Tensions are mounting between the two historically antagonistic regional powers, Iran and the United States. In recent events, Trump appears to be swiftly burning through the diplomatic relations developed under Obama’s leadership. The period of rapprochement between the two states is therefore waning as the Trump administration reformulates the security threat posed by Iran through a series of provocative manoeuvres and rhetoric against the Islamic Republic.
A thread of actions emanating from Tehran has ignited fresh debate and policy consideration in the Trump administration. Washington is reconsidering its precarious relationship with the Islamic Republic, with Trump’s executive already denigrating the Obama administration’s policy of open dialogue and cooperation with Iran. According to a statement made by Michael Flynn, the controversial former National Security Advisor to Trump, Obama ‘failed to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions’. At present, the United States appears opposed to the objectives of the Iranian government, putting Iran officially ‘on notice’ as of 1 February this year.
An escalation in tensions between the two powers is intrinsically linked to Iran’s nuclear program. Whilst the Obama government worked towards mutual agreements with Iran through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) pertaining to Iran’s nuclear agenda, Trump seems determined to dismantle it. The nuclear agreement was ultimately a landmark success for securing a security equilibrium between the US and Iran, which significantly eased hostilities between the two nations. Trump is nonetheless vehemently opposed to this agreement—reached between the US, Iran, the P5, Germany and the EU—denigrating it as ‘one of the dumbest deals’ in history.
Iranian government officials have consequently hit back at the US’ plans to dismember the agreement. Ali Akbar Velayati, who is the adviser to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini, dismissed the US’ proposals as ‘worthless fantasies’. Additionally, the former CIA Director, David Petraeus, weighed in by averring that dismantling the JCPOA agreement would detrimentally isolate the United States. Not only would this isolate America in terms of the Middle East, but it would also jeopardise its relations with the European allies who facilitated and sponsored the agreement.
Consequently, Iran sparked controversy in the US by launching a provocative ballistic missile on 29 January. According to Flynn, this action was ‘in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231’. Whilst this resolution is linked to the JCPOA, testing such a missile is not an express violation of the agreement. The missile launch nevertheless triggered a new batch of sanctions imposed by the US in February. Notably, these sanctions targeted groups and individuals linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
In yet another provocative manoeuvre against Iran, the Trump administration has contemplated listing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation. Since initial discussion of this move, however, the administration has taken no further on-record action. Nevertheless, it’s critical to consider the significance of such a motion against Iran. If the IRGC is listed as a terrorist organisation by the US Department of State, this would be the first time that the nation has listed another country’s armed forces as a terrorist organisation. Arguably, acting on this belligerent rhetoric would be disproportionately provocative to the purported security threat that Iran currently poses to the US. Additionally, Washington has already taken significant action against the IRGC through its latest sanction scheme.
These provocative movements against Iran will have a significant impact on the relations between both countries. Whilst Flynn argued that the recent nuclear agreement of 2015 and consequent amicable relations have emboldened Iran to act aggressively, analysts have indicated that reactively manoeuvring against Iran would be more detrimental to America’s position than the Islamic Republic’s. Severing the diplomatic channel between Iran and the US could have widespread implications for regional stability and security. The Trump government continues to augment the security threat posed by Iran, however, to the extent that US Defense Secretary James Mattis opined that Iran is the ‘biggest state sponsor of terrorism’. Such allegations only serve to engender mistrust and foster a hostile diplomatic climate.
Polarising Iran could have disastrous consequences for a region already embroiled in crisis. The US has enduring interests in the Middle East, and amicable relations with Iran are particularly relevant to regional crises such as those in Yemen and Syria. Should the Trump administration pursue a more openly anti-Iran policy, it will significantly deteriorate a diplomatic channel in Middle Eastern negotiations. However, much remains to be seen in the coming months in regards to the direction the Trump administration will formally pursue in the Middle East. Nevertheless, so far the administration’s blatantly anti-Muslim and consequently anti-Middle East policies only serve to isolate the US and negate its relevance in a constantly evolving, dynamic and turbulent region of the world.
Sarah Barrie is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.