Trump, Putin & Khamenei; Countdown to Confrontation?

Ominous headlines across the globe trumpet that the Trump Administration and Iran on a collision course. To what end, and for what strategic objective? Hard to decipher the Trump tea leaves given the merger of Twitter and national security.

Mr. Trump and his White House team have been ratcheting up the tweets and rhetoric against Iran since his inauguration. Iran has responded to Mr. Trump's taunts with its own belligerent threats as well as very worrisome ballistic missile testing.

So where is this heading?

Since his inauguration, the President's nascent team of national security staffers have been surgically laying the groundwork for a new Iran policy approach that, if successful, would cut off Iran from its principal global benefactor - Russia. The objective? To reduce the flow of arms to Iran and to the Assad regime, and isolate Iran in order to reign in its regional provocations and ambitions.

Weakening Russia's alliance with Iran would constitute an early, major diplomatic achievement for the Trump team. Nevertheless, Trump foreign policy officials are not betting the mortgage that they can coax Vladimir Putin away from the ayatollahs merely because the U.S. desires President Putin to do so. If that were to occur, it would undoubtedly come at a very high price for the U.S. After all, what Putin wants from the new president is not only relief from sanctions, but also a free hand in Eastern Ukraine, recognition of Russia's annexation of Crimea, an end to NATO enlargement, and de facto recognition of Russian influence and interests throughout "eastern Europe." Moreover, Mr. Putin does not want his mischief-making in U.S., French, or German national elections to be on Mr. Trump's bilateral agenda, either.

Today's Wall Street Journal shed some light on the Iran machinations inside the West Wing. Based on "senior sources" within the National Security Council, the Trump Administration aspires to orchestrate a strategic diplomatic and military "wedge" between Russia and Iran to accelerate a potential U.S.-Russian solution to the Syrian civil war and gain greater Russian support for a new Trump plan to eradicate ISIS. Unlike Iran, Russia has no long-term investment in the Assad regime itself. Moscow has often signaled Assad is expendable so long as Russian military bases in Syria are untouchable.

As an aside, for a president who prides himself as the purveyor of "FUD" (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) what does the NSC gain by leaking its strategic objectives to the Wall Street Journal. Does that not vitiate the element of uncertainty?

Iran views the uber brutal Assad differently. Tehran considers Shiite Assad its front-line redoubt against the radical Sunni Islamic State and its regional adherents. Iran is loath to toss Assad's brutal regime overboard and has a virtual stranglehold on the Assad regime's longevity. In other words, Assad's departure is not for Mr. Putin alone to decide, if the Ayatollah Khamenei has his way.

For all the Administration's diplomatic hopeful vision to play an effective card against Iran courtesy of Russia, events may supersede this incubating policy. The rulers of Iran read the Wall Street Journal, too, and they are masters of three-dimensional chess.

Tehran is not blind to President Trump's enmity and his willingness to embrace Israel's justifiable fear of a resurging Iran. But like the rest of the world, Iran is not certain where the President's bluster ends and a potential showdown ion begins even though the Administration has signaled it has no intention to revoke the Iran nuclear agreement, even though the President has condemned it as the worst deal ever.

So what is Iran doing to thwart a prospective end run around Iran by the President to Moscow? No surprise! Iran is playing a dangerous game trying to bait the Trump Administration into a potential military confrontation with Tehran before the White House is ready to move its chess pieces with Moscow. After all, the Ayatollah Khamenei is not going to let himself fall into that trap if he can avoid it. His play...firing off ballistic missiles to bait the U.S. into an early confrontation with Iran before the president can line up his plays and compelling Russia to come to its rescue against Washington.

On January 29 -- only nine days following Donald Trump's inauguration -- Iran tested a 4,000 kilometer (2,500 mile) ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Four days later, the authoritative German newspaper Die Welt reported that Iran also test fired a domestically-produced cruise missile that could also carry a nuclear warhead (known as the Soumar), which has a range of 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles). According to Die Welt the cruise missile traversed a distance of 600 kilometers (373 miles) on its maiden voyage.

Per published reports in various military and Middle East media outlets (notably the Times of Israel and Defense One Daily) this cruise missile is a re-engineered version of the Russian KH-55, which can reach Israel. It has a multi-platform launch option (i.e., from aircraft, Iranian naval vessels, or from Iranian subs).

In response, Trump's National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, placed Iran "on notice" that its launches were unacceptable. Reporters were sent scrambling to their diplomatic dictionaries to determine exactly what "on notice" practically meant.

They did not have to wait very long.

A few days later, the Trump Administration carefully threaded a needle by imposing new economic sanctions on 17 entities that had been designated by U.S. authorities as entities actively engaged in supporting Iran's ballistic missile program. For good measure, another 8 entities were marked for terrorist support. These additional sanctions were designed not to violate U.S. commitments under Iran nuclear agreement. The U.S. Treasury Department listed three networks of companies that it asserted were actively engaged in procuring equipment for Iran's ballistic missile program. One network, not surprisingly, is Chinese. The second involved companies based in the United Arab Emirates. And the third constituted corporate tentacles affiliated with Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Depending how one views Iran's conduct, those wishing to be amen choir apologists for Iran's ballistic missile program assert these launches are NOT violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions because, as Iran adamantly asserts, it does not have a nuclear weapons program under the terms of the Iran nuclear agreement. Consequently, Tehran asserts these missile tests are not subject to restriction under UNSC resolutions.

So, follow the logic of those like CNN's Farid Zakaria who carried Tehran's water with Anderson Cooper the other night by asserting that since Iran no longer has a nuclear weapons program under the Iran nuclear agreement its ballistic missile tests are kosher and do not violate UN resolutions barring Iran from building a ballistic missile program capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Got that. I wonder if Mr. Zakaria is on Iran's visa retainer?

The fact that these missiles can carry nuclear warheads is good enough for me to hold Iran accountable for violating UN prohibitions barring Iran from developing ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. And Mr. Flynn was on solid terrain to orchestrate a new round of punishing U.S. economic sanctions against Iran. No one really expects any action out of the UN Security Council given Russia's veto and other Security Council members unwilling to shut their markets off from Iran's new bazaar abundantly funded by sanctions relief under the Iran nuclear agreement.

If, as President Trump suggests, Iran is "playing with fire" it is incumbent on his advisers to orchestrate a region wide containment strategy against Iran, rather than taking on Iran unilaterally. Remember, U.S. sanctions have a cascading impact on other foreign countries trading with Iran, meaning that any foreign company doing business with a sanctioned entity could also be subject to economic sanctions by the Treasury Department. Tehran is privately howling that these sanctions add to the laundry list of existing U.S. and UN sanctions which impose a chilling effect on any foreign bank doing business with Iran. So be it.

Iran is determined to develop long-range missiles with increasing precision and warhead capacity. It is trolling the globe for better guidance systems to improve their accuracy. The fact that Iran claims that its program abides by the four corners of the nuclear agreement does not cut it. Nor does it cut it that Iran's asserts that its program is defensive in design. Lest we forget. Iran is the principal UN-tagged global state sponsor of terror.

President Obama idealistically hoped that his outreach to Tehran would temper its misconduct and that sanctions relief under the nuclear accord would cause Iran to pivot toward a more statesmanlike global posture.

Based on events so far -- from Syria, to Yemen, to Iran's provocations in the Persian Gulf against the U.S. naval presence, just to name a few -- since the adoption the Iran nuclear agreement, Iran's bellicosity and belligerence has proven Mr. Obama and is serial callow foreign policy team drinking their own Kool Aid.

One thing is for certain. A war with Iran is not in our national interest. What is in our interest is to prevent Iran from leveraging its loosened sanctions shackles to thwart an end to the Syrian civil war and to inflate the threat that its puppet terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, pose to our allies in the region.