Don’t say Donald Trump never did anything for Barack Obama. On Wednesday, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn put Iran “on notice” for its ballistic missile test and its arming, training and equipping of Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The early reaction from the network of groups that pushed for the Iran nuclear deal has been shock and horror. The Arms Control Association warned President Trump against “provoking confrontation.” The National Iranian American Council said Flynn’s warning was “reckless.” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s top national-security adviser, let loose about it on his twitter feed.
And I understand the alarm. After all, Trump has ridiculed the Iran deal since the parties agreed to it. News outlets Thursday night reported the administration planned on sanctioning 25 Iranian entities for the missile test and support for the Houthis. Trump administration officials tell me there will be other changes to Iran policy to follow, including new rules of engagement for U.S. Naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. All of this creates an atmosphere of uncertainty for Iran’s leaders who don’t yet know what it means when Trump puts them “on notice.”
Most times, predictability and steadiness are important for statecraft. But there are exceptions. Iran’s recent aggression in the Middle East is one of them. Since completing the nuclear deal in 2015, Iran has tested ballistic missiles at least 12 times, according to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. This is not only contrary to U.N. Security Council 2231, which calls on Iran not to test missiles. It also means Iran is perfecting the delivery mechanism for an eventual nuclear weapon, if it chooses to build one down the road. Remember, the limits on Iran’s enrichment activities expire between 2025 and 2030.
Perhaps the deal’s supporters believe Iran’s Sunni neighbors and Israel would just allow Iran to keep testing with no real consequences. But that’s a risky bet. And it’s made even riskier in light of Iran’s aggressive shadow war throughout the region. The Yemeni Houthi militias it has armed, trained and equipped just attacked a Saudi ship in the Red Sea. These skirmishes can quickly escalate. How likely is it that the nuclear deal would survive such an escalation?
One way to reduce the risk of a regional war Iran and its proxies are currently stoking is through deterrence. Because Trump’s advisers have yet to present a new war plan to take out the ISIS group, it also makes sense that the U.S. position on Iran should be vague. Let the regime’s imagination run wild. Who knows what else Trump will do?
Now it should be said that Iranian officials have long publicly warned that their proud nation does not respond well to threats. As the Iranian-Swedish activist Trita Parsi wrote Thursday in the Huffington Post, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is fond of saying Iranians are “allergic to threats.”
But this just isn’t true. Threats and pressure have worked well with Iran. Look no further than the nuclear deal itself. Iran only agreed to even negotiate with the U.S. and five other great powers after the world imposed crippling sanctions on its oil exports and central bank. It took the threat of economic collapse to get Iran to start negotiations.
The reverse is also true. Iran has been testing more ballistic missiles, increasing its interventions in Yemen and Syria and detaining additional U.S.-Iranian dual nationals since it completed the nuclear agreement. When Obama was trying his best to reset the relationship with Iran, the Iranians became more aggressive.
The best news for Obama is that the White House on Wednesday was clear that, for now, it does not intend to withdraw from the nuclear deal. A senior administration official on Wednesday told reporters that he did not consider these missile tests to be a violation of the pact itself. When Obama sold that agreement to Congress in 2015, he promised that the U.S. was only lifting sanctions on Iran related to its nuclear program. And while Obama imposed a few mild sanctions designations on Iran for missile tests, the economic pain these measures caused was miniscule compared to the benefits of Iran’s sanctions relief.
Trump is now preparing new sanctions and signaling that there will be greater consequences under his administration for missile tests and other forms of Iranian regional aggression. If those consequences are meted out with skill and resolve, a little confrontation today could stave off a larger conflict down the road.