It was mostly the style and timing of last week’s warning to Iran by Donald Trump’s administration that was unexpected. The short statement in the White House briefing room by the president’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn ended with a chilling but ambiguous: “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”
It took place while Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis was on route to East Asia, and just a few hours before Trump’s choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was confirmed by Senate.
Among recent Iranian actions, the new US administration highlighted in its ultimatum Iran’s latest ballistic missile test. In the view of US officials, the test defied UN Security Council Resolution 2231 of July 2015, which “calls upon” Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”
Proponents of a thaw in US-Iran relations were quick to emphasize that Iran’s ballistic missile tests do not violate Resolution 2231, although a good case can be made that these tests mock the spirit of the nuclear deal.
Antipathy toward Iranian regime
If there were any doubts that a Trump administration would mean significant change to US-Iran relations when compared to the Obama years, these dissipated during the Senate hearings on Trump’s nominees for secretaries of state and defense.
Flynn himself reportedly has a longstanding antipathy toward the Iranian regime. In his co-authored book published last year, “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies,” the president’s national security adviser made the case that Iran has played a crucial role in the spread of extremism and must be countered.
Yet, the view among top officials in the Trump administration that Iran’s hard-liners represent a strategic threat to the US and its regional allies does not fully explain what seems to be a sudden return to the old state of affairs between Washington and Tehran.
Renewal of tensions
Despite the clumsy style of the new administration, things would probably not have been much different if, instead of the Trump, Obama’s successor was Hillary Clinton or another figure from DC’s establishment. Given Obama’s Middle East legacy, in particular the appeasement toward the Iranian regime, any attempt by the new administration to set limits to Iran’s aggressive actions would always be perceived in Tehran as an unacceptable and hostile move.
After Obama, any attempt by the Trump administration to set limits to Iran’s aggressive actions would be perceived as a hostile move.
The renewal of tensions between the US and Iran is, at least to an extent, an inevitable outcome of the idea relentlessly pursued by the Obama administration that the nuclear deal could be insulated from all other regional developments. France, Germany and the UK also went along, lured by the prospects of lucrative deals for their companies in Iran, the last big emerging market to open up to the West.
The key Western powers involved in the negotiations should have gone to great lengths to capitalize on the nuclear deal and call on the Iranian regime and its hard-line backers — so far the chief beneficiaries of the deal’s economic impact — to moderate its behavior and compromise on various fronts. Instead, Western leaders chose to believe that the nuclear deal would, through the attractive power of economic interdependence, eventually turn Iran’s hard-liners and the Revolutionary Guard into reasonable interlocutors.
This has proven to be a costly mistake. Iranian forces and pro-Iranian militias have played a central role in the genocide orchestrated by the Syrian regime, causing a massive refugee wave that has threatened stability in Europe and given ammunition to all sorts of populists and demagogues. Recent news that the various pro-Iranian militias in Iraq are opening offices in Sunni areas liberated from Daesh are only the latest testament of how Iran is replicating Lebanon’s Hezbollah experience elsewhere. Sunni Arabs are paying the highest price, a gift to Sunni radical groups.
A military confrontation?
Are the US and Iran heading toward military confrontation? Trump himself and administration officials have subsequently elaborated on Flynn’s statement, stating that all options are on the table, and imposed new sanctions on several Iranian officials and entities involved in the procurement of material for the missile testing. Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani and Ali Akbar Velayati, senior adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, downplayed the event, accused the new president of inexperience and vowed to conduct more tests.
Despite the mutual antipathy, both parties understand that an armed conflict between the US and Iran would be catastrophic for them and the region. However, we are entering dangerous terrain. Iranian hard-liners had it too easy with Obama and any actions by the Trump administration to impose checks on Iran’s regional actions will make them feel vindicated.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a leading political analyst, providing research and consultancy services focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.