On Wednesday afternoon, President Trump picked his first foreign-policy fight—and signalled who’s currently in charge of those decisions. Some seven hours before the former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson was sworn in as Secretary of State, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn strode to the podium in a packed White House Briefing Room and, without advance notice, issued a combative warning to a foreign power. “As of today,” he declared, “we are officially putting Iran on notice.” It was the first time the former lieutenant general had appeared publicly on behalf of the Administration, and his performance was in keeping with his feisty reputation and his well-known antipathy toward Iran. Flynn was fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency by President Obama partly for his defiant views on the Islamic Republic.
As a Presidential candidate, Trump frequently lamented the “disastrous” nuclear deal negotiated, in 2015, between Iran and the world’s six major powers, and vowed to rip it up. In the past week, however, career U.S. diplomats have told the new Administration that Tehran has so far fulfilled its commitments under the agreement. Flynn’s showdown on Wednesday confronted Iran on two other grounds. The first was a failed Iranian missile test, on January 29th, that Flynn charged defied U.N. Resolution 2231. The next day, Flynn said, Houthi rebels in Yemen—who are backed by Iran—attacked a Saudi vessel. It was the latest attack in a civil war that became regional after a Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm, in 2015, against the Houthis.
“The Obama Administration failed to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions—including weapons transfers, support for terrorism, and other violations of international norms,” Flynn told reporters. Instead of being “thankful” to the United States for the deals brokered under Obama, Flynn said, Iran is now “feeling emboldened.” The United Nations has also been “weak and ineffective” in restraining Iran, he said. On Thursday, at a meeting with executives from Harley Davidson, Trump said military action against Iran is not off the table. “Nothing is off the table,” he told a press pool.
In the past two weeks, Trump has demonstrated that he’s sticking to his promise of “America first,” even when it antagonizes allies like Australia and Mexico or undermines a hard-fought nuclear pact involving the world’s five other major powers. Trump, in a series of early-morning tweets, issued his own challenge. “Iran was on its last legs and ready to collapse until the U.S. came along and gave it a lifeline in the form of the Iran Deal: $150 billion,” he said. “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile. Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!”
The Trump White House, Flynn vowed, will more vigorously hold Iran to account for actions “that undermine security, prosperity, and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East and place American lives at risk.”
Flynn’s challenge marks the end of the U.S. experiment in engaging directly with Iran, which began under Obama after the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist, in 2013. The two Presidents talked by telephone just weeks after Rouhani took office, when he came to New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. That exchange quickly led to the start of diplomacy between Iran and the world’s six major powers, to insure that Iran’s nuclear program did not produce a bomb. For the next two years, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spent more time with each other than with counterparts from any other nation. The negotiations produced the most important non-proliferation agreement, later endorsed by the United Nations, in more than a quarter century.
The Trump Administration now seems to be charting a separate course from its partners—Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia—on Iran. “We are communicating that Iranian behavior needs to be rethought in Tehran,” a senior Administration official told reporters at a subsequent special briefing on Iran. The official also suggested that Washington was even considering support for opponents of the regime.
Flynn has been an outspoken advocate of ousting the theocracy. In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2015, he said, “Regime change in Tehran is the best way to stop the Iranian nuclear-weapons program.”
Flynn’s statement on Wednesday coincided with the conclusion of a visit by the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, to Tehran. Ayrault brought with him dozens of businessmen, to explore new deals now that many international sanctions have been lifted. “In the face of all the challenges our world is faced with, France refuses to turn in on itself, or to stigmatize,” Ayrault said, in a statement on Monday night. “It is making the choice of international cooperation and multilateralism.” He met with both Rouhani and Zarif. The nuclear deal, he added, has also deepened exchanges among businessmen, tourists, and students, and was already “bearing fruit.”
Flynn’s challenge to Iran provoked new questions. He offered no specifics on what the dire-sounding “on notice” means. After reading his seven-paragraph statement, Flynn shut his folder and walked out without taking questions. The Administration had apparently fired the first warning shot at Iran even though it has only begun to review its policy options, ranging from economic sanctions to military action. “We are only in our second week,” a senior Administration official told reporters. “We do not want to be premature or rash, or take any action that would foreclose options or necessarily contribute to a negative response.”
Iran, however, read Flynn’s statement as delivered. “We’re not going to wait for others’ permission to defend ourselves,” Zarif, the foreign minister who negotiated the nuclear deal, said at a press conference in Tehran. “Maybe the new [U.S.] government, which has already shown its image internationally, will use this against Iran to start new tension.” Rouhani has called Trump a novice at politics who does not understand the way the world operates. On Thursday, Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, vowed that Iran will “vigorously” continue its missile activity and would not cave to threats, describing Trump’s policy as its own form of “extremism.” The nuclear deal covers only Tehran’s ability to make bombs, not its missile capabilities. The Islamic Republic currently relies heavily on missiles because its Air Force, which has had limited access to new warplanes, atrophied after the 1979 Revolution. The theocracy began acquiring or developing independent technology for missiles after coming under intense bombardment by Iraqi missiles during the two nations’ eight-year war, in the eighties; it has conducted several missile tests over the years, although the number diminished during the U.S.-Iran diplomacy, according to experts.
In its latest test, Iran launched a medium-range missile called the Shahab, the senior Administration official told reporters. The country has had the basic technology to launch a nuclear-sized payload on a medium-range missile—which could reach Israel and the southeast corner of Europe—for more than a decade, according Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence expert. But Iran does not now have the ability to produce the fissile material to make a bomb, or to weaponize it by loading it on a missile—and, under the nuclear agreement, it won’t for at least fifteen years. Trump’s policy assumes that Iran still intends to try, possibly even with the missile that was tested this week. “Ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering a payload of at least five hundred kilograms—to a range of three hundred kilometers—are inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons,” the official said.
In 2015, the Security Council passed U.N. Resolution 2231, which calls on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.” The resolution is somewhat ambiguous on exactly what counts as a violation, according to a new briefing paper by the Iran Project, a non-government group of former diplomats and experts led by former Ambassador William Luers. It concludes that the latest missile test is “inconsistent with the spirit” of the U.N. resolution but is not considered a “violation.”
Some analysts suggest that the Trump Administration is overplaying the threat—for now. “Iran hasn’t been shooting ballistic missiles at anyone,” according to James Walsh, of M.I.T.’s security-studies program. “It hasn’t threatened to use them except in defense. Sure, it would be better if they didn’t have missiles—the fewer the better—but Israel, Iraq, and Turkey have had ballistic-missiles programs, and Saudi has air-ground missiles.”
Flynn’s statement may be “more bluster than anything else,” Michael Elleman, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told me. “The test changes very little.” He added, “What can we do to stop missiles tests short of war, or imposing sanctions on a par with those that preceded the nuclear deal?”
Despite the tough words from Flynn, the United States has not deployed new forces in response to either the Iranian test or the Houthi attack, the Defense Department spokesman Christopher Sherwood said. “U.S. defenses in the region are adequate to defend against an Iranian aggression or missile tests,” he said. But momentum is building among Republicans on Capitol Hill to aggressively squeeze Iran. New bills have recently been introduced in both the House and the Senate to impose multiple layers of new sanctions on Iran for its support of terrorism, human-rights abuses, and missile program. The Iran Nonnuclear Sanctions Act of 2017, which was introduced in the House on Wednesday, warns, “The United States will no longer stand idly by and allow the Mullahs to flout international law and threaten the peaceful coexistence of nations with its reckless, belligerent behavior.”
Trump would almost certainly sign the kind of punitive new legislation that Obama once indicated he would veto. And while the new moves on Iran do not yet destroy the Iran nuclear deal, they could certainly begin to destroy the diplomacy and spirit that produced it.