Is a US-Iran confrontation under Trump inevitable?
Dubai - During the US presidential elections in 2016, the issue of Iran was predictably a key theme in foreign policy debates among candidates. Donald Trump, out of all his rivals, was arguably the toughest on Iran, going further than charging it as the world’s leading sponsor of terror by promising to dismantle the “disastrous” nuclear agreement and telling voters he would “stand up” to Iran.
Under US President Barack Obama, Iran grew its regional influence without facing a significant strategic cost. Iran effectively used the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers — to deflect US pressure to other strategic areas of disagreement, arguably achieving a net strategic gain.
While the United States was not a net loser with the JCPOA per se, time and regional trajectories favoured Iran, especially given the low probability of any US-Iranian rapprochement progressing beyond JCPOA, which constituted a tentative step given Iran’s regional strategy and goals.
As a result, the JCPOA survived the full course of the Obama presidency but so did multiple unresolved strategic US-Iran disputes, which were inherited by the White House’s following administration. The most significant threats to American strategic interests in the Middle East have undeniably emanated from Iran for many years and the United States has struggled to find a comprehensive policy to convincingly address such challenges.
Under Obama, much of the Arab street — especially in the Gulf — was convinced that an American-Iranian conspiracy was under way against Sunni Arabs. It was that difficult for Arab leaderships to understand why the world’s only military superpower was unable to wrestle a much smaller power to protect its regional interests or those of its partners. Confidence in the United States’ ability to reliably dispense the functions of a regional security guarantor is only now being rebuilt.
The election of Trump provided a much-desired break from the policies and approach of the Obama administration towards Iran for American partners in the Middle East. Iran is a challenge that Trump needed a strategy for sooner or later but his strategy is unlikely to resemble the type of scattered approach employed by Obama.
Trump was quick to fire warning shots at Iran over the JCPOA and its ballistic missile programme after taking office before Iran seemingly became a backburner issue. The FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials and the deteriorating security environment on the Korean Peninsula shifted the United States’ focus away from Iran. However, the tough-line rhetoric on Iran was sustained and while the United States under Trump has not abandoned the JCPOA, it has left much room open for renewed economic sanctions that relate to issues other than Iran’s nuclear programme.
The Trump administration has taken longer than usual to settle into office. However, as Trump works through the process of filling key posts, especially in the US State Department, positions relevant to the new US policy towards Iran are largely being filled by individuals far more hawkish on Iran.
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis is a highly qualified expert on Iran and will have strong views on the level of urgency and US military means necessary to counter Iran. Having served as commander of US Central Command, which oversees an area of responsibility covering the entire Middle East, during the height of US operations in Iraq, Mattis has seen Iran’s regional footprint go deeper into Syria and Yemen. Mattis has retained relationships with regional leaders and is keen to cap Iranian influence by reversing its regional gains and supporting the development of a regional counterbalancing force.
Perhaps a recent turning point was the Arab Islamic American Summit hosted by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh, which provided an international forum for Trump to share his new approach towards Iran and religious extremists. Trump met Riyadh’s expectations, once again calling out Iran as the leading sponsor of terrorism in the world and reiterating his ultimatum to Iran to change its behaviour.
Trump’s rhetoric is slowly taking real shape. Since the summit, Riyadh has gotten to work on driving a new, proactive approach to regional developments as it looks to win back lost ground from Iran. Its break-off from Qatar, though not entirely motivated by the Iranian factor, demonstrates how serious Riyadh is about building strategic momentum for confronting Iran. American partners in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, especially, may well find greater success in influencing US regional policy vis-à-vis Iran than ever before.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee about the administration’s “support” to “elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” The comments, suggesting the United States has not dropped its pursuit of regime change in Iran, drew the ire of Tehran. Tillerson also spoke about designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organisation, a move that would significantly raise the geopolitical stakes.
Although Trump’s policy on Iran is not a finished package, it is becoming clearer. In the meantime, intensifying anti-US rhetoric from Iran is more than tit-for-tat and points to Iran’s growing unease at the prospect that Trump, despite his business instincts, may not be looking to cut deals with Tehran the way his predecessor did. Given the extent of US-Iran disputes and the stark divergence in views on which way the region should move in the future, Trump has little incentive to engage with Iran.
On the contrary, Trump and his core team are likely to find that there are far greater political gains to be made by taking on Iran in ways the United States has been reluctant to in the past. Though a military confrontation is not in the cards, broadened economic sanctions are and the United States is likely to seek opportunities to punish Iran indirectly, possibly targeting its proxies more strongly than previously.