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Trump keeps people guessing over Iran

President-elect Donald Trump received his first secret daily intelligence briefing three days ago, the same one that Barack Obama receives. Although Trump must wait two months before he is inaugurated as president, the battle for his attention, and heart, is in full swing in Washington.

President Obama got the first shot at it when he met Trump for the first time at the White House, and has been trying to appeal to him and interpret his approach. In his first press conference since the elections Obama praised Trump as “pragmatic”, and said “I don’t think he is ideological”, suggesting — or perhaps coaxing him — to be flexible on his “legacy issues”, mainly Obamacare and the Iran deal.

There is no issue more central in the ensuing battle over the direction of the new administration than the Iran deal. The White House, the pro-Iran groups and the media made the opening shots by urging President-elect Trump to keep the deal and are cautioning of the pitfalls of jeopardizing it.

As a presidential nominee, Trump vowed to dismantle the “disastrous” and “catastrophic” Iran deal, something he said would be his “number one priority”. His advisers however backtracked a little on that before the elections, saying Trump will “renegotiate it”.

President Obama seemed to believe, or hope, that the president-elect will change his mind about the deal when he assumes the presidency and “consults with his Republican colleagues on the Hill” who “will look at the facts”.
But there were two opposing approaches to Iran in Washington this week.

In Congress, the Republicans and even the Democrats sent a very strong message regarding Iran on Tuesday when the House voted overwhelmingly to renew banking, defense and energy sanctions on Iran for another decade. The vote was 419-1 in favor of extending sanctions that have been on the books for the last ten years. The White House was against renewing the sanctions but Congress, including the Democrats, insisted that letting the sanctions lapse would deny the US the means to pressure Iran to abide by the nuclear deal and not violate it.

Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee Ed Royce said that by considering any attempt at letting the “clock run out on the Iran Sanctions Act, Congress will take away an important tool to keep Tehran in check. And that, in turn, will only further jeopardize America’s national security”. There are reports of an attempt by the Senate to attach more sanctions to the renewal of the act, but the Democrats were not going to support that. According The Hill, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker backed a measure that “attaches new sanctions onto a 10-year extension of the current sanctions and limits the president’s ability to issue national security waivers.”

The other approach was represented by the pro-Iran groups, and supported by the administration, calling for upholding the Iran deal and warning of the dire consequences of jeopardizing it, and appealing to Trump’s non-ideological approach to preserve it. They hope he will shift his position on the deal since the campaign is over.

The New York Times published the report put out by The National Iranian American Council and signed by 76 experts urging the new president and administration to preserve the deal and use it as a tool to cooperate with Iran on Syria and Iraq and “to eliminate the Islamic State”.

The report calls on the US to use diplomacy to “peacefully manage the remaining differences with Iran”. It calls Iran a “major power”, and a “leading power” in the region and warns that the US cannot stabilize the Middle East without Iran. It also puts the US on notice that “Iran will be part of the regional solution — or there won’t be a solution”; recognizing that Iran “cannot be indefinitely contained” it said that “pursuing a policy of non-engagement would simply be detrimental to US interests”.

The report offers inducements for such cooperation, its authors volunteering that Iran’s support for Hezbollah and its posture on Israel “is more likely to shift if US-Iran relations move in the right direction”.

After asking a President Trump to appoint a senior envoy to Iran, establish a communication channel with Iran inside Iraq, it said that President Trump “should directly communicate to Saudi Arabia and Iran that it is in the American interest to avoid taking sides in aspects of the Saudi-Iran rivalry in which its own interests are not at stake”.

The report said that President Trump “should immediately communicate in a public manner that he will veto any sanctions legislation that risks US obligations under the JCPOA, and is prepared for early Congressional battles over legislation aimed at upending the nuclear accord”.

The report was seen as a sign that the pro-Iran side is “worried”, and in other estimates “panicked” because they do not know what a President Trump will do and what kind of policy toward Iran he will pursue.

Trump has always said he prefers to keep people guessing what he will do next. Iran is no exception.
The Iranians, according to Professor Mohsen Milani, of the University of South Florida, call Trump’s approach “deliberate uncertainty” and say they will try to adjust. The bad news for the Iranians is that Trump was very clear, consistent and certain in his positions on Iran during the campaign, and his national security team contenders are hawkish on Iran.

We might not see Trump dismantle the Iran deal altogether, but foreign and defense policy experts hope and believe that he will push back on the “primary concern” about Iran, “its missiles and its support for terrorism” and regional destabilizing activities, as Mary Beth Long, former assistant secretary of defense, told me. She said the Iranians are worried “and they should be”. The jury is still out on whether Mr. Trump’s tough talk will translate into a new American policy on Iran and its role in the region.

• Dr. Amal Mudallali is an American policy and international relations analyst.