Two months into the Trump presidency, uncertainty and confusion about U.S. foreign policy in general, and its policy in the Middle East in particular, continue to puzzle experts and decision makers around the globe. Regarding Iran, the administration has been sending mixed signals, making it difficult to understand its intended policy.
On the one hand, the new administration has continued the tough anti-Iran rhetoric that Trump adopted during his election campaign.
On Feb. 1, after Iran tested several ballistic missiles, then-national security adviser Michael Flynn put Iran “on notice” for its “provocative missile test and for its arming and training of the Houthi rebels in Yemen.” Two days later, Washington imposed sanctions on 25 individuals and entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Then, Flynn released a new statement and threatened that “the international community has been too tolerant of Iran’s bad behavior. The Trump administration will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations that threaten our interests. The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.”
On the other hand, the Trump administration has sent some signals that could be interpreted as the continuation of President Obama’s conciliatory approach toward Iran.
On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly called the nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a catastrophic deal, and in his speech to the AIPAC conference in March 2016 he declared, “my number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” However, according to numerous reports, “Senior U.S. officials have given assurances to the European Union that the Trump administration is committed to the Iranian nuclear deal.”
The administration has also confirmed that “it would continue to grant licenses to companies such as Boeing so that they can pursue multi-billion dollar deals with Iran.” In addition, according to Iranian press, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has allowed American citizens to open accounts in Iranian banks: “According to the latest ruling of OFAC, American citizens, who live in Iran and need a bank account, are allowed to open one in Iranian banks.” Iran’s leading economic website, “Donyaye-e Eghtesad,” has interpreted these two developments as Trump’s positive signals after his commitment to the nuclear deal.
These actions are viewed by Tehran as conciliatory gestures showing Trump’s desire to prime business deals over a costly confrontation with Iran. During a roundtable in Tehran that included Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Nasser Hadian, a top adviser to the Foreign Ministry asked the government “to make the necessary preparations and economic opportunities to attract Trump, as he is a pragmatist with no real partisan standing who only cares about economic interests.”
Regarding the proposal to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization, the White House seems hesitant. An administration official told Reuters that “sanctioning IRGC could backfire, strengthen the hardliners and undercut more moderate leaders such as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and encourage Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria to curtail any action against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and perhaps even sponsor actions against U.S.-backed or even American forces battling Islamic State in Iraq.”
The Trump administration’s confusing signals toward Tehran have caused concern among policy experts in Washington. As Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in the Weekly Standard, there is a contradiction between Trump’s desire for business and the need to confront Iran’s malign activities. “Does the president see ideological forces—Iran's version of Islamism—as a sufficient threat to override his obvious desire to see American trade expand? Given the central role of commerce in the president's worldview and the strong tendency of businessmen to see other businessmen non-ideologically, it's possible Trump could incline towards the conventional view: better to support Rouhani the Moderate against the ‘hardliners.’”
The contradictions in Trump’s policies are clearer in his approach to Syria; Ambassador Dennis Ross has underlined that “the Trump administration cannot say it is going to be tougher on Iran and at the same time join with the Russians in Syria. The two are mutually exclusive.”
Similarly, Gerald Feierstein, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, told the International Business Times that “Trump would like to minimize his engagement in the Middle East, except for the fight against ISIL and other violent extremist groups. If that were the case, it would strengthen Iran's hand in pursuing its efforts at regional hegemony, particularly if the fight against violent extremism includes enhanced cooperation with Russia, the Syrian regime and, by extension, Iran.”
These policies could induce the Trump administration to pursue Obama’s failed policies. Marc Gerecht has raised the alarm about such a slippery slope: “A certain momentum will develop if Trump decides to keep the nuclear deal and allow the plane contracts. If Trump becomes committed to this accord, it will take on a life of its own. If Trump decides to accept the nuclear deal and basically ignore the clerical regime's search for dominion in the Middle East, he will take the United States to where Obama was headed—just more quickly.”
Iran certainly represents a key policy dilemma for the United States, both in terms of its influence in the region as well as its nuclear program. To date, Trump’s actions toward Tehran have not matched his rhetoric, leaving many to wonder what changes if any changes we can expect with regards to this issue.
Hassan Dai is a human rights activist, political analyst and editor of the Iranian American Forum. @IranianForum
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