US fires opening shots in confrontation with Iran

Sunday 23/04/2017
New sheriff in town. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a news conference on Iran in the Treaty Room of the State Department in Washington, o n April 19. (AFP)

Washington - Three months into its term, the Trump admin­istration has fired rhe­torical opening shots in its dealings with Iran, an issue likely to shape Washington’s Middle East policy in the coming years.

Statements by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Defence Secretary James Mattis suggest that Washington is determined to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East. Observers say the Trump administration is likely to avoid a direct military showdown with Tehran and is not expected to end the nuclear agreement with Tehran, even though US President Donald Trump has called the ac­cord the “worst deal ever.”

Tillerson, in a speech in Wash­ington, warned of “Iran’s alarming and ongoing provocations that ex­port terror and violence, destabi­lising more than one country at a time.” He renewed US accusations that Iran was responsible “for in­tensifying multiple conflicts and undermining US interests in coun­tries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon and continuing to support attacks against Israel.”

The international agreement designed to keep Iran from de­veloping nuclear weapons “fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran,” Tillerson charged. He said the administration was re­viewing American policies towards Tehran.

In a statement issued a day be­fore Tillerson’s speech, the State Department confirmed “that Iran is compliant through April 18 with its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” or JCPOA, as the nuclear deal is known.

Iran rejected Tillerson’s speech and pointed to the State Depart­ment statement. “Worn-out US ac­cusations can’t mask its admission of Iran’s compliance w/JCPOA,” Ira­nian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif posted on Twitter.

Mattis used a visit to Saudi Ara­bia to criticise Iran’s role in the conflict in Yemen, where Tehran-backed Houthi rebels have been fighting a coalition led by Riyadh. “We will have to overcome Iran’s efforts to destabilise yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbol­lah but the bottom line is we are on the right path for it,” Mattis said.

The tough talk by Tillerson and Mattis masks an acceptance of po­litical realities, analysts said. They said the Trump administration is aware that a unilateral decision to walk away from the JCPOA would leave the United States isolated, as its partners, especially the Europe­an countries involved, would stick to the agreement.

One reason behind the rheto­ric from the administration is that Washington wants to reassure US allies in the Middle East who felt betrayed by US President Barack Obama’s decision to cut the nu­clear deal with Iran. “America’s message is: There’s a new sheriff in town,” said Alex Vatanka, an ana­lyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

For all its fiery words, the US ad­ministration is expected to keep JCPOA alive. “All the indications are that the Trump administration will abide by the agreement,” said Gary Samore, executive director for research at Harvard’s Belfer Centre for Science and Internation­al Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government. For Iran, there was “no advantage to be gained by blowing up the agreement” either, he added.

By accepting the JCPOA, the US government is inviting questions about how this position can be squared with Trump’s campaign pledge to tear up the agreement. Given that promise, it was unclear what the purpose of the review mentioned by Tillerson would be, Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official, said. “What is there to review?” he asked.

With the JCPOA secure at least for now, Washington is embarking on efforts to limit Iran’s regional influ­ence, especially in Yemen, Samore said. Trump is also facing the chal­lenge to weaken Tehran’s roles in the Syrian conflict and in Iraq.

As Washington grapples with different and complex situations connected to Iran at the same time, working out a comprehensive plan to deal with the country will be dif­ficult. “There is no Trump grand strategy on Iran,” Vatanka said. The challenge was to find an approach making sure that “if you do some­thing on the nuclear issue, you don’t hurt yourself elsewhere.”

The acceptance of the nuclear deal by both countries and a will­ingness on both sides to steer clear of a direct military confrontation is creating a framework for US-Ira­nian relations, Vatanka said. Iran’s upcoming presidential election is unlikely to change this, he said, adding: “Even the most hard-line candidate would stick to the agree­ment.”

Rubin said the United States should concentrate on the year 2025 when the JCPOA expires and limits on Iranian research of nucle­ar enrichment are lifted.

Unfortunately, Washington was not ready to do so, Rubin said: “That is a question that Trump is not interested in and the adminis­tration is not yet staffed to handle.”