On Wednesday, the White House put out a statement from National Security Advisor Michael Flynn criticizing Iran’s recent ballistic missile test as well as a number of attacks in recent months by Iranian-supported Houthi militias against American, Saudi, and Emirati ships off the coast of Yemen. The statement then criticizes the Iran nuclear deal and the Obama administration, before concluding that "we are officially putting Iran on notice.”
This is the Trump administration’s first meaningful foray into Iran policy since taking office. In some ways, it is reassuring, as parts of the statement are reasonable. And it does not appear that the administration is at least at this point determined to walk away from the nuclear agreement. But then President Donald Trump started tweeting. And now, there are some reasons for concern.
First the good news. The elements of the official statement calling out Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the Middle East are on point. Indeed, the Barack Obama administration was also worried about missile launches off the coast of Yemen, which is why last October it struck Houthi radar sites and, over the past year, pursued a number of interdictions of Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis. Additionally, over the last five years the Obama team used a series of sanctions measures to target Houthis in Yemen for their threatening and destabilizing activities, as well as scores of powerful sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for terrorism and regional violence. But fair or not, there was a perception across the Middle East that the Obama administration overlooked some of these problematic actions because of its prioritization of the nuclear agreement. So for the new team to come in and signal that this is a priority should be reassuring to some of our Gulf partners and send an unambiguous message to the Iranian leadership.
But the Trump team needs to be careful. The Yemen conflict is a difficult and ugly slog in which America’s core interests are not fully engaged, which is why the Obama administration chose for the most part to stay out. There is a value in reassuring partners, but it must be weighed against the risks of diving into a quagmire. Moreover, the Houthis are not under the direct control of Iran. Compared to other non-state proxies such as Hezbollah or Iraqi Shiite militias, the Iranian-Houthi connection is weak. If the United States threatens direct action against Iran for behavior taken by a proxy Iran cannot or does not actually control, that can be a dangerous pathway towards unintended escalation. Better to tie any threats to Iran’s shipment of weapons to the Houthis — an action Iran’s government has control over and which is a clear violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions pertaining to the Yemen conflict.
The Trump administration also called for a U.N. Security Council consultation to discuss and highlight Iran’s ballistic missile test. This is also a reasonable step and is reassuring in that — despite their disdain for multilateral institutions — the Trump team in this case appears to recognize the value of holding such a session and using it to politically isolate Iran for a provocative test. Moreover, doing so is a good step for counterproliferation efforts. The U.N. has unique abilities to rally member states to publicly identify and target nodes in Iran’s missile and nuclear proliferation networks, including through the implementation of sanctions.
Whether the missile test is a violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, the resolution recognizing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear accord with Iran, is open to interpretation. It is up to a panel of experts that monitors implementation of the Security Council Resolutions against Iran to conclude that. Those experts couldn’t reach consensus about whether similar tests last year constituted a violation; the panel merely called them inconsistent with the spirit of the resolution. So, it was unwise for the Trump administration to so quickly call it a violation, putting it at odds with the Europeans and the Russians.
But the biggest problem with the statement is that Flynn used it to criticize the nuclear agreement as "weak and ineffective.” And then, Trump doubled down on this position, tweeting this morning that "Iran was on its last legs and ready to collapse” before the JCPOA and claiming Iran had received $150 billion as part of the deal — a number that has been repeatedly debunked. None of the steps Iran has taken in recent days violated the JCPOA. And more importantly, this whole situation would today would be much worse if Iran was significantly closer to a nuclear weapons capability, which it would be without the nuclear agreement.
Iran was not on the verge of collapsing in 2013 when the nuclear negotiations began in earnest, but it was weeks away from being able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. As for the claim of $150 billion, no one knows precisely what the number is — but most experts put the funds Iran was able to obtain in the aftermath of the agreement at far less than $150 billion. And these funds were not a giveaway, but Iranian money that it had obtained through trade in past years but was unable to repatriate because of sanctions imposed by the Obama administration. The bottom line is that a medium range ballistic missile test and some delivery of arms to a second-tier proxy are a problem, but not a problem on the same level as obtaining a nuclear weapon, which the agreement has thus far stopped.
Even if the Trump administration wants to walk away from the nuclear agreement or provoke the Iranians to walk away, criticizing the deal was unwise. If it wants to build international support and put more pressure on Iran, the statement should have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abiding by its obligations to the letter and spirit of the nuclear agreement and called on Iran to do the same. Critiquing the deal just isolates the United States from the rest of the P5+1, which does little to increase pressure or leverage on Iran.
Finally, the most newsworthy part of the statement came at the very end where the administration made clear it was putting Iran "on notice.” On the one hand, this could be an effective tactic. Trump is seen as dangerous and unpredictable; a tough statement that does not commit the administration to specific action could be a useful deterrent. The Iranians want no part of a direct confrontation with the United States and Trump could, in theory, use his reputation as an impulsive and unstable actor to be crazy like a fox to deter Iran and force it to scale back some of its destabilizing behavior in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, there is little indication that he and his team have the deftness to pull this off and plenty of signs that he may just be plain old crazy. It is not clear if they have a next step planned or are even working an interagency process to develop options such as new sanctions, more aggressive interdictions, or targeted strikes if Iran responds by escalating. Reports that Secretary James Mattis, while on his trip in Asia, had to convince Flynn to tone back the statement and that U.S. Central Command did not know the statement was coming are disconcerting, as Centcom would play a central role in developing response options. The reality is that most of the options that the administration develops would require support from partners across the globe, which means they require President Trump to be doing a better job of building coalitions and treating our allies with respect. Add to that the fact that the Trump team does not have the good communication channels with Iran that the Obama administration used to deescalate tensions and there is a high risk of the situation quickly exploding.
In: Foreign Policy