Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iran-US Relations Under Trump: Hardening Attitudes on Both Sides

Internationa Affairs-Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd Annual UN General Assembly, New York, 19 September 2017. Photo AFP

Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – negotiated two years ago by the US, its European allies, Russia and China to curb Iran’s nuclear programme – ““the stupidest deal of all time”.

Although he had little understanding of the prevailing complexities in the Middle East, Trump made Iran a feature of almost all foreign policy discussions during his campaign. Hence, it was hardly surprising that the country became a foreign policy priority when he took office in January 2017.

Almost immediately, he formed a foreign policy and national security team that shares an Iran-centric interpretation of the problems perceived to be undermining the region and threatening American interests. The fixation with Iran is based, at least in part, on the be-lief that Obama’s Middle East policy empowered Tehran and weakened American allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Trump set out to reverse this. In a matter of days, he had signed an executive order restricting Iranians and the nationals of six other majority Muslim countries from entering the US. Iran immediately reacted by stopping use of the US dollar in official statements and for financial reporting. Although Iran protested that the restrictions may be in breach of the JCPOA, the Trump administration remained determined to penalize Iran.

In February 2017, Trump tweeted that Iran ‘has been formally put on notice’ for its behaviour in the region. In May 2017, few people were surprised when Trump chose to start his first foreign tour in Saudi Arabia. By the end of the one-day visit, the two countries had signed economic deals worth $380 billion, of which $110 billion was for Saudi military purchases from the US, the latter clearly aimed at bolstering Saudi Arabia’s position against its regional rival.

Since the beginning of his administration, Trump has actively tried to bring Israel and the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, closer together to form an alliance against the Iran. In public remarks made in Jerusalem, the second stop on his foreign tour, he said, “What’s happened with Iran has brought many of the parts of the Middle East toward Israel.” There was an element of truth to the statement for two reasons. The idea that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ became an explicit tool Trump utilized to bring both Israel and Saudi Arabia closer together. The warming relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel started under Obama but have accelerated under Trump.

The ‘Iran deal’ still remains the Trump administration’s main preoccupation. In July 2017, Trump had to formally admit to Congress that Iran continued to be in compliance with the terms of the deal. It was the second time he had certified Iran’s compliance since coming to office. This time, however, it was clear he was looking for a way out.

The same month, Trump instructed members of his team to look for a ‘reason’ to withhold certification at the next 90 day review. This alarmed many observers and experts. David Cohen, who served as CIA deputy director from 2015 to 2017, claimed that the administration was cherry-picking intelligence in order to strengthen its case for pulling out of the deal.

A group of former US diplomats, including John Kerry, accused Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, of pressuring the International Atomic Energy Agency to begin inspecting Iranian military sites for nuclear activities without any clear evidence that these activities exists.

For its part, the National Iranian American Council sees mounting evidence that the US is trying to withdraw unilaterally from the JCPOA. This could create problems with the other signatories, who do not share Washington’s wish to break the deal. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said as much during a joint press conference with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in London on 14 September 2017.

These obstacles have done little to deter Trump. He has already imposed new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile programme, and senior administration officials said he has plans to announce additional sanctions in the coming weeks.

In early September 2017, Trump was reported to be considering a strategy that could allow more aggressive US responses to Iran’s forces, its Shiite Muslim proxies in Iraq and Syria, and its support for militant groups. The mounting pressure from Washington has already empowered the hardliners in Iran, who accuse Hassan Rouhani’s moderate government of being incapable of dealing with Trump’s more aggressive stance. This could contribute to a hardening of Iranian attitudes towards the US, setting the stage for more instability in the region, if not direct confrontation.

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