What does Trump’s emerging team signal for Iran?

Trump administra­tion signals great uncertainty for US policy towards Iran, and — overall — Trump team will find many Arab supporters.

Trump described JCPOA as 'worst deal ever negotiated'


2016/12/11 Issue: 85 Page: 12


The Arab Weekly
Sabahat Khan



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.


Sabahat Khan is a senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).


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