Paul Pillar

Anti-Iranism in the Trump Administration

One of the most direct indications of Donald Trump’s failure, or refusal, to understand issues involving Iran is his tweeted declaration this week that the Iranians “should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!”  It supposedly should be an occasion for Iranian thankfulness when Iran, subjected to economic punishment, gains only partial relief from that punishment through difficult negotiations in which it subjects itself to greater restrictions and more intrusive monitoring than any other state has willingly accepted for its nuclear program, even though some neighbors unfriendly to Iran not only have nuclear programs without those restrictions but also nuclear weapons.  No mention is made of Iran abiding by the agreement while most of the questions about compliance concern U.S. behavior and sanctions relief—which is why many Iranian hardliners argue that the nuclear agreement was a bad deal from Iran’s perspective.

Another illusionary Trump tweet asserts that Iran “was on its last legs”—which it certainly was not, having endured not only years of sanctions but also an extremely costly war begun by Iraq—until the U.S. “gave it a life-line in the form of the Iran deal: $150 billion”.  That $150 billion figure has long been discredited, with regard not only to the amount but also to how Trump and others who have thrown it about ignore how money that came into Iran’s hands (unfrozen overseas assets, and restitution for goods the United States never delivered) was always Iran’s money to begin with.

In explaining the timing of Trump’s declarations, one always has to look at what he is trying to divert attention from, and right now the uproar over the anti-Muslim travel ban is no doubt involved.  But the supposed trigger for these tweets and for an anti-Iran blast that Trump’s national security adviser delivered in the White House press room was an Iranian test of a ballistic missile.  Missiles have long been used by Iran-bashers as a red herring.  Missiles of various ranges are so much integrated into conventional armed forces, and missile proliferation has gone so far in the Middle East, that it does not make sense to single out an Iranian missile test as something that, in the hyperbolic language of security adviser Flynn, are among Iranian actions that “undermine security, prosperity, and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East and place American lives at risk.” If rivals of Iran can’t develop their own missiles, they buy them.  Saudi Arabia has bought them from China.  The United Arab Emirates has bought them from North Korea.  Short of the negotiation of a comprehensive regional missile disarmament pact, Iran will have missiles.

Former State Department intelligence officer Greg Thielmann highlights the most important points about this latest attempt to brew a tempest in the Iranian missile teapot.  A prohibition on Iranian missile activity incorporated in a United Nations Security Council resolution that was enacted during Barack Obama’s presidency was intended and used, just like other sanctions, as one more pressure point on Iran to induce it to negotiate restrictions on its nuclear program.  Accordingly, the later Security Council resolution enacted after negotiation of the nuclear agreement included only a hortatory clause “calling” on Iran to lay off the missile tests.  It is at best a stretch to call the latest test a “violation” of this resolution, and it certainly is not a violation of the nuclear agreement or any other agreement that Iran has signed.  As long as the nuclear agreement lives and Iran does not have nuclear weapons, Iranian ballistic missiles are of minor importance, and they do not pose a threat to U.S. interests (and this most recent test, by the way, was a failure).

Thielmann summarizes as follows the environment that Iranian defense planners face, and the reasons Iranian missiles are a symptom rather than a cause of conflict and weapons proliferation in the Middle East: “During the eight-year war following Iraq’s invasion, Iran was more the victim of than the source of ballistic missiles raining down death and destruction. In spite of its large missile arsenal, Iran has no long-range ballistic missiles; three of its regional neighbors do. Iran has no nuclear warheads for its missiles; two of its regional neighbors do. Iran does not have a large and modern air force as an alternative means of projecting force as do Saudi Arabia and Israel.”