On Tuesday, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations delivered testimony to the House panel on foreign operations, a subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee in the US House of Representatives. In that testimony, Haley addressed multiple issues relating to the Islamic Republic of Iran, thereby reasserting the Trump administration’s assertive policies toward the Iranian regime. By most accounts those policies are still emerging, but they have already come to include purposive outreach to other adversaries of the Islamic Republic and a program of expanded sanctions on matters such as Iran’s ballistic missile program.
However, those efforts to confront and contain the Islamic Republic are arguably complicated by other aspects of the Trump administration’s policy commitments, including a focus on domestic issues and an effort to improve relations between the US and Russia, which boasts close relations with Iran in the areas of trade and military cooperation, especially as it relates to the Syrian Civil War.
While the US supports moderate rebel groups fighting against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, the Iranians and Russians have been credited with turning the war in favor of Assad. Various Shiite militias are currently operating as proxies for Iran in that war, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is increasingly playing a direct role in the conflict. Meanwhile, Russia has been providing air support for pro-Assad ground operations since 2015.
Western commentators, including officials in the Trump administration, have variously accused Russia and Iran of ignoring or actively facilitating human rights abuses by the Assad regime, including an April chemical weapons attack that killed at least 80 people in a rebel-controlled civilian area.
As the Associated Press points out, Ambassador Haley’s comments to the House panel came shortly after the White House had issued a warning to Syria regarding alleged preparations for another such chemical attack. The article specified that Pentagon officials had confirmed the intelligence underlying that warning, involving particular movements at the same Syrian air base that had been used as the staging area for the previous chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said of Assad that “he and his military will pay a heavy price” if they follow through with apparent plans for another “mass murder attack using chemical weapons.” But the AP quoted Haley as saying that the administration’s remarks were not intended only for Assad, but also for Russia and Iran. Both of the Syrian allies joined in denying Assad’s responsibility for the attacks, with some officials insisting that the chemical weapons had originated in a rebel warehouse at the site of a conventional military airstrike.
The dispute over this issue and the subsequent US cruise missile strike on Shayrat air base can be seen as early examples of the escalation between Iranian allies and adversaries which is still going on to this day. In fact, Haley’s effort to fold Russia and Iran into a warning directed more explicitly against Syria is reminiscent of an incident earlier in June wherein a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said that a ballistic missile strike on eastern Syria had been intended largely as a warning to the US and Saudi Arabia.
Those two traditional adversaries of the Islamic Republic have been expanding relations under the Trump administration, sometimes with explicit reference to shared anxieties over expanding Iranian influence and meddling in the broader Middle East. President Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May for an Arab-US summit coincided with the signing of trade agreements that included 110 billion dollars in arms sales to the Arab Kingdom.
But at the same time that the White House is openly siding with Saudi Arabia and its regional allies against the Iranian regime, it does not appear to be giving up on the prospect of improved relations with Russia. In fact, the Western strategy for a political solution to the Syrian Civil War seems to presently involve the expectation that Russia can be encouraged to rein in the Islamic Republic and prevent it from further sabotaging ceasefire agreements.
Recent developments have cast doubt upon the practicality of this strategy however. As the US has taken a more direct role in defending rebel groups, even resorting to the shoot-down of at least two military controlled drones and a Syrian warplane, Russia has responded by threatening to target US aircraft and to halt the use of a hotline intended to prevent mid-air collisions between the multiple powers operating in the skies over Syria.
Haley’s comments on Tuesday were indicative of a roughly matching increase in American criticism of Russia. And this criticism was not limited to the issue of chemical weapons. Haley also explained that Russia’s position on the UN Security Council allowed it to stymie US efforts to sanctions Iran and hold it to account for ongoing misbehavior in matters including the development of the Iranian nuclear program.
“[The Iranians are] going to continue their nuclear capabilities and we just gave them a lot of money to do it with,” Haley said, referring to the 2015 nuclear agreement that President Trump has described as “the worst deal ever negotiated.” She went on to highlight concerns about Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, suggesting that nuclear weapons could find their way into the hands of terrorist groups at some point in the future, and that Russia would effectively prevent the US and its allies from doing anything to stop this.
“Yes, we would love to sanction Iran; and, yes we will continue to be loud about it; and, yes, Russia will veto it,” Haley said, according to the Washington Examiner.
But this is not to say that the Trump administration has positively brought an end to its strategy of attempting to improve relations with Russia. In fact, various reports suggest that this endeavor is even standing in the way of congressional legislation aimed at increasing national-level sanctions on both Iran and Russia. The Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act passed the Senate two weeks ago by a margin of 98 to 2, but it was subsequently stalled in the House on procedural grounds, leading Democrats to argue that the House Republican leadership was trying to protect the president’s Russian agenda.
The prospects for resolution appeared to grow dimmer on Tuesday when the Washington Post reported that energy lobbyists were urging lawmakers to reevaluate the bill on the grounds that its restrictions on doing business with Russian companies could have a punishing effect on American firms and foreign firms doing business in the US. These objections could bolster the prospects of the House leadership sending the bill to various committees for review and markup – a process that could delay a final vote by months.
As it concerns Iran, the bill would include sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile activities and also extend all terrorism-related sanctions to the Revolutionary Guard Corps, for which Trump has urged designation as a foreign terrorist organization. This position has not changed, and it seems that neither has the Trump administration’s hardline approach to Iran policy. Some have suggested that the emerging policy is pointing in the direction of regime change, though this has not become a declared position as yet.
The Washington Examiner pointed out that one member of the House panel on foreign operations, Republican Representative Hal Rogers, had directly raised the prospect of regime change on Tuesday, asking Nikki Haley whether it is an option. The ambassador’s only response was “I don’t know.”
This coming Saturday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran will hold its annual Free Iran rally, which will include explicit calls for regime change driven by a domestic opposition movement within the Islamic Republic. The event is expected to be attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates, plus hundreds of policymakers and experts from the US, Europe, and throughout the world. Notably, these dignitaries will include figures with close ties to the Trump administration, such as John Bolton, who served the second Bush administration in the position now occupied by Haley.