On Tuesday, a video feature at the Wall Street Journal summarized the assessment given to the paper by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates regarding the likely foreign policy confrontations that President Donald Trump would face very early in his term of office. Perhaps quite predictably, especially in light of recent provocative gestures and statements on both sides, Iran seemed to top that list. This was however followed closely by North Korea, as well as China and Russia.
The video clarified that potential further conflicts with Iran or North Korea would presumably be undertaken deliberately by the president, even if in response to clear aggression from one of those adversaries. Any crisis involving Russia and China, by contrast, would probably be the result of an unsought and unanticipated clash that escalates on its own. Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal names China right alongside Iran as a major enemy of the Trump administration. And this situation was underscored by the USA Today in an article that reported on “showy and provocative military drills” that had been undertaken by both Iran and China in the wake of Trump’s early foreign policy gestures.
In the past, the two nations had carried out some joint naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf, in a testament to their burgeoning alliance, which also involves contributions from Russia. In the present case, the Iranian and Chinese activities are separate from each other, but were arguably initiated in response to the same foreign policy circumstances vis-à-vis the United States. While the Chinese tested a new missile, the Iranians followed up on an earlier ballistic missile test by conducting public military exercises and presenting what the regime claimed to be new advanced weaponry.
Iran’s activities were underscored by belligerent statements regarding the country’s prospective response to provocations by “the enemy,” a term that regime hardliners frequently use to refer to the US. Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Aerospace Force said, “If the enemy makes a mistake our roaring missiles will hit their targets.”
Mojtaba Zonour, a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian parliament, used very similar language, saying that a variety of potential targets liked to the US or its allies, including the Bahrain-based US Navy 5th Fleet, were “within the range of Iran's missile systems” and would be “razed to the ground if the enemy makes a mistake.”
These statements and the associated demonstrations coincided closely with other, goading public statements from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The nation’s absolute clerical authority issued a sarcastic message of thanks to President Trump, crediting him with exposing the “real face of the United States.” The Washington Post notes that Khamenei referenced a falsely-identified photograph purporting to show a five-year-old child handcuffed by authorities in the wake of Trump’s travel ban targeting Iran and six other Muslim majority countries, which led to some green card holders being barred admittance to the US before the order was suspended by a federal court. But although the particular photograph was not relevant to the case, some commentators worried that the travel ban would play into the hands of the Iranian leadership. And Khamenei’s statement, which attempted to portray the US as a violator of human rights, shows that the leadership is indeed trying to leverage it for that purpose.
But the apparent flip-side of the travel ban is that it is one indicator of a commitment on the part of the Trump administration to a more assertive foreign policy, and one that actively confronts perceived threats to American security interests, including those seen as coming from Iran. That commitment was underscored by the administration’s own statements last week putting Iran “on notice” over its provocative regional behaviors. The initial statement by National Security Advisor Michael Flynn came a few days after the Revolutionary Guards carried out a new test of a medium-range ballistic missile. The administration followed up shortly thereafter by imposing new economic sanctions on 25 individuals and firms linked to the missile program.
On one hand, the statements by Khamenei, the IRGC, and the Iranian parliament seem to reject the pressure that those sanctions seek to impose. But on the other hand, those statements are only words and it is not yet clear whether those words will align with the regime’s actual behavior. The uncertainty was amplified on Tuesday when Fox News reported that satellite imagery had shown the launch pad for the January 29 ballistic missile test being cleared off and readied for a new launch, only for the unused missile to be removed from the pad in what Fox described as “a surprising about-face.”
Fox News acknowledges that the reasons for this move are unknown, but until more information is revealed, it is quite possible that the Iranians stepped back from planned escalations, as a response to the new sanctions or the larger contextual threat. This possibility is reinforced by Iran’s apparent efforts to downplay the significance of the recent ballistic missile test, which the leadership now says was not intended as a message to the new US president.
This supposed clarification was detailed by Reuters. And while it was couched in terms that were still notably aggressive toward the US and the West, it also attempted to argue that the diplomatic situation had not changed on the Iranian side, and that any actions taken in the near future by the Trump administration would be the result of commitments he had made before even taking office. It is not yet clear what impact these sorts of statements might have on international perceptions of the status of Iranian-US relations. But the Trump administration may stand to accrue greater benefits if those Iranian “clarifications” are read against the clear threats coming out of the supreme leader’s office and the IRGC.
In the meantime, however, the Trump administration may face an uphill battle to convince traditional US allies of the value of joining him in a more assertive approach to Iran policy. At least, this was the message of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whom Agence-France Presse quoted as commenting on the probability that the Trump administration will look for a way to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal that had been spearheaded by President Obama, and that the Trump campaign repeatedly referred to as one of the worst deals ever negotiated.
Zarif said that such renegotiation was off the table, and he appears to be correct in concluding that every other participant in the seven-party agreement except for the US is in agreement with Iran’s view that the deal is final and immutable. In spite of this, Zarif apparently recognized the Trump administration’s passion for this issue when he said that he foresaw “difficult days ahead” for Iran’s relations with the US.
And even though the world community is for now on the side of defending the nuclear deal in its current form, there are numerous commentators throughout the US and Europe who were thoroughly frustrated by the Obama administration’s Iran policy and are now looking for drastic and assertive change under the leadership of President Trump. This was the apparent message of one Fox News article that urged the new administration to reveal the contents of so-called “secret side-deals” to the nuclear agreement.
The continued absence of this kind of transparency may be grounds for some Iran-policy watchers to question whether the Trump administration truly plans to follow through on its commitments to confronting and constraining the Islamic Republic. Although the aforementioned Fox News report tentatively gives the administration credit for halting or delaying a planned Iranian missile launch, this one says that the newest sanctions on the ballistic missile program are only an extension of the same strategies utilized by the Obama administration.
The Obama White House did indeed impose new sanctions on one ballistic missile launch that took place soon after the conclusion of nuclear negotiations. But several other tests were carried out in subsequent months, and apparently met with little to no consequence. Both before and after the transition to the Trump administration, political groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran have urgently pushed the US government to re-apply sanctions-based leverage on the Islamic Republic, especially by focusing attention on powerful hardline entities like the Revolutionary Guards.
On one hand, it has been suggested that the Trump administration might be more receptive than any of its predecessors to the positions of the Iranian Resistance that is led by the NCRI. But on the other hand, uncertainty will no doubt persist until it is clear what actions the administration will take beyond these initial sanctions. In fact, the Washington Free Beacon provided still more reason for uncertainty when it reported that the Republican Congress had put forth a tax plan that would provide tens of millions of dollars’ worth of savings for the Seattle-based aircraft manufacturer Boeing, despite its controversial deal to sell dozens of commercial jets to the Islamic Republic.
That deal had been opposed by some Republicans and by other opponents of the Iranian regime, in large part because of the IRGC’s long history of using the Iranian commercial fleet as a cover for the smuggling of weapons and fighters into foreign combat zones and regions controlled by terrorist proxies.
The Free Beacon declared that this tax plan “runs counter to declarations by the Trump administration, which has vowed to get tough on Iran and stop its illicit procurement of weapons and missile technology.” But it is also worth noting that the president has neither signed nor weighed in on the plan as of this writing. And until he does, the plan cannot be construed as evidence against Trump’s intentions to follow through on tough talk, although it does remain as a notable question mark.
Still, the president will surely continue to face a great deal of pressure from opponents of the Iranian regime as he charts his way forward on Iran policy. These opponents include Saudi Arabia, whose head of state Trump spoke with on Sunday, and Israel, whose prime minister will be meeting with Trump in the days ahead. As well as keeping pressure on Trump for a hardline Iran policy, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently spoke out on a visit to the UK, according to CNN, urging all “responsible nations” to elaborate upon the initial sanctions measures that were implemented by the Trump administration.
While collaborating with these and other critics of Iran, the Trump administration will almost certainly continue to be emboldened by Iran’s own provocations, if the statements by Khamenei and the IRGC are any indicator. However, recent developments also suggest the possibility that those provocations may remain limited to bombastic statements as the regime questions whether further missile tests will in fact spur assertive American reprisals.