Trump Administration Begins Threat Inflation on Iran

In an op-ed for the Boston Herald last week urging the Trump administration to uphold the Iran nuclear deal, I noted that the precise posture that the Trump White House will have toward Iran is not yet known. Today, we got our first insight into just how confrontational that posture will be. And it doesn’t look good.

Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn said in a White House briefing that, “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.” According to Flynn, Iran’s recent test of ballistic missiles, which he said is “in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231,” along with an alleged attack on a Saudi naval vessel “conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants” in Yemen, serve as evidence of “Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the entire Middle East” and make clear that the nuclear agreement signed by Iran and the P5+1 has “emboldened” Iran to act nefariously in the region, “plac[ing] American lives at risk.”

Flynn’s statement amounts to heated, combative rhetoric over rather trivial issues. Only one of the incidents cited by Flynn was an Iranian action. While it’s true that Iran supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen, it has never been clear exactly how much support they give and it is doubtful Iran has the kind of leverage over the militants that make them qualify as strategic proxies. At the end of the day, whatever instability is caused by Iranian support for the Houthis, it doesn’t hold a candle to the regional instability caused by Sunni jihadists, like al-Qaeda-linked groups and ISIS, that have been supported with funds coming out of Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states. Rather than berate the Saudis with threatening bombast in a White House briefing, though, Washington continues to aid the Saudi military as it relentlessly bombs Yemen, killing thousands of civilians, putting millions at risk of starvation, and committing acts that a United Nations panel said could amount to crimes against humanity

With regard to Iran’s ballistic missile test, the reality is far less alarming than Flynn’s words suggest. The nuclear deal itself doesn’t prohibit these missile tests. And as Dan Joyner, professor of international law at the University of Alabama School of Law, explains, “the assertion that Iran’s ballistic missile tests…violate UN Security Council resolutions is incorrect because, as of Implementation Day, all UNSCR’s adopted prior to that date regarding Iran are terminated except for Resolution 2231. And the language that Resolution 2231 employs in addressing Iran’s ballistic missile activity is legally nonbinding language…[T]here can thus be no violation of a legal obligation that doesn’t exist.”

As The Wall Street Journal reports, “UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the deal, ‘called upon’ Iran to avoid any activity related to missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.” It’s hard to confirm one way or the other, but for what it’s worth Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the Journal that none of Iran’s missiles are designed to carry a nuclear warhead and the tests involved “conventional warheads that are within the legitimate defense domain.” Given that Iran has verifiably rolled back its nuclear enrichment program over the past year, it makes sense that they would have little interest in designing missiles that can carry nuclear warheads, especially given the added international scrutiny it would needlessly attract.

Flynn’s statement indicates an eagerness to stir up tensions with Iran over relatively innocuous issues. This will undoubtedly be perceived in Tehran as threatening, thereby bolstering the more hawkish voices in Iran and undermining the future viability of the Iran nuclear deal, despite the fact that, as the International Crisis Group recently reiterated, “It has delivered so far on its narrow objective: effectively and verifiably blocking all potential pathways for Iran to race toward nuclear weapons.”