Wednesday, 3 May 2017
With all the debate over President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, there’s one achievement that has been mostly overlooked: the United States appears to have regained the upper hand in its dealings with Iran.
That important development has been incubating for a while. In a pre-election interview with The Algemeiner, Trump’s confidante and now new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, explained that a Trump administration would “reengage with the world powers in a way that seeks to reintroduce leverage on Iran.”
After the July 2015 nuclear deal was negotiated by then-President Barack Obama, the Iranians spoke of it in dismissive terms for months. They vowed to walk away from the agreement on a number of occasions, if the US imposed any new sanctions on Iran, or if world powers failed to advance the Islamic Republic’s “national interests.”
But soon after Trump was elected, Iran’s leaders suddenly became protective of the agreement. The Iranians started claiming they could force the new president to abide by its terms, and threatened to “surprise him” in the event he decided not to uphold it.
In interviews with The Algemeiner, several experts confirmed that the ruling mullahs were running scared. “There’s clearly a great deal of trepidation in Tehran,” one said. Another made note of “a more muted tone in relation to the US” from regime-affiliated clerics.
So here’s how Trump did it.
Under Obama, the Iranians quickly learned to what degree the administration was politically invested in getting the deal done, and expertly worked to take advantage. They were able to successfully force a string of concessions, including cash payments, free passes on a whole host of non-nuclear related bad behaviors, and, as we discovered last week, the absolution of Iranian terror operatives.
Trump’s first order of business was to call their bluff, to highlight that it was the Iranians, not the Americans, who stood to gain the most from deal. He did this by disparaging the deal at every opportunity, portraying it as a burden, an unwanted holdover from the old order.
Even when the US issued a report this month verifying Iranian compliance with the deal, Trump personally intervened to ensure that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly noted that the agreement was also now under full review, highlighting the administration’s low opinion of it.
Trump’s second order of business was to make it clear that Iran was no longer off the hook for its non-nuclear-related hostile behavior. Within days of entering the Oval Office, the president responded to an Iranian ballistic missile test with a host of new sanctions, targeting 25 individuals or entities. Iran was also placed “on notice.” At the UN, the US pushed the issue of Iranian belligerence to the fore, with Ambassador Nikki Haley singling the country out as the “chief culprit” in the conflicts ravaging the Middle East and calling on the Security Council to turn its attention to curbing Iranian expansionism.
Finally, Trump reintroduced the specter of a military intervention, both as an option for halting Iranian nuclear development and in response to the targeting of US assets in the region.
In late March, the US aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush sent helicopter gunships to hover over Iranian attack vessels after they rushed US ships, an indication that Trump’s campaign pledge that boats engaged in such improper “gestures” would be “shot out of the water” might just be under consideration.
When the US fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base in early April after reports that the regime of embattled President Bashar Assad had launched a chemical weapons attack against civilians, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu said he hoped the “message of resolve” would “resonate not only in Damascus, but in Tehran” as well. A White House official later confirmed that sending a message to Iran was indeed an intended outcome of the strike.
The reemergence of the military option is significant, considering that the only time Iran has actually halted its nuclear program was in 2003, when the Iraq invasion brought the full might of the US military to the Islamic Republic’s doorstep, and the threat of intervention was perceived to be real.
The net outcome of the steps taken in the early days of the Trump administration is that the ayatollahs in Tehran are walking on eggshells. They can no longer take US positions for granted as they did under Obama. To the Iranian regime, Trump has projected an unpredictable America, where nothing is off-limits in the quest to halt their nuclear ambitions.
In a sense, Trump has pulled the Persian rug out from under their feet. Yes, the Iranian nuclear saga is far from over, but this is a truly welcome development. And it only took 100 days.