US fires opening shots in confrontation with Iran
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.”