Tensions between Tehran and Washington are at their highest in years; dangerously so, some commentators claim. Whereas top officials in former President Barack Obama’s administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry, were set on easing Iran’s entry into the community of nations, President Donald Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis has long warned that Iran “is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace.”
Likewise, at the start of Trump’s presidency, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn told the White House press corps that Iran was “on notice,” pinpointing its destabilizing activities in the Middle East. Trump later said “nothing was off the table” in response to Iran’s provocative missile launch, which it claims is outside the purview of the nuclear agreement.
Yet the Trump administration’s objectives are not clear. Does its rhetoric pack a punch, or is it merely designed to intimidate the ayatollahs into renegotiating the deal? Would Trump’s America wage war to defend its red lines when Obama stepped back? Will Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei back down?
Much depends on Iran’s ally Moscow, which has emerged as a pivotal regional player, and on the relationship ultimately forged between Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Another factor to consider is the EU, whose leaders have been actively courting Iran for its purchasing power, and who assert that until now Tehran has stuck to the terms of the nuclear deal. Unless the EU is on board, US sanctions will have little effect.
Iranians, feeling the icy wind heading in their direction, are confused and disappointed. President Hassan Rouhani’s red-carpet treatment in Paris and Rome during his European shopping spree seems a world away. Others believe Trump’s belligerent comments are a gift to Iranian conservatives, who will argue: “We told you America can’t be trusted.”
Obama’s promise of US-Iranian detente, like so many others, has come to naught. Iran stepped out of former President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” only to be hurtled back onto its doorstep overnight.
He misguidedly set the scene for a tinderbox liable to erupt in conflict by throwing the concerns of America’s tried and true regional allies under the bus in his rush to get Iran to sign on the dotted line.Linda S. Heard
Up to a million Iranians rallied in the streets shouting “Death to America” during their country’s recent celebration of the Islamic revolution, some holding up unflattering caricatures of Trump.
They were egged on by Khamenei, who was quoted as saying: “Trump says ‘you should be afraid of me.’ No! The Iranian people will respond to his words ... and will show their stance against such threats.” How long Khamenei will maintain a defiant posture, faced with the potential of US military might, is anyone’s guess.
But there were also those carrying banners that read: “Down with the US regime. Long live the US people.” Iranians, with the exception of hardcore nationalists, are just as much a victim of their regime as Arab countries impacted by Iranian expansionist ambitions.
Obama misguidedly set the scene for a tinderbox liable to erupt in conflict by throwing the concerns of America’s tried and true regional allies under the bus in his rush to get Iran to sign on the dotted line. It is unsurprising that some of those allies harbored suspicions that some kind of geopolitical grand bargain had been reached, particularly as some aspects of the deal were kept secret.
Trump is right to say it is a very bad deal. It is far too narrow, focusing only on limiting Iran’s capability of launching a nuclear weapons program for 10 years when, according to Khamenei, it had no intention of doing so in the first place. The nuclear watchdog substantiated the fact that Iran’s efforts to produce nuclear weapons were curtailed in 2003.
So for relinquishing a program it did not have to begin with, Iran was enriched to the tune of some $150 billion, emboldened and legitimized. The promise of cementing full diplomatic relations with Washington down the road did nothing to convince the ayatollahs to mend their aggressive ways or dampen their ambitions to hold sway over Arab capitals, whether directly or via proxy militias.
The underlying problem with Iran is the regime itself, one that was facilitated by Western intelligence agencies that saw the shah as getting too big for his boots. Ruhollah Khomeini was sheltered by France in exile, and tapes of his speeches were smuggled into Iran by Western diplomats and broadcast by the BBC, dubbed by Iranians as “The Ayatollah BBC.” The subsequent revolution was hijacked by Islamists who turned against their benefactors.
Another war is not the answer. This region has suffered enough from death and destruction, and as Forbes magazine points out, Iran could use its financial jackpot to buy nuclear warheads from North Korea. Moreover, struggling Middle East economies would go into freefall.
As long as there are countries willing to trade with Iran — including several of its nearest neighbors — additional sanctions, no matter how tough, will not have sufficient bite. The solution rests with the Iranian people, longing to be free from oppression and restrictions on their freedoms. When they choose to emerge from the dark, they will be welcomed with open arms.
• Linda S. Heard is an author and columnist specializing in Middle East affairs.