But while the Trump administration remains notably focused on the nuclear deal in the run-up to an October 15 deadline for certifying Iranian compliance to Congress, his animosity toward the deal is part of an overall Iran policy that is decidedly more assertive than that of his predecessor. A formal policy is expected to precede the president’s final decision on compliance certification, but officials have already indicated to the media that it will include provisions for stronger responses to Iranian provocations like the regime’s recurring ballistic missile tests and close approaches to US Navy vessels.
In previous months, it has been suggested that the White House’s Iran policy even points in the direction of advocacy for regime change. This perception was seemingly encouraged in June when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a congressional hearing that American policy toward the Islamic Republic should include promotion of those domestic Iranian voices that could help to facilitate a “peaceful transition of the government” in that country.
Small sections of Trump’s UN speech may have pointed to the persistence of this view within the foreign policy circles of the administration. ABC News reported on Tuesday that aside from his efforts to undermine the nuclear agreement, the president’s speech also appealed directly to the Iranian people.
“Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever, and the day will come when the people will face a choice,” Trump said. “Will they continue down the path of poverty, bloodshed and terror, or will the Iranian people return to the nation’s proud roots as a center of civilization, culture and wealth, where their people can be happy and prosperous once again?”
An editorial appeared in the UK’s Independent just before Trump delivered his speech, and it urged the American president to go further than he ultimately did in his outreach to the population of Iran. The article criticized Trump’s relationship with human rights issues and speculated that he would not make Iran’s human rights record a major focus of his commentary on the Islamic Republic. But the author nonetheless argued that if the US were to take this approach, it would be “needling Iran on the right topic.”
The editorial suggested that Trump use the ongoing UN General Assembly as an opportunity to convince Federica Mogherini, the head of foreign policy for the European Union, to exert serious pressure on Tehran and particularly on Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, with who she has reportedly enjoyed a special relationship since the two worked together on the nuclear agreement.
Zarif has notably denied that the Iranian nation has any human rights issues at all, and he has been accordingly ridiculed for statements to this effect. Tehran’s human rights record is well-recorded, and the Independent article highlights the fact that some figures within the Trump administration, including Tillerson, have directly called attention to this in the past.
In fact, Trump’s speech did make mention of attacks on peaceful protestors and the imprisonment of activists and journalists. But for the time being his policymaking remains firmly fixed on the nuclear agreement and efforts to reverse or counteract the attendant sanctions relief. Of course, the US is facing pushback on these efforts, even from some parties that are otherwise concerned with Iran’s malign behavior. CNN featured an interview with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, for instance. Macron declared that he would make every effort to convince the American president not to undermine a deal that Europe generally views as having been effective at its goal of slowing Iran’s nuclear progress.
Trump and other critics of the agreement would dispute this conclusion about the deal’s effectiveness, but what is equally if not more concerning to those critics is the notion that there are no clear constraints on spending of the sanctions relief Iran has secured or on the prospective profits from new business with the West. In fact, Tehran’s terrorist funding has increased since the implementation of the nuclear deal, with funding for Hezbollah in particular quadrupling from 200 million dollars to 800 million dollars per year.
This in turn is bolstering the positions of those US allies who support the strategy Trump underscored in his UN speech. On Monday, a day ahead of that speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters that he had clearly laid out how to fix the nuclear deal in a meeting with Mr. Trump. Netanyahu also indicated that Tel Aviv and Washington seemed to have similar views on the nuclear issue. The Israeli Prime Minister had previously butted heads with the Obama administration while acting as one of the strongest critics of a deal that was then still emerging.
The possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon is perceived as an existential threat by Israel, as is to be expected from Tehran’s repeated calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. On Tuesday, Newsweek reported that Israel had shot down an Iranian-made drone that had crossed into Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights, after having apparently been launched from a Syrian military base by Hezbollah. The Iran-backed Lebanese terrorist organization has developed a potential permanent foothold in Syria as a result of its contribution to the Iranian war effort in defense of recently embattled dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Informed sources note that the persistence of these sorts of activities is being highlighted by critics of the nuclear agreement, to argue that it violates the preamble of the nuclear agreement, which states that the signatories “anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” IranWire adds that Tehran and particularly President Hassan Rouhani are playing into Trump’s hands by neglecting these concerns and continuing to antagonize the West in matters unrelated to the nuclear issue.
Rouhani is set to speak before the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, where he is expected to defend the nuclear deal but avoid other controversial topics like human rights and Iranian provocations against the US.