How will the Trump administration respond?
U.S. President Donald Trump is seeking to be true to the promises he made during the 2016 presidential campaign. As a candidate, Trump called the Iran deal “the worst deal ever,” and he pledged to tear it down if elected president. Since then, as president of the U.S., he has moderated his tone. Yet, last month he said that Iran “is not in compliance with the agreement,” and added that he did not believe that he would again declare Iran to be abiding by the deal, come October.
Last May, the U.S. Treasury issued new sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran, more specific in scope, targeting senior Iranian defense officials, and suppliers of missile equipment. This was in retaliation for the recent missile test Iran conducted and its support of Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad. At the same time however, the White House renewed the waivers on more widespread sanctions, which are not permanent, and were due to expire. Trump has reluctantly renewed the agreement signed by former President Obama before he left office.
President Trump, according to the BBC, “has consistently warned Iran over its missile activity, and has criticized the terms of the nuclear deal made by Obama – at one point claiming his ‘number one priority’ if elected would be to dismantle the disastrous deal.” Yet, the Trump administration has continued to certify to Congress that Iran is upholding its part of the deal, which the administration must do every 90 days. In April, President Trump ordered a wider review of the nuclear deal, and Secretary Rex Tillerson announced that Iran “remains a leading state sponsor of terror, through many platforms and methods.”
President Trump is now considering a more aggressive approach toward Iran. His senior aides however, are pressuring him not to walk away from the nuclear deal. According to Reuters, the same senior aides claimed that U.S. allies, Israel, and Saudi Arabia would rather the pact (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) remain intact, while expressing certain reservations about the nuclear deal.
While on a state visit to Argentina this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to reports by U.S. administration officials claiming that Israel and Saudi Arabia do not wish to scrap the Iran nuclear deal. He stated, according to The Times of Israel (September 12, 2017) “In the case of Iran, there have been some news stories about Israel’s purported position on the nuclear deal with Iran. So let me take this opportunity and clarify: Our position is straightforward. This is a bad deal. Either fix it – or cancel it. This is Israel’s position.”
Attempting to fulfill the promises he made in dealing with Iran, President Trump is considering a strategy that would allow for a more aggressive response against Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq, including dealing with Iran’s proxies, its Shiite-Muslim supported militias in both states. Sources close to the president suggested that a draft proposal recently prepared by Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Council advisor Gen. Herbert McMaster, was shown to the president. It is said to be in variance with Obama’s outline on U.S. foreign policy conduct. President Trump is expected to outline broad strategic goals for American policy in the Middle East, and enable U.S. military commanders and top diplomats to carry out these policies.
A senior administration official pointed out that the new draft policy guidelines are meant to increase pressure on Iran to cut down its ballistic missiles program, and its support for armed groups such as the Houthis in Yemen and Hamas in Gaza. It is a wider scoped strategy to counter the destructive and destabilizing behavior of Iran, especially in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, as well as Iran’s financial support to terrorist groups. The purported new guidelines would also target Iran’s cyber espionage, and its possible spread of its nuclear material. “Whatever we end up with, we want to implement with allies to the greatest extent possible,” the senior official added.
The Trump administration is debating a new stance on the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, sealed by Obama. The draft urges consideration of tougher economic sanctions if Iran violates the 2015 agreement. The proposed draft includes more aggressive U.S. interceptions of Iranian arms shipments to Houthi rebels in Yemen, Palestinian groups in Gaza, and Egypt’s Sinai. Additionally, U.S. naval forces would be permitted to react more forcefully when harassed by armed speed boats operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
In the recent past, U.S. ships have fired flares and warning shots to drive off IRGC boats that made threatening approaches toward U.S. naval ships. The Iranians refused to heed radio warnings in the shipping corridor where 35 percent of the world’s petroleum exports pass through. U.S. commanders, until now, were only permitted to open fire when they thought their vessels and the lives of the crew members were endangered.
To the senior administration’s foreign policy and national security advisors including James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and Rex Tillerson, Iran is not the primary threat to the U.S. The Islamic State (IS) is considered as such, and it is the primary target of U.S. efforts in the region. U.S. commanders in the field have been instructed not to tangle with IRGC forces or its proxies: Hezbollah, and the Iraqi and Afghani Shiite-Muslim militias. U.S. military advisors attached to Kurdish fighters in Syria are in a quandary as to how to react to provocations from forces under Iranian control. Recently, U.S. planes were forced to shoot down Iranian based drones targeting American and allied fighters.
President Trump, unlike his advisors, may instinctively understand that Iran is a greater threat to the U.S. than the Sunni-Muslim terror groups, IS and al-Qaeda. Iran and its proxies, Hezbollah in particular, have killed U.S. troops in Iraq, Saudi Arabia (Khobar Towers-1996), and at the U.S. Marines peacekeeping compound in Beirut, where 241 U.S. Marines were murdered in 1983.
The difference between the Sunni terror groups, and the Iranian-sponsored Shiite terror groups, especially Hezbollah, is that a modern state (Iran) is supporting it, and Iran is capable of producing weapons of mass destruction (over 100,000 missiles possessed by Hezbollah according to Israeli sources). More importantly, Hezbollah reportedly has terror cells in the U.S. awaiting a signal from Tehran. The U.S. State Department had designated Hezbollah as the A-team of international terror. Lastly, in 2011, Iranian agents attempted to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C.
Echoing PM Netanyahu’s repeated charges that Iran is more dangerous than IS, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s Minister of the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water, told the Jerusalem Post “We have two challenges in Syria. One is ISIS and one is Iran. The greater threat is coming from Iran, and not just from its nuclear program. The most immediate and urgent threat is the Iranian plan to transform Syria, after this horrible, brutal civil war is over, into some kind of extension of Iran.”
President Trump is determined to act more aggressively toward Iran despite his advisors cautious approach. He is strongly supported in this by his U.N. Ambassador, Nikki Haley, who laid out before U.S. Congress the case for declaring Iran in violation of the nuclear deal. She said that Trump was on solid ground if he decides against certifying Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. The next compliance certification is due on October 15. We will know then how the struggle has been resolved.