President-elect Donald Trump has assembled a team of national security and defense staff who are renowned for both their hawkish views on Iran, and their reservations over the Obama administration’s policies toward Tehran.
This team is leading people to believe that the upcoming administration will, from Day 1, challenge Iran’s sphere of influence in the region and the wider world.
In his election campaign, Trump vowed to dismantle the “disastrous” deal — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — between Iran and Western powers.
Trump’s incoming CIA director, Congressman Mike Pompeo, is a fierce critic of the Iran deal. When his name emerged as a candidate for the CIA job, he tweeted: “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” While in Congress, Pompeo sponsored many bills to increase sanctions on Iran, and even asked for a visa to visit the country to monitor the elections, but he was turned down by Tehran.
Gen. James Mattis, the future secretary of defense, did not directly oppose the deal, but did disagree with the White House and irk the West Wing by asking relentless questions over its long term impact, especially if Iran remains a foe after resolving the nuclear issue. His views on Iran were clear when he told a Center for Strategic and International Studies panel in 2016 that “Iran is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.” His views prompted those who know him to say that Iran would no longer have a “free ride” under Mattis.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s incoming national security adviser, is also tough on Iran and he believes, as he wrote in his book, that Iran is waging a “war against the West,” something that “is rooted in the nature of the Islamic Republic.”
The most recent appointee, Gen. John Kelly as head of the Department of Homeland Security, expressed concern about Iran’s and Hezbollah’s activities and infiltration in Latin America when he was the head of US Southern Command.
All of this does not mean that the Trump administration will tear up the Iran deal on his first day in office. There is lively debate in Washington over the future of the deal, as well as wider US-Iran relations. A consensus is emerging — especially among Republicans, even those who are critical of the deal and of Iran — that it would be a mistake to dismantle the agreement immediately, and not in America’s national interest to do so.
Those who led the fight against the deal, such as United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), are not calling for the deal to be torn up on Day 1. But they are calling for a step-by-step strategy to “aggressively enforce and renegotiate the deal beyond the confines of the nuclear issue to make it better for us and the world,” former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of UANI, and the group’s Chief Executive Mark Wallace, wrote in The Washington Post. But they are also signaling that the US is willing to work with Iran and even normalize relations with it if Iran curbs its regional aggression and domestic repression of human rights.
In recent a panel held in Congress, former Sen. Lieberman saw in the Trump administration a “sea change in the right direction” on Iran.
But Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced that the next Congress will continue its oversight, will hold Iran accountable.
Other voices in Congress counseled the new administration to be careful in talking about destroying the deal. Congressman Eliot Engle advised the US not “to cut off your nose to spite your face.” But Engle said it is important for the US to make sure Iran fulfills its commitments on the deal and to monitor the situation until the threat is “dissipated.”
Other experts also advised the new administration to focus on Iran’s “malign” activities both domestically and in the region, and suggested designating the Revolutionary Guards as a whole as a terrorist organization, and not only its Quds Force as is the case now.
UANI endorsed that designation and suggested that President Trump could “support legislation in Congress punishing sectors of the Iranian economy that support Iran’s ballistic missile program,” and “propose measures to curb Iranian access to the US dollar.”
The debate here aims at influencing the thinking of the upcoming administration on Iran and the Iran deal. But whether President Trump will tear up, renegotiate or keep the deal as is remains to be seen. Former Sen. Lieberman said “Trump is unpredictable for the Iranians, and the allies, and he has tools in his box to deal with this issue.” It is not clear what tool President Trump will pull out, but what is obvious is that it will not be business as usual not only for Iran but for the whole world.
• Dr. Amal Mudallali is an American policy and international relations analyst.