Iran In First Year Of Trump Administration, Second Year Of Historic Nuclear Deal: Regional Expansion, Religious War With No Political Boundaries, ‘Death To America,’ And Show of Readiness To Confront U.S. Militarily As Supra-Regional Power

MEMRI, By: A. Savyon and Yigal Carmon and U. Kafash, Aug. 28, 2017:

The Great Reversal: The U.S. vs. Iran – From Might And Deterrence To Weakness And Retreat

Within three months, the U.S.’s position in the Middle East has changed from one of might and deterrence against Iran to one of weakness, retreat, and being deterred by Iran. This situation, of course, in no way reflects the real balance of power between the U.S. and Iran, neither generally nor regionally. It is an image created jointly by President Trump’s policies and Iran’s offensive approach.

In the first three months of Trump’s term, Tehran was apprehensive about what his Iran policy would be. It significantly dialed back its provocations – both its verbal threats and its naval forays against U.S. vessels in the Gulf – and even cancelled the launch of a ballistic missile, removing the missile from its launching pad on the eve of Iran’s Revolution Day on February 10, after the Trump administration announced that Iran was being “put on notice.”[1]

Three months later, Iran has changed its approach: It is stepping up its naval provocations; its anti-U.S. discourse is again in evidence – including the “Death to America” chant; and its verbal threats against the U.S. are increasing. Additionally, the same missile which was taken off the launching pad last February was launched on July 27, 2017, in disregard of the U.S.’s warning.[2]

The naïve expectations of President Trump, that, as with a business deal, a positive approach on his part would be met with an equally positive approach, yielded the opposite. Like what happened with President Obama – whose experience President Trump ignored – Iran reacted to the U.S.’s positive policy with more hostility and aggression. The Iranians have interpreted both presidents’ approach as weakness, and stepped up their antagonism to the U.S., including threats and chants of “Death to America.” Moreover, they have used the Trump approach as an opportunity to advance their regional expansion and the ideology of exporting the Islamic Revolution.[3]

It is the approach of the Trump administration – which has agreed to Iran’s regional expansion, under the cover of the war on ISIS – that has prompted this huge shift in the attitude of Iran, which also is relying on Russian backing.

What Happened In Recent Months That Led To This Huge Reversal?

During this time, the Trump administration has changed its approach towards Iran: While the discourse remained confrontational, the actual political moves reflected a clear attempt to advance understandings with Iran, thus continuing President Obama’s policy. National Iranian American Council director and head of the unofficial Iranian lobby in Washington Trita Parsi also noted this, saying: “Prior to the revelation of Trump’s Iran certification meltdown, most analysts and diplomats believed that Trump’s rhetoric on Iran was just that – empty talk. His bark was worse than his bite, as demonstrated when he certified Iran’s compliance back in April and when he renewed sanctions waivers in May. The distance between his rhetoric and actual policy was tangible. Rhetorically, Trump officials described Iran as the root of all problems in the Middle East and as the greatest state sponsor of terror. Trump even suggested he might quit the deal. In action, however, President Trump continued to waive sanctions and admitted that Iran was adhering to the deal. As a result, many concluded that Trump would continue to fulfill the obligations of the deal while sticking to his harsh rhetoric in order to appease domestic opponents of the nuclear deal – as well as Trump’s allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel.”[4]

The Washington Post‘s August 20, 2017 editorial too, while expressing concern that Trump is planning to pull out of the JCPOA, also noted his practical conciliatory moves towards Iran: “Despite much heated rhetoric, the Trump administration is doing little to counter Iranian aggression. In Syria, its strategy of striking deals with Russia has opened the way for Tehran’s forces to establish control over a corridor between Damascus and Baghdad. In Afghanistan, Iran is steadily building a strategic position even as President Trump balks at a plan to strengthen U.S. support for the Afghan government. In Yemen, the United States enables its Persian Gulf allies to pursue an unwinnable proxy war with Tehran whose main result has been the world’s worst humanitarian crisis… Yet perversely, Mr. Trump is matching his passivity toward Iran’s regional meddling with an apparent determination to torpedo the nuclear pact.”

What Were Trump’s Conciliatory Steps Towards Iran?

–   In April and July 2017, the Trump administration sent Congress a letter confirming that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. The IAEA reports reflected, and will also in future reflect, the results of inspecting only the nuclear sites that were declared by Iran, and at those sites Iran has apparently complied with the JCPOA. However, the Trump administration totally ignored the fact that the JCPOA does not allow the IAEA to conduct inspections in any other location, including military sites (which in the past were used for secret nuclear military activity), and therefore IAEA certification is meaningless, since it reflects inspection only where Iran allows it. It appears that neither President Trump nor his national security team have read the JCPOA, and that they do not know that the agreement, designed by President Obama, does not allow real inspections in Iran. Indeed, had they been familiar with the limitations imposed by the JCPOA on inspections, they would not have requested that IAEA to conduct inspections in military facilities, as did U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley during her August 23 visit to IAEA headquarters in Vienna. The Trump administration’s silence about the impossibility of real inspection because of the terms of the JCPOA is a clear cover-up for the Obama administration. It should be stressed that had the Trump administration demanded a change in the terms of inspection, such a change would not have constituted a change in the essence of the JCPOA, which is the lifting of the nuclear sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran’s temporary and targeted suspension of some of its nuclear activities.[5]Therefore, it seems that Trump’s much-celebrated public demand in the media that his national security team bring him, by October 2017, evidence of Iranian violations without any change in the terms of inspections which preclude doing so is nothing but a broadly announced alibi for not demanding a change in the terms of inspection. In October, Trump will have to say that as much as he wanted to act against the JCPOA, his national security team brought him no evidence that would allow him to do so, and that as a result his hands are tied and he must recertify the JCPOA. The intelligence agencies will be blamed, and nothing will be said about President Trump’s failure to demand a change in the ridiculous terms of inspection – which are not even of his own making, but are inherited from Obama.

Moreover, even if Trump’s national security team does provide the president with intelligence information about violations by Iran, the JCPOA imposes a process of verification which precludes practical action against Iran. Trump can, of course, on the basis of such intelligence, act unilaterally, disregarding the JCPOA, the P5+1, and the UN Security Council,  and do whatever he sees fit. But as long as he wants to act according to the agreement and in coordination with the P5+1 and the Security Council, he is obliged to deal with this intelligence as specified in the JCPOA – which makes the intelligence useless.[6]

In response to Ambassador Haley’s visit to the IAEA, several Iranian officials stated that the U.S.’s policy is chaotic, that the Americans are not familiar with the agreement, and that Section 74 of Annex 1 of the JCPOA does not allow the ambassador to demand this of IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano. Hassan Firouzabadi, senior military advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Iranian armed forces chief of staff said, on August 27: “The U.S. representative to the UN, Haley, is lying when she claims that the JCPOA allows visits to military sites in Iran, because the JCPOA does not allow this… It is best that America stop inciting [against Iran]. Trump is seeking, with this puppet show, to distract the world from the racist conflicts in America.” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Salehi said, also on August 27: “The framework of the cooperation with the IAEA is set in advance, and cannot be changed. We will not submit to the excessive demands of certain governments, and will not allow foreigners entrance into places defined as forbidden by the JCPOA.”[7]

–  In April 2017, the Trump administration also endorsed the G7 Statement on Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which states that the G7 countries support the JCPOA as “an important contribution to the [nuclear] non-proliferation regime.”[8]

–  On April 18, 2017, after his highly confrontational anti-Iran speech, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that there would be a comprehensive review, by all branches of the administration, of the U.S.’s Iran policy – for which no official concluding deadline has been given. This review, which would appear to be unnecessary considering how Tillerson depicted Iran in his speech, has in effect stalled Senate bill S.722 – Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017.[9]

–  The administration has refrained from designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a terror organization, following Iranian pressure.

–  President Trump made a public statement at the May 2017 Riyadh conference that the U.S.’s allies should not expect the U.S. to act for them: “America is prepared to stand with you – in pursuit of shared interests and common security. But the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them.”[10]

–  President Trump legitimized Iran’s expansion into Syria and in fact all the way to the Mediterranean by accepting the Russia-Turkey agreement, the De-Escalation Zones Plan, in Syria. Illustrating this was the June 2017 statement by the spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition, Col. Ryan Dillon, who said that the U.S.’s goal is to defeat ISIS wherever it exists. He added that if others, including the Syrian government and its Iranian and Russian allies, want to fight the extremists as well, then “we absolutely have no problem with that.”[11]

–  According to Iranian officials, Iran and the U.S. have exchanged messages about the status of the IRGC in other matters (see MEMRI reports).[12]

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