a Trump administration. The President’s National Security Adviser, General Flynn, is Tehran’s favorite American general, because appears to have accused President Obama of creating and supporting the Islamic State, a standard Iranian propaganda talking point. But he is also ferociously anti-Iranian and I would say a certifiable Islamophobe. He appears to be driving Iran policy, at least for now, but Steve Bannon, the white nationalist (I would say supremacist) chief White House strategist no doubt concurs.
Trump himself is stridently anti-Iranian, which scores him points both domestically as well as with the Israelis and Gulf states. Apart from the nuclear deal, these constituencies, as well as many others, have two problems with Iranian behavior: its aggressive support of proxies in the region (especially in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Bahrain) as well as its continued support to Hizbollah worldwide.
Iran is still a revolutionary regime aiming to maintain its semi-autocratic brand of theocracy, arm Shia populations in other countries to resist abuse, and use those surrogates to defend itself. It sees the US and Israel as its most dangerous main enemies, with the Gulf states a close second. At least in American eyes, there has been no sign of moderation in Iranian rhetoric and behavior since the signing of the nuclear deal. President Rouhani is enjoying at least some of its benefits to the Iranian economy, but the Supreme Leader, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and most of the Majles remain just as staunchly and stridently anti-American as Trump is anti-Iranian.
No, I don’t see much likelihood this will change. The main thing now is to prevent increased tensions between the US and Iran from exploding into armed conflict. Cooling it is the best we can hope for.
With apologies, I’ve been slow to post this fine piece by Sarah Timreck on an event that occurred the week before last:
The Hudson Institute January 25 discussed the Iran deal’s prospects and challenges during the Trump administration. Participants were Michael Pregent, Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Gary Samore, Executive Director for Research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Trita Parsi, Founder and President of the National Iranian American Council. Suzanne Kianpour, Capitol Hill and Foreign Affairs Producer at BBC News, moderated the panel.
With a background as an intelligence officer in Iraq and military experience on the ground facing the IRGC, Pregent opposes the Iran deal and feels that the concessions given by way of sanctions relief are fundamentally destabilizing. Pregent said that he hopes for changes under the Trump administration, which might recognize the deal’s potential to fuel Iran’s hegemonic aspirations and further weaken the region. Although the deal was intended to benefit Iran economically, right now it allows Iran to more freely support groups such as Hezbollah and regimes such as Assad’s. Trump does not need to rip up the deal but rather enforce it, end secret side deals, deny Iranian companies with IRGC stakeholders access to US banking, and continue to put pressure on Iran’s human rights abuses and support of terrorism.
Samore outlined Trump’s options for the deal moving forward. The first , to renege on the agreement and withdraw current presidential sanctions waivers, would undermine support if other members of the P5+1 saw the US as responsible for killing the agreement without just cause. It could also make Iran resume nuclear activity. The second option, renegotiating with Iran for a better deal, is a more complicated choice. The US would add new conditions in order to trade with Iran but also be prepared to offer additional sanctions relief. Samore was not confident that Trump would support this option or if Iran would come to the table. The third option, in which Trump abides by and enforces the deal, would be the option most favored by the P5+1, the foreign policy establishment, and allies in the region. It is therefore Trump’s safest choice. Samore concluded by saying that he is not confident that the deal will last, citing current minor Iranian violations, lingering tension between the US and Iran, and Iranian frustration over the lack of visible sanctions relief.
Parsi discussed the Iran deal in the context of America’s future in the Middle East. The deal was reflective of a change in US-Iranian relations, signaling progress that many believed would never occur. Ultimately, opposition to the deal was more about the regional and geopolitical repercussions than about coming to terms with Iran on critical issues. The Middle East has lost strategic significance for the US and its focus should shift, pivoting towards Asia and other global challenges. The deal allows America to focus its attention elsewhere and not bog down in the region.
Kianpour then asked the panelists about the potential for renegotiating the deal. Pregent emphasized America’s need to remain focused on the Middle East, calling a US pivot away a mistake considering Iran’s strategic goal of keeping the region fractured. Samore believes renegotiation is possible, but does not see willingness within the Trump administration to make more concessions towards Iran. Parsi also did not see a strong likelihood of re-entering talks given how gruesome and tiring the first round was. He also felt the deal gave the US a degree of maneuverability in its relations with regional allies.
Kianpour also asked the panelists about the impact of the deal on internal politics within Iran. While Parsi said there is curiosity on the part of Iranians about Trump’s actions, American conduct in the region, as well as Iranian conduct, will only slowly reveal themselves over the long term. Pregent felt that the deal has emboldened Iran to continue its “nefarious activit[ies],” while also constraining the US, in particular in Syria. Conversely, both Samore and Parsi felt that Pregent was overstating Iran’s influence on America. Problems in the Middle East did not originate from the deal, nor did the Obama administration feel Iran was central to its decision-making.
Many of the questions focused on the impact of destroying the deal and methods of countering Iranian influence in the region. Pregent took the view that because Iran constantly cheats, strictly enforcing the deal would help keep them in check. He advocates that the US take a position of strength when entering negotiations and hold Iran accountable for its actions. Samore remained skeptical the deal would last the entirety of its lifespan, but also warned about what might come after the deal’s expiration, namely the resumption of nuclear activity. Parsi emphasized the need to honor the deal. He also urged the US to listen to the sentiment within Iran to better understand how the deal impacts prospects for the future of the region and American interests there.