The man who put Iran “on notice” and warned that the “Trump administration will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations,” has now been removed from his position as National Security Advisor. Yet, even with Michael Flynn gone, all signs indicate the Trump administration is likely to continue on its course toward confrontation with Iran ― and threatening both U.S. and regional security in the process.
There have been three separate reports that the Trump administration is considering action that would risk war with Iran and jeopardize the agreement that has rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and subjected it to intrusive international monitoring.
Last week, reports indicated that the administration was considering designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – an Iranian military force – a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). This proposal raised red flags for both military and intelligence officials, who warned that it could endanger U.S. troops in Iraq operating in close proximity to Iranian directed Shia militias in the fight against the Islamic State. Further, the officials warned that designating a foreign military force a terrorist organization “would be an unprecedented use of a law that was not designed to sanction government institutions.”
The IRGC designation has for years been championed by neoconservatives eager to escalate tensions with Iran and kill the Iran nuclear deal. As former UN Ambassador John Bolton ― who was considered for the number two position at the Trump State Department and has advocated bombing Iran ― recently stated, the IRGC designation could be a way to convince the Iranians to withdraw from the nuclear agreement.
A second report indicates that last week Defense Secretary James Mattis was considering interdicting an Iranian ship in international waters to inspect it for arms that could potentially be headed to Houthi forces in Yemen. However, the interdiction was set aside given that the legality of the raid was suspect, in addition to leaks and fallout from the hasty raid in Yemen that resulted in the deaths of a Seal Team 6 member and several civilians, including an eight-year-old. Adding an interdiction of an Iranian vessel in potential violation of international law to current tensions over naval activities in the Persian Gulf would be a combustible mix.
The third report cites a plan by the Trump administration to push the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors Iran’s compliance with its nuclear commitments, to demand inspections of Iranian military sites. If there is evidence of Iranian wrong doing at non-nuclear sites including military bases, the IAEA can request access and should gain it in short order. However, there is no evidence that the IAEA or the U.S. suspects any illicit Iranian nuclear activities at such sites. In fact, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano affirmed that Iran is implementing its commitments under the nuclear deal. He also indicated that, despite Trump’s promise to “radically enforce” the nuclear deal, his administration has until now not even been in contact with the agency.
Thus, the fact that the administration is raising the potential of pressing for military site access for the IAEA before any evidence or articulated suspicion of Iranian wrong-doing, let alone contact with the IAEA, makes it appear that the proposal is a political stunt to raise tensions with Iran over the nuclear deal. Iran, like other sovereign nations, fears that opening their military sites up to international inspectors could result in the divulgence of critical national security secrets entirely separate from nuclear activities. Requesting such access without valid justification also risks undermining the ability of the IAEA to gain access if an actual crisis emerges in the future.
Even if the administration abstains from the proposals that have been floated, the Republican-controlled Congress could force the issue. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) has stated that there are two pieces of legislation in the works that would target Iran. According to Corker, “probably nothing really bad is going to happen relative to nuclear development in Iran” in the near term, though the U.S. needs to “develop ways of greatly changing the deal that we have with Iran” without provoking a crisis. Such goals are irreconcilable – the U.S. cannot reasonably expect to escalate tensions to leverage a renegotiation of the nuclear deal while at the same time averting an international crisis. A renegotiation by its very nature risks undermining the hard-fought nuclear concessions that are currently being implemented and fracturing the international community, which strongly opposes renegotiating the deal.
Given the current state of the Trump national security team that has many key posts remaining unfilled, major aggressive steps may not occur in the near term. It is also possible that the Trump administration is simply exploring the policy options, recognizing the negatives associated with each course, and then abstaining from them. However, given the animus toward Iran throughout the administration, there is ample reason to expect it to chart a new course with Iran that results in an escalation of tensions and - whether intended or inadvertent - the death of the nuclear deal. All of the proposals that have been floated thus far push toward confrontation, and there remains little sign that the administration is considering de-escalatory steps to halt a backslide to war.