How far is the new administration prepared to go?
CHAOTIC, fractious and bafflingly inconsistent though the Trump administration may be, on one issue it appears united: Iran. There is ample evidence that since the signing in mid-2015 of the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran has taken advantage of the easing of sanctions and the unfreezing of about $100bn worth of overseas assets to project its power across the region with greater boldness. Barack Obama, the new team believe, let it off the hook.
Since the deal, Iran has stepped up its support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria to the point where, with Russian air support, his regime’s survival appears assured for the foreseeable future. Iran has also worked with Russia to supply Hizbullah, a Lebanese Shia militia fighting in Syria, with heavy weapons. It has poured other Shia militias into Syria from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Iraq, meanwhile, Iranian-backed militias are fighting alongside American-supported Iraqi security forces against Islamic State (IS). But once IS is ejected from Mosul, they will be a potent weapon in Iran’s attempt to turn Iraq into a dependent satrapy. In Yemen the civil war is a proxy struggle between Sunni Gulf Arabs, who back the recognised government, against Shia Houthi rebels whom Iran supplies with training and weapons, including anti-ship missiles that have been fired at American warships in the Red Sea.
Meanwhile, Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has conducted a series of tests of ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead in defiance, though not clear violation, of UN Security Resolution 2231, which underpins the nuclear deal. The latest, on January 29th, resulted in the US Treasury slapping new sanctions on several Iranian individuals and companies connected to the missile programme. The response was measured (and probably dusted off from something prepared by the Obama administration). But it was backed up by a statement from the short-lived national security adviser, Mike Flynn, that Iran was “officially being put on notice” about its behaviour.
What did he mean by that?
Mr Flynn, however, was vague about what that involved. It is one thing to decide that Iran must be confronted and pushed back, quite another to know how to do it without running the risk of plunging America into another Middle Eastern war and increasing turmoil in a region that already has plenty of it.
The future of the nuclear deal is also in doubt. During the presidential campaign Mr Trump described it as the “worst deal in history”, and congressional Republicans have little affection for it. But given the increased influence of James Mattis, the defence secretary, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, there is little appetite in the administration for unilaterally abrogating an international agreement that has largely taken the nuclear issue off the table for the next decade or so and which has strong international support.
Instead, the emphasis will be on rigorous enforcement. Minor Iranian transgressions, such as the recent breach of the amount of heavy water Iran is allowed to hold for its reactors, will not be tolerated. Should Iran be caught deliberately cheating, America could try to persuade other signatories to the deal (France, Germany, Britain and the European Union, but probably not Russia or China) that some sanctions should “snap back”.
The nuclear deal only lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Others remain in place, relating to ballistic-missile activity, support for terrorism and human-rights abuses. More could be imposed for further missile tests or violations of UN embargoes on arming Hizbullah in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen. America also maintains strict rules about illicit financial activity—Iran is believed by many to be a serial offender—and doing business with any commercial entities linked to the Revolutionary Guards, who have fingers in most of the Iranian economy. Nor does the Trump administration have to strain, as John Kerry (Mr Tillerson’s predecessor) did, to reassure international banks that they would not be penalised for financing deals in Iran. Even with Mr Kerry’s encouragement, the banks remained cautious.
Alongside sanctions, confronting Iran is likely to require a military component, though it, too, will have to be calibrated. Iran’s aim is to establish an arc of control that runs through Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. Mr Mattis has been told to come up with a plan to prevent this. More direct help for the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen is likely, as is aggressive patrolling of international waters to stop supplies of weapons from Iran getting to the Houthis. American warships, dangerously buzzed by Iranian patrol boats, may not be as restrained in their response as before. In Syria, it looks as if there will be an attempt to prise apart the alliance between Russia and Iran. There will be an offer to Moscow of military co-operation against IS and recognition of Russia’s role in deciding the terms of a future settlement. If that fails, as is probable, Mr Mattis may decide that America will need more than the handful of special forces it currently has on the ground in Syria. He was unimpressed by Mr Obama’s policy to speak loudly and carry a small stick.
The biggest challenge will be Iraq. Mr Mattis, on a visit to the country this week, said that the 6,000 American forces assisting in the fight against IS would be staying on for some time after the fall of Mosul. He knows that without their presence, and the political influence it buys, there will be little to stop Iran from installing a new government of its choosing.
Iran may well be, as Senator Lindsey Graham said on February 19th, “a bad actor in the greatest sense of the word”. But it is a resourceful one. Any attempt to confront it risks escalation. Mr Trump’s trusted adviser, Stephen Bannon, believes that America is engaged in a civilisational struggle likely to lead to “a major shooting war in the Middle East again”. It is for Mr Mattis and Mr Tillerson to plot a course that restrains Iran without fulfilling that prophesy.
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “A new confrontation”