Diverging from his predecessor’s policy, U.S. President Donald Trump has adopted a tougher approach to Iran, a position that pleases major American allies in the Middle East.
Israel and Sunni Arab states were upset by Barack Obama’s advocacy of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement signed by the six major powers and Iran in the summer of 2015 after two years of arduous negotiations. In exchange for sanctions relief worth tens of billions of dollars, Iran agreed to freeze its controversial nuclear program for about a decade.
Critics of the deal, hailed by supporters as a landmark accord, maintained that Iran should have been forced to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure, curtail its missile program and curb its support of regional proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas.
During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Trump blasted the nuclear agreement, claiming it was “the worst deal I’ve ever seen” and suggesting it should be, at the very least, renegotiated. Having won the presidency, Trump continued to slam Iran, but stopped short of calling for the scrapping of the agreement.
Concerned by Trump’s attitude, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged him to abide by it.
Shortly after his inauguration in January, his soon-to-be-fired national security advisor, Michael Flynn, warned Iran it was officially being put “on notice” for having tested long-range ballistic missiles.
In the wake of Flynn’s veiled threat, Trump tweeted, “Iran is playing with fire — they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President (Barack) Obama was to them. Not me!”
Contrary to Trump’s assertion, the Obama administration was not “kind” to Iran, having imposed further sanctions on the Iranian regime in January 2016 as the nuclear accord went into effect and having lambasted its policies in the Middle East.
Be that as it may, Trump and his advisers argued that Obama was so intent on reaching an agreement with Iran that he toned down U.S. concerns regarding Iran’s expansionist foreign policy.
Since his election, Trump has been unsparing in his rhetorical attacks against Iran.
In April, he charged that Iran has violated the “spirit” of the agreement. He did not elaborate, but claimed it had been badly negotiated and should never have been signed.
Trump made these comments a day after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a letter to House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, certified that while Iran had complied with the agreement, the U.S. National Security Council would review its compliance in light of Iran’s backing of terrorism.
“Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods,” he wrote, presumably referring to Iran’s alliance with Syria, its support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen and its assistance to Hamas and Hezbollah.
Once the 90-day review is completed, he noted, the United States would meet “the challenges Iran poses with clarity and conviction.”
Within hours of sending the letter to Ryan, Tillerson castigated the agreement, saying it “fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran” and “only delays (Iran’s) goal of becoming a nuclear state. ”
Buoyed by Tillerson’s remarks, the chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said the Trump administration intends to tighten the screws Iran. Subsequently, Corker’s committee approved stiff new sanctions against Iran.
In a preview of what may lie ahead, Trump singled out Iran for opprobrium during his brief visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this month. “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region,” he declared, a day after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, touted by some as a moderate, won reelection. “Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate it … and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they so richly deserve.”
For his part, Tillerson said the $110 billion arms package the United States and Saudi Arabia announced was aimed at countering “malign Iranian influence” in the Middle East.
According to a recent report released by the Institute for the Study of War, Iran now possesses the means to project conventional military power for hundreds of miles beyond its border. “This capability, which very few states have, will fundamentally alter the strategic calculus and balance of power within the Middle East,” the report added.
Certainly, Israel feels Iranian pressure, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at an event in March at the Foreign Ministry marking the 25th anniversary of the bombing of Israel’s embassy in Buenos Aires, believed to have been sponsored by Tehran.
“Iran is the greatest generator of terrorism in the world and we need to fight this terror because it is just one arm of Iranian aggression, which also seeks nuclear weapons and advances its ballistic missile program,” said Netanyahu.
Iran, he noted, is responsible for more than 80 percent of Israel’s “security problems.”
It’s clear that Iran, a source of perennial Israeli concern, will preoccupy the Trump administration as well.