What does Trump’s emerging team signal for Iran?
Dubai - When US President-elect Donald Trump takes office, his Middle East policy will hinge critically on how his administration decides to deal with Iran over its activities in Syria, Yemen and Iraq among many other places.
US President Barack Obama ultimately decided that appeasement with Tehran was the best course to safeguard US interests, an approach that culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany) in July 2015.
For Obama and his supporters, the JCPOA heralded their greatest foreign policy achievement and his team has vigilantly guarded the deal since. There was a perception that JCPOA opened space for broader US-Iran rapprochement but the advent of the Trump administration is throwing doubt of not only any potential détente between the United States and Iran but also the JCPOA itself.
During his election campaign, Trump described the JCPOA as “the worst deal ever negotiated”. Trump’s nominee for the director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, who previously propagated military action against Iranian nuclear facilities, has vowed to overturn the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump’s nominee to lead the Pentagon, James Mattis, knows the region well. A retired Marine general, Mattis led the United States’ military command for the Middle East and saw action in Afghanistan as well as Iraq.
Mattis regards Iran as a rogue state and the “single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East”. He has charged the Obama administration with naivety in its dealing with Iran.
Consider also Trump’s pick for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, a retired army lieutenant-general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), who will exert great influence over how the national security apparatus in the United States is shaped and managed under Trump.
Flynn was reportedly forced out of the DIA for his poor leadership skills and low tolerance for opposing views and opinions. He says the Middle East has failed to accept modernity and cites Islam as the reason, having described the religion as a “cancer” and sharia law as “buried in barbaric conviction”. Flynn’s views on Islam are dangerous but, given Israel’s identification of Iran as its greatest threat, Tehran will especially feel the heat.
Flynn has talked about Israel living “under the threat of total annihilation” from Iran, which he says “has every intention to build a nuclear weapon” in light of “their continued preparedness to weaponise a missile for nuclear delivery”.
As such, the Trump administration signals great uncertainty for US policy towards Iran, and — overall — the Trump team will find many Arab supporters in the region fed up with Iran and its growing influence.
However, as Ali Larijani, Iran’s parliamentary chairman and former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, recently warned, supposing rhetoric as actual policy or accepting US-Iran confrontation as inevitable is premature.
Larijani’s view has some basis. The outgoing CIA director, John Brennan, recently made a carefully timed public disclosure in warning Trump that ditching the JCPOA would be “the height of folly” with “disastrous” consequences.
In fact, Trump himself has recognised the difficulty of overturning the JCPOA, which is a multilateral agreement. Mattis has accepted the JCPOA but only as an “imperfect arms control agreement”. He said: “If nothing else at least, we will have better targeting data if it comes to a fight in the future.”
Such an assessment is shared widely in the American political and security establishment and, while the Obama administration has temporarily decoupled the Iran nuclear issue from others, this approach falls apart unless it is seen as leading towards a broader resolution of strategic disputes.
Mattis says that Iran remains the United States’ main regional foe and identifies Tehran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria, patronage of Shia militias, its ballistic missile programme and its growing anti-ship capabilities in the Gulf as strategic threats.
The JCPOA only provided confidence building to probe towards wider US-Iran rapprochement rather than an actual framework.
Iran is happy with the bargain if the JCPOA is kept separate from other issues as has been the case until now. However, although the nuclear deal was successfully reached only after it was separated from other disputes, the JCPOA only achieves its greatest strategic value for the Americans if it is able to facilitate rather than restrict the resolution of these outstanding issues with Iran.
The inherent risk for the United States is that pushing Iran on other strategic issues when Tehran has the political support of Moscow, Beijing and various European governments for adhering to its fundamental commitments in the JCPOA to sufficient extent endangers the JCPOA itself.
The Trump administration’s Iran hawks will need to work out how they can develop an Iran policy that moderates Iran’s regional role and actions. In doing so, they will be forced to think about whether they want to continue nurturing and rewarding moderates such as Iranian President Hassan Rohani or whether they think that is inconsequential.
The latter appears more likely with the Trump administration’s inclinations, and, as such, unlike with Obama’s approach to Iran, timelines and red lines with Iran will be more important under Trump.