Paul D. Shinkman — U.S. News.com July 19, 2017
President Donald Trump has elevated the risk of war with Iran following new sanctions announced this week and more that potentially could follow, according to experts in the region.
After reluctantly confirming that Iran has complied with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, limiting its nuclear program, the Trump White House has repeatedly declared this week that Iran has violated the spirit of the agreement, and slapped Iran with new sanctions on Tuesday targeting the hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, and its supporters.
The administration is reportedly considering separate economic sanctions, which Iran has blasted as in violation of the 2015 agreement brokered by the Obama administration which would allow foreign countries to trade with Tehran provided it complies with the deal.
Experts fear that Trump’s insistence on punishing Iran as he promised repeatedly on the campaign trail only brings the U.S. closer to conflict in an already violent part of the world.
“If this path is continued down, we risk having a scenario where Iran ignites its nuclear weapons program … and once again risks putting the U.S. and Iran at war,” says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that seeks to improve relations between the two countries. “That’s what we’re gambling with here. It would be a very different conversation if the Iranians were in violation, if the Iranians were cheating.”
“This only leaves the impression Trump is seeking confrontation regardless of what Iran does or doesn’t do.”
American military and intelligence officials routinely cite Iran as one of the most malicious and dangerous actors in Middle East conflicts. The U.S. designated it a state sponsor of terror in 1984 and has since documented its support for terrorist groups throughout the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
The JCPOA was designed largely to restrict Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon, not to undercut its terrorism activities – those efforts remained intact. Trump as a candidate routinely pledged to tear the the agreement that he considered “the worst deal ever negotiated.”
Following reports Trump intends to impose new sanctions, top Iranian leaders threatened U.S. troops if the administration follows through, particularly if it targets the IRGC or other elite units loyal to Tehran, like the zealous Quds Force.
“Putting the IRGC in one single class with the terrorist groups and imposing similar sanctions against the IRGC poses a major risk to the U.S., its bases and forces deployed in the region,” Maj. Gen. Mohammed Hossein Baqueri, the chief of staff for Iran’s armed forces, said on Monday, according to Iranian state news.
American officials have acknowledged these threats, particularly as thousands of U.S. forces continue to operate in Iraq in support of the central government’s war against the Islamic State group and affiliated terrorist groups.
“We will have to posture ourselves to be ready for that,” Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday, “but I don’t think we should take that threat and keep it from taking action against the Quds Force.”
A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group did not respond to requests for comment in time for this report regarding whether American forces had observed any uptick in activity by Iranian troops in Iraq or Iranian-backed militias, or if they had had been directly targeted. U.S. warplanes attacked believed Iranian-backed militia near the Syrian town of At Tanf at the Iraqi border in May when they approached a U.S. special operations forces’ camp.
Sanctions the Trump administration has imposed and is considering imposing are also limited because they appear strictly punitive, not aligned with a public strategy to contain Iran or to bolster diplomatic initiatives to undercut its nefarious activities.
“The president is painting himself into a corner by slapping the Iranians around rhetorically,” says Michael Desch, a former congressional and State Department official, now a professor at the University of Notre Dame.
The New York Times reported that Trump’s most senior top military officials – Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, both open critics of Iran’s activities in the region – were the most staunch opponents of Trump’s original decision to declare that Iran was in violation of the JCPOA, indicating that the White House likely would not follow through on military action against Iran.
The sanctions, Desch says, allows the White House to say it accomplished something without actually changing much.
“This is a bit of Kabuki theater, both because the president is sort of a liverish guy, the Iranians have not endeared themselves to him, but also because slapping the Iranians around rhetorically is a no-lose proposition in American politics. Nobody loves the Iranians,” he says. “Given what America’s interests are, and particularly given that Iran hawks like Mattis and McMaster were on the other side of the recertification issue, that leads me to think that cooler heads will prevail.”