The Treasury Department on Friday placed new sanctions on several Iranian officials and organizations in response to the country’s recent ballistic missile test. This in itself is not unusual. Iran has carried out a number of these tests since the 2015 nuclear deal, and the Obama administration maintained that sanctions related to them would remain in place and at times expanded them. But the context in which this is now unfolding is very different.
On Wednesday, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn commented on the missile test, saying that Iran is now officially "on notice,” a vague statement interpreted by some in other countries as a threat. (Defense Secretary James Mattis—not exactly an Iran dove—reportedly urge Flynn to soften his tone, but the statement was made while he was en route to Asia.) Trump enthusiastically adopted the "on notice” language on Twitter and made the almost certainly inaccurate argument that the Iranian government would have collapsed if not for the nuclear deal. He also accused the country of "playing with fire.”
On Thursday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer also inaccurately referred to "Iran’s additional hostile actions that it took against our Navy vessel,” referring to an attack against a Saudi vessel carried out by Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran, though it’s not clear what degree of control Tehran has over their actions. Spicer quickly corrected himself, but between this and the "Bowling Green massacre” it’s been quite a week for Trump administration officials drastically mischaracterizing events in ways that just happen to fit their preferred narrative.
Iranian leaders have dismissed Trump’s statements as the "hollow rants” of a political novice and vowed to continue the missile tests, which it says are not in violation of U.N. resolutions. (The U.N. is undecided on that.) It’s unlikely we’ve seen the last of these incidents. If Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has based much of his presidency on the premise of ending Iran’s international isolation, is replaced in the election later this year by a hard-liner in the mold of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the provocations from Iran could become even more blatant and the "playing with fire” accurate all around.
Trump said that "nothing’s off the table” when asked about military action against Iran on Thursday, which is one of those empty phrases that U.S. presidents always use, though it takes on a different meaning when tensions are being ratcheted up rather than eased.
Hard-liners in both Washington and Tehran are looking for pretexts to unravel the nuclear agreement and return the two countries to a more openly antagonistic posture. That doesn’t necessarily mean military conflict is inevitable, but it’s certainly not out of the question.