President Trump’s tough talk with the leaders of Mexico and Australia have put the international community on notice that longstanding diplomatic relationships are no longer the order of the day. Uncertainty and unease have replaced them. But while the president’s aggressive and confrontational conversations have had an unwelcome negative impact on our national character, his similar approach to Iran, the leading exporter of terrorism in the world, may be a plus for the U.S., giving Tehran’s leaders pause about testing America’s resolve.
The country’s supreme leader permitted several Iranian missile tests after the 2015 nuclear accord was signed. No doubt those exercises were not only to determine the effectiveness of the missiles but also to see if the U.S. would act on the clear violations of a United Nations ban. The Obama administration criticized the tests but took no concrete action. Last week, after Iran test-fired a cruise missile, Trump and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn warned that the U.S. was putting Tehran “on notice.” No details were given, but given the president’s forceful style, the ayatollahs must be worried that this administration might take military action.
It’s important to note that although Trump threatened during the campaign that as soon as he was in the Oval Office he would tear up the Iran accord, which he called one of the worst international agreements ever, he hasn’t done so. And one reason is that Israel, the country most threatened by a nuclear Iran, is not pushing for such a radical response. If the U.S. pushes too hard, Iran could walk away from the deal and resume its nuclear program full tilt. Rather, the immediate U.S. goal is to monitor Iranian compliance and make sure it abides by the sanctions, and continue to tighten them. Trump’s response was to issue a ban on banking transfers against 25 Iranians and companies that administration officials said have assisted Iran’s ballistic missile program and supported terrorist organizations. (This is in keeping with the approach of financial sanctions the Obama administration established.)
The U.S. ban drew bipartisan endorsement in Congress, including senators who had voted against the nuclear accord. Iran’s response was that America’s action was absolutely unacceptable, a violation of the accord. Tellingly, Russia agreed with Iran that the ballistic missile test was not a violation of the nuclear accord, underscoring the illogic of Trump’s benign attitude toward President Putin.
While the sanctions, largely symbolic in the larger Persian Gulf context, are unlikely to significantly affect the actions of Iran, which has made clear its animus towards Israel and its intention to develop an unfettered nuclear program, they are substantive in their implication that further U.S. actions are possible.
There are risks in the U.S. move. It could antagonize American allies, whose businesses have resumed profitable business dealings with Iran, and it ratchets up the tension between Tehran and Washington. Asked last week if military action against Iran remains a possibility, Trump said, “Nothing is off the table.”
The president’s unpredictable, bellicose management style has deservedly drawn much criticism. But there is a precedent that when dealing with Iran, it may be effective. We note that the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days were released the day that Ronald Reagan, another hardline Republican, succeeded concession-prone Jimmy Carter in 1980. Will the new administration take a similar hard stand against Iran’s support for Hezbollah and other terror groups it supports? The trick is to let Iran know the U.S. is not reticent about using its military force, while at the same time avoiding needless provocations that could set off a major conflagration. One can only hope that there is a nuanced side to the Trump approach, one the world has yet to see.