By Barbara Slavin
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to the White House next week, he is likely to find common ground with its new occupant on at least one topic: Iran.
Tough rhetoric by the Trump administration, coupled with new sanctions over missile tests and Iran’s inclusion in a controversial travel ban, signals an era of U.S. outreach to the Islamic Republic and its people is over.
Iran policy under Trump is “not accommodation but confrontation,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said at an event this week at another Washington think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. She predicted that the new administration would not rip up a landmark nuclear deal reached in 2015 but would “use it as a sledge hammer to push back at every turn” at Iran’s influential role in the Middle East.
For those who have watched U.S. policy toward Iran oscillate over the past three decades, the return to a more aggressive stance – without any evident diplomatic outreach — brings a depressing feeling of déjà vu.
In 2002, President George W. Bush included Iran in an “axis of evil” with North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The harsh rhetoric chilled tacit cooperation between the U.S. and Iran in Afghanistan and precluded potential cooperation in Iraq. It also boosted the fortunes of Iranian hardliners who reclaimed the presidency in 2005 after Mohammad Khatami, who had advocated better relations with the United States, left office.
Twelve years later, current President Hassan Rouhani, an architect of the nuclear deal, is expected to run for re-election in May. A more momentous transition will take place when Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 77 and ailing, dies.
Making Iran a White House punching bag again is sure to delight those Iranians most fearful of a positive change in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies and could skew these upcoming transitions in the direction of hardliners.
Khamenei, who supported the nuclear deal grudgingly and has made sure that its opponents continue to get a wide hearing in Iran, gave a taste of what may be to come.
Speaking Tuesday in Tehran to air force commanders, Khamenei sarcastically “thanked” Trump for the travel ban, which he said “made it easier for us to reveal the real face of the United States… Now, with everything he [Trump] is doing — handcuffing a child as young as 5 at an airport — he is showing the reality of American human rights,” Khamenei said.
The visa restrictions, imposed on Iran and six other Muslim-majority countries, were particularly counterproductive since they fell on ordinary people, not on governments.
Also of questionable value is the new macho White House rhetoric against Iran.
Michael Flynn, the new national security adviser, put Iran “on notice” last week after Iranian missile tests — a cryptic comment in the White House press room that he did not explain. Trump, meanwhile, tweeted that Iran was “playing with fire” and didn’t realize “how kind” President Obama had been.
Iran is playing with fire – they don’t appreciate how “kind” President Obama was to them. Not me!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 3, 2017
Senior White House officials, in a subsequent background call with reporters, said their intention was not to undermine the nuclear agreement but to deter Iran from further missile tests. A U.N. Security Council resolution “calls on” Iran not to test missiles that could theoretically be equipped with a nuclear warhead. The nuclear deal makes it impossible for Iran to build a nuclear weapon for more than a decade and Iran rejects the missile resolution as crippling what it sees as its legitimate defense needs.
Despite the administration’s reassurance on the nuclear deal, the agreement could unravel in an atmosphere of growing mutual hostility. An incident in the Persian Gulf between an Iranian speedboat and a U.S. Naval vessel could escalate into a wider military confrontation that would further destabilize the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has no apparent strategy for pushing back on Iranian regional influence in a way that would also meet the primary Trump goal of defeating the group that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIS).
Iran-backed militias are fighting ISIS in Iraq in close proximity with American forces and are needed to remove ISIS from Mosul. Iran is also fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad in Syria – a murderous dictator that the Trump administration appears in no hurry to replace.
In Yemen, Iran supports Houthi rebels who have attacked U.S. partner, Saudi Arabia, and overthrew a Saudi-backed government. The main beneficiary of the war so far has been a potent al-Qaeda offshoot that the Trump administration targeted in its first major military action sincetaking office – a flawed raid that killed a US Navy Seal and a number of civilians.
Critics of the Obama diplomacy with Iran have conceded that Iran has largely abided by the agreement and shifted focus to Iran’s regional activities and to the limited duration of some of the restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program.
If the Trump administration would like to renegotiate the deal – or seek a new one that addresses such concerns – it will need to use diplomatic tools and not simply sanctions and insults.
Iran-bashing has always been a popular activity in Washington, particularly on Capitol Hill. But U.S. mistakes in the past – such as the removal of Saddam – opened the way for Iran to increase its profile in the Middle East. If Trump wants to start “winning” in that complicated region, he will need to offer incentives as well as punishment to Tehran.