Trump to maintain hard-line position against Iran

Many of the demands the United States and other countries have made on Iran are outside Rohani’s control.

Targeting the missiles. Iranian-made Emad missile is displayed during a ceremony in Tehran. (Reuters)

2017/05/28 Issue: 108 Page: 15

The Arab Weekly
Gregory Aftandilian

Washington - The re-election of Hassan Rohani as Iran’s president has done little to change US President Donald Trump’s views towards Tehran.

Rohani’s impressive re-election — he won about 57% of the vote — might have given US officials an op­portunity for a possible reset with Iran, especially given that Rohani campaigned on the need for Iran to continue to improve relations with the rest of the world.

The Trump administration, how­ever, seems keen on rolling back Iran’s influence in the Middle East and working with its Arab allies to confront Iranian activities.

Trump did not comment on Rohani’s re-election. Instead, he used the occasion of his May 21 speech in Riyadh — the day after Tehran announced the election re­sults — to denounce Iran’s policies in the region. “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen,” Trump said, “Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militia and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region.”

Trump seemed to preclude any rapprochement with Iran as long as its theocratic regime remains in power, saying: “Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”

US Secretary of State Rex Tiller­son, at a news conference with the Saudi foreign minister on May 20, held out a slight olive branch. He said he hoped Rohani would use the election victory to “dismantle Iran’s network for terrorism,” its logistical support for the “destabi­lising forces” in the region and end its ballistic missile testing as well as give Iranians the right to free speech and assembly.

Tillerson said he would be will­ing to speak with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at some point but had “no plans to call.”

Some Iran experts in the United States have noted that many of the demands the United States and other countries have made on Iran are outside Rohani’s control, being in the purview of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Is­lamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. They point out that Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Houthi rebels in Yemen oc­curred during Rohani’s first term and thus they have little confidence that Rohani would be able to alter such policies during his second term even if he wanted to.

This explains in part why the Trump administration was mute on Rohani’s re-election. The other reason is that any sign of softening towards Iran would work against Trump’s strategy of cultivating closer ties with the Sunni Arab gov­ernments he conferred with in Ri­yadh.

For example, while meeting in Ri­yadh with Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, Trump said that there would no longer be any “strains” in the US-Bahraini relationship as under the previous US administra­tion — the implication being that the United States no longer would place human rights conditions on arms sales to Bahrain because of its treatment of Shias.

Despite his hawkish stance to­wards Iran, however, Trump and his team seem to be compartmen­talising certain aspects of the Iran portfolio. Although Trump de­clared during the US presidential campaign that the Iran nuclear deal was “the worst deal” every negoti­ated, it appears that he is going to stick with it.

Trump’s advisers have reportedly told him that, because Iran is adher­ing to the deal, scuttling it would be a violation of a UN Security Council resolution and give Iran an excuse to restart its nuclear programme. The Trump administration has thus maintained sanctions relief for Iran as part of the nuclear deal package.

However, just before Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, his administration placed sanctions on seven Iranian individuals and entities involved in Iran’s missile programme, which is outside of the jurisdiction of the nuclear deal, prompting Rohani to say Iran would continue its missile programme regardless of how the United States responded.

US policy towards Iran under the Trump administration seems to be coalescing as follows: Sticking to the nuclear deal as long as Iran is adhering to it but pressuring Teh­ran over its missile programme and challenging Iranian military and in­telligence activities in the region in partnership with Arab Sunni Mus­lim allies

Although such policies will earn the United States points with Sunni allies and with Israel, they keep the idea of a true rapprochement with Tehran, for better or worse, a far distant event.

Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.

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