Trump pursues new strategy to ‘neutralise’ Iran but can it work?

October 15, 2017
Clinching consensus. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gives remarks at the State Department, in Washington, on October 13. (Reuters)

Washington- The aim of US President Donald Trump’s new Iran strategy is to “neutralise” Tehran’s influence in the Middle East and perma­nently scuttle any plans for an Ira­nian nuclear bomb. Analysts, how­ever, and even government officials are unsure whether Washington’s approach can do what years of nego­tiations before the 2015 nuclear deal could not.

“The United States’ new Iran strategy focuses on neutralising the government of Iran’s destabilising influence and constraining its ag­gression, particularly its support for terrorism and militants,” the White House said in a statement titled “President Donald J. Trump’s New Strategy on Iran,” which was posted prior to Trump’s speech on October 13.

“We will revitalise our traditional alliances and regional partnerships as bulwarks against Iranian subver­sion and restore a more stable bal­ance of power in the region,” the statement said.

As part of that strategy, Trump is asking Congress and US allies in Europe to agree to new sanctions against Tehran that would go into effect if Iran violates US demands in connection with the country’s nuclear programme and regional influence. The aim is to stop Iranian efforts to push ahead with a ballis­tic missile programme and Tehran’s support for what the statement called “material and financial sup­port for terrorism and extremism” in the Middle East.

Trump is also trying to make lim­its on Iran’s nuclear programme per­manent, while the present nuclear deal sets a time frame for some re­strictions.

Despite strong rhetoric by Trump, the administration is not pulling the United States out of the Joint Com­prehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is formally known, at least not im­mediately. The new sanctions pro­gramme is to exist alongside the JCPOA without replacing it.

Speaking before Trump’s speech, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States could still walk away from the JCPOA if the administration could not rein in Iran with the new strategy. “We may not be successful,” he said.

Trump has said the JCPOA, which was designed to halt Tehran’s nucle­ar weapons programme in exchange for a phase-out of Western econom­ic sanctions, is one of the “worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

Tillerson singled out Iran’s con­nection to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi rebels in Yemen. In a ref­erence to Iran’s involvement in the Syrian war on the side of President Bashar Assad, Tillerson criticised Iran’s “export of foreign fighters.”

The Trump administration’s main argument is that the JCPOA, negoti­ated by the United States, China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom with the Iranians two years ago, has rewarded Tehran with an end of sanctions but has not helped to check Iran’s “malign activities,” as a White House strategy paper put it.

“The previous administration’s myopic focus on Iran’s nuclear pro­gramme to the exclusion of the regime’s many other malign activi­ties allowed Iran’s influence in the region to reach a high-water mark.”

Philip Gordon, a White House coordinator for the Middle East during the JCPOA negotiations un­der Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, said it was unrealistic to ex­pect Iran to make concessions that it rejected in years of talks about the nuclear accord. “I would love to see Iran come back to the table, apolo­gise for everything and agree to all of our demands,” Gordon told ABC News. But that notion was a “fan­tasy.”

For all its anger about Iranian activities, the administration has had difficulty coming up with a new strategy. Media reports said Tillerson, Defence Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster spent considerable effort to persuade Trump to stick with the JCPOA. The Washington Post reported that Trump “threw a fit” when his advisers told him to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal in July.

Tillerson conceded that the administration was facing an uphill battle to convince Con­gress and US allies to follow Trump’s new line on Iran. “I don’t want to suggest this is a slam dunk,” he said about upcoming talks in Congress.

One difficulty for US officials is the fact that many members of Congress and European leaders are convinced that the JCPOA has been success­ful in preventing the Iranians from building a nuclear bomb. In that sense, the Trump administration is rocking the boat and risking a new confrontation with its allies and with the Iranians at a time when the world is facing a nuclear confronta­tion with North Korea. “We don’t dispute that they are under techni­cal compliance,” as far as the JCPOA criteria are concerned, Tillerson said.

Analysts expressed doubt that the new plan can work. James Dobbins, a senior fellow with the RAND Cor­poration think-tank and a former US assistant secretary of state, said in an analysis for the news website US News that Trump was trying to have it both ways.

“It may be an effort to satisfy a campaign promise while avoiding unpopular and costly consequenc­es, such as launching an open-end­ed war with Iran,” he said.

Dobbins underlined that the JCPOA was still the best way to deal with Iran. “The alternatives to the nuclear agreement are clear,” he wrote. “Either Iran will develop nuclear weapons or the United States will go to war to prevent this or both.”