Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran, Iran..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In his frenetic first two weeks in the White House, US President Donald Trump has already succeeded in making his mark. From immigration policy to confrontations with the judicial branch, Trump has proven that his stint as president will be very different from that of his predecessors.
Trump’s break with the Obama administration has also been felt in the rebooting of US policy toward Iran.
Shortly after the Islamic Republic provoked the US by backing an attack on a Saudi naval vessel by Yemeni gunmen and one again testing ballistic missiles, the Trump administration announced new sanctions targeting individuals and entities from Iran, China, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon that are connected to the Iranian missile project.
Trump warned the Iranian leadership that they were “playing with fire” while US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said that Tehran’s “belligerent and lawless” behavior across the Middle East had only increased since it signed a deal in 2015 with six nations to curtail its nuclear arms program.
“As of today we are officially putting Iran on notice,” Flynn said, accusing the Obama administration of refusing to adequately respond to previous provocations.
The missile launches seemed to be a conscious effort to test Trump’s response. And he made it clear that new rules applied to US-Iranian relations.
It is too early to say precisely how Trump’s policy vis-a-vis Iran will differ from Obama’s. But it is safe to say that the new president has a different approach.
Obama saw the Iran nuclear agreement as one of his most important foreign policy achievements.
Under his leadership the US went out of its way to play down Iran’s aggressive behavior and violations.
The working assumption was that it was in the US’s interests to keep the deal intact and smooth over differences.
Obama was willing to do this because he saw the Iran deal as part of a larger geopolitical plan to build an international consensus with the Europeans, China and Russia. The very fact that the US was cooperating with other nations was what made the deal important. And this cooperation enabled the US to retreat from its entanglements in the Middle East.
In contrast, Trump has made clear his opposition to the agreement. While he might not be pushing actively for its annulment, from a strategic point of view Trump seems willing to risk seeing Iran renege on the deal. At the very least, the Trump administration will probably be more willing to aggressively enforce it and show zero tolerance for violations.
Should the Iranians abandon the deal, it would be their fault. America could then orchestrate a renewal of paralyzing sanctions against Iran and, eventually, perhaps, renegotiate a better agreement.
There are a number of high-profile supporters of a two-track strategy that combines strict enforcement of the existing agreement (that would lead Iran to abandon it) with a new round of negotiations with the Islamic Republic. Former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman has come out in favor as has former US ambassador to the UN Mark Wallace.
Israel also has an important role to play. First, we must share intelligence information with the US that can help in following Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Also, Israel should push to make sure that Iran and Hezbollah do not remain in Syria, on Israel’s border. The positive relations between the US and Russia can help Israel make its case.
Ultimately, weakening Iran and preventing it from asserting its influence in the region is a US interest as much as it is an Israeli one.
In contrast to the rather chaotic beginning to the Trump era in many spheres, the American reset in its relations with Iran is a welcomed development.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Trump next week in Washington, he should encourage this policy shift and provide support and assistance where relevant.