Trump May Move Closer to Iran’s Adversaries, and Might Also Convert its Ally

Soon after Netanyahu had delivered this message to American legislators and the general public, Donald Trump became a particularly prominent domestic voice for the same sort of criticisms, repeatedly using his presidential campaign to describe the nuclear agreement as one of the worst deals of all time. Now that Trump has officially taken over the presidency from Mr. Obama, there is natural kinship between the new White House and the Netanyahu government with regard to this issue. And that kinship was explored early this week in a telephone call between the two world leaders.

That conversation presumably contributed to Netanyahu’s subsequent remarks claiming that President Trump possessed a firm understanding of the danger that Iran poses to Israel and to the region as a whole. Netanyahu’s conclusions apparently had to do not only with Trump’s eagerness to pursue more assertive action in the nuclear sphere, but also his recognition of the Iranian regime’s naturally aggressive and combative tendencies.

Netanyahu himself delivered a speech on Friday to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, in which he began by pointing to signs of anti-Semitism in Europe and the rest of the world, but then went on to underscore the very particular danger presented to Israeli by the Iranian regime. The Algemeiner quotes him as saying, “The ayatollah regime is fanning [the] flames [of antisemitism] and calling outright for the destruction of the Jewish state.” He then went on to reiterate his government’s vow to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and other “means of mass murder.”

It remains to be seen what actual initiatives the Trump administration will pursue for the sake of supporting this aim, or in order to alter US policy toward Iran in general. But it is widely expected that he will move quickly to counteract Obama administration policies that critics decried as weak and conciliatory. The apparently friendly conversations that have taken place between the Trump White House and the Netanyahu administration bolster this perception and suggest that Trump may indulge the guidance and cooperation of some of Iran’s greatest adversaries.

There has been some speculation that the Trump administration, in addition to restoring damaged relations with Israel, may also reverse the longstanding marginalization of Iranian resistance groups, chiefly the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. Much of this speculation has arisen from the fact that some of Trump’s earliest or strongest supporters within mainstream American politics are also well-known supporters of the PMOI. These include former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton. Both have spoken at the PMOI’s annual summertime rally in Paris, as well as advocating for the group within US political circles.

To whatever extent these and other such figures may be able to influence the new president, that influence promises to be amplified by complementary pressure from the Republican-dominated Congress, where the PMOI enjoys a good deal of additional support. Voice of America News reported on Friday that several members of the House of Representatives, representing both the Republican and the Democratic Parties, had met earlier in the week with the Organization of Iranian-American Communities, which is affiliated with the PMOI.

The bipartisan delegation gave assurances that they would hold President Trump to account when the time came for his administration to follow up on its tough talk regarding Iran policy. One member of that delegation, Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher, explicitly declared that in addition to increasing pressure on the Islamic Republic, the US government should make a concerted effort to assist and empower “pro-democracy movements who would replace the mullahs.”

No official in the Trump administration has yet endorsed this policy, but Secretary of Defense James Mattis used confirmation hearings early this month to expand upon Trump’s campaign-trail rhetoric regarding Iran policy. Though Mattis struck a more moderate tone than Trump on the nuclear issue in particular, he insisted that generally speaking, the Islamic Republic of Iran is the greatest destabilizing force in the Middle East today.

A recent report by Townhall reminded readers of this commentary, and it added that former CIA Director David Petraeus had met with the White House transition team and had likely advised Trump that a military response to Iranian threats should remain on the table. Mattis and Petraeus both appear to maintain that a credible American military threat can be a useful, and perhaps even a necessary tool in making it clear to Tehran that there will be consequences for a range of particularly egregious behaviors.

Petraeus cited the pursuit of nuclear arms as one such behavior, but he also referred to Iran’s well-known efforts to establish itself at the head of Shiite hegemony in the Middle East, and to partition much of the region into a “Shiite crescent” that is poised for conflict with areas of hardline Sunni influence. Meanwhile, Townhall notes that Mattis has expressed concern over the direct threat that Iran poses to American forces as assets, as evidenced by its provocative gestures against US Naval vessels and aircraft in and around the Persian Gulf.

In the aftermath of the nuclear agreement, close encounters between American vessels and those belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps became more than twice as frequent. In some instances, IRGC patrol boats refused to disengage from American warships until warning shots were fired. And in other instances, the IRGC explicitly threatened to shoot down aircraft if they strayed into Iranian airspace. And most of this occurred after another incident in which 10 American sailors were seized while on a training exercise in the Gulf, briefly detained, and used in numerous propaganda broadcasts.

These provocations were specifically cited by Donald Trump in his criticisms of Obama-era weakness. And in retrospect they may similarly fuel his potential moves toward closer relations with Iran’s key adversaries. However, it is also worth noting that Trump’s Iran policy may utilize not only those established adversaries, but also at least one country that is currently supporting Iran.

Much has been said about Trump’s supposed connections to Russia and his supposed personal fondness for its leadership. But on Thursday, an editorial in the Orange County Register explored the potential Washington-Moscow relationship specifically in terms of Trump’s prospective confrontation with Iran. By pursuing improved relations with Russia, the Trump administration could help convince Moscow to weaken its existing support for Iran, including its support of Iranian activities in the Syrian Civil War.

It has already been widely suggested that Iranian and Russian interests are diverging there. In that case, Russia may not require all that much convincing from Trump, who has eagerly boasted of his credentials as a deal maker. The Register stops short of saying that such a deal would be perfectly in line with American interests, but it does suggest that it would be a much better option than continuing to cede leverage to Iran or look the other way on Iranian malfeasance in the region and in the world.