Week of September 15th, 2017

Trump Looks at Iran

While the world and the Trump administration seem to be focused on North Korea and its new thermonuclear weapon, the Trump Administration is also looking at reining in Tehran.

This is not merely a diversion from North Korea. In many ways, they are part of the same problem. Part of the thinking is that strong moves against Iran also are also warnings against North Korea.

This is leading to a draft proposal prepared by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other top officials, and presented to Trump at a National Security Council meeting last Friday.

The plan is intended to increase the pressure on Tehran to curb its ballistic missile programs, discourage any moves to break out as a nuclear power, and make Tehran rethink its support for regional allies in Syria’s Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

“I would call it a broad strategy for the range of Iranian malign activities: financial materials, support for terror, destabilization in the region, especially Syria and Iraq and Yemen,” a senior administration official told Reuters.

Much of the plan allows the US military more latitude in countering Iranian moves in the region. This includes more aggressive US Navy interception of Iranian arms shipments to Houthi rebels in Yemen and Palestinian groups in Gaza.

Yemen is a country that has slowly drawn in US forces. While the US is selling munitions to the Saudis and the UAE, US Special Forces are also on the ground in Yemen working alongside UAE forces, handling logistics, analyzing intelligence, and helping to direct the fight, much like they have been doing in Syria for friendly forces.

Clearly, the US needs a new strategy if they do not want to be drawn deeper into the conflict. This draft proposal offers a way out (at least as seen by Trump’s top generals).

The draft proposal will also allow US naval forces to react more forcefully when approached closely by armed speed boats operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s paramilitary and surveillance contingent, some Reuter’s sources said. Iranian ships and boats have become more aggressive in the Gulf region in the past few years and US naval ship commanders need clearer direction to counter these maneuvers – without getting into trouble with the White House (a serious threat under Obama).

The plan also recommends the United States react more aggressively in Bahrain, whose Sunni Muslim monarchy has been suppressing Shiite majority, who are demanding reforms, the sources said.

The administration is also looking at a new stance on the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement (JCPOA), signed by Obama, to curb any potential development of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The draft urges consideration of tougher economic sanctions if Iran violates the 2015 agreement.

However, there are those in the State Department who wish to keep the Iranian nuclear deal intact. They know President Trump is on the brink of refusing to certify the agreement to Congress next month and withdrawing from it. To stop this from happening, they have come up with a series of arguments to convince the president to stick with the deal.

The major argument is that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says Iran is in compliance with the agreement. Although it is true that a September 1, 2017, IAEA report did not cite any Iranian violations of the deal, and IAEA director general Yukiya Amano has said Iran is meeting its JCPOA commitments, there are many who disagree.   According to an analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security, “the [IAEA] report is so sparse in details that one cannot conclude that Iran is fully complying with the JCPOA.” The Institute also notes that, “nowhere in the report does the IAEA state that Iran is fully compliant.

In addition, Iran refuses to allow IAEA inspectors access to what it deems to be military sites, stating they are not nuclear related and not covered by agreement.

Others will say Iranian violations of the treaty are minor and “not material.” Iran-deal supporters have tried to downplay Iranian violations, including those spelled out in a July 11 letter from five Republican Senators to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as minor and “not material breaches.”

They maintain that despite the violations, the treaty provides the IAEA with important inspection opportunities that will be lost if the agreement is terminated. But critics of the deal are asserting that although it is true that the IAEA has conducted more inspections of Iran since the deal came into force, the agency is not permitted to inspect the locations where nuclear-weapons work is thought to actually be occurring: military sites. They claimed that without the “any time, any place” inspections that the Obama administration originally promised, the deal allows Iran to easily conceal covert nuclear-weapons activities from IAEA inspectors.

The push to keep the Iranian nuclear deal in place caused some in the White House National Security Council to sidetrack a letter for former UN Ambassador John Bolton to Trump. Bolton’s plan is a multilateral approach to the threats posed by Iran. It includes strict new sanctions to bar permanently the transfer of nuclear technology to the Islamic Republic and new sanctions in response to what been perceived as Tehran’s sponsorship of destabilizing activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and other Middle East countries.

Some of these suggestions are probably found in the draft proposal.


US Response to Iran

In order to negate any criticism, expect the Trump response to involve working with America’s allies first. This consultation will also include a well-developed case showing violations.

Some of the steps to be taken are likely: Ending all landing and docking rights for all Iranian aircraft and ships at key allied ports; Ending all visas for Iranians, including “scholarly,” student, sports, or other exchanges; demanding payment with a set deadline on outstanding U.S. federal-court judgments against Iran for “terrorism”, including 9/11; announcing U.S. support for the Iranian opposition; and announcing U.S. support for Kurdish national aspirations, including Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Given Trump’s past history, don’t expect the proposal to have much in terms of military options. Trump has made it clear in the past that he will not give the enemy any advance notice of what he is planning militarily. However, we know that he will give his “in the field” commanders more latitude to pursue Iranian backed forces.

We can also expect Trump to expedite delivery of bunker-buster bombs to Israel. This puts Iran on notice that the US may unleash Israel if Iran continues to move towards a nuclear weapon. Needless to say, Iran is also well aware that any Israeli attack may include the passive assistance of some GCC nations too.

Given how thinly stretched US military forces are today, Trump and his generals will be unwilling to make any more military commitments to curb Iran. Expect economic sanctions – coupled with America’s allies (as much as possible).