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Trump turns up the heat on Iran, but no clear game plan yet   

Arab News - 03 February, 2017

The Trump administration left little to no doubt Thursday about its intentions to take a more aggressive posture against Iran.

In a statement from National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and tweets early Thursday by the president himself, Tehran was “put on notice” after a ballistic missile launch it carried out on Sunday.

Trump went as far as decrying the nuclear deal that his predecessor Barack Obama and five other nations had signed with Iran, saying it “gave it a lifeline in the form of the Iran Deal: $ 150 billion.”

Flynn struck a similar tone, saying that Iran after the deal “instead of being thankful to the United States ... is now feeling emboldened.”

But aside from the hawkish rhetoric that signals a stark departure from the Obama days, foreign policy experts who spoke to Arab News explained that there is no clear policy or a game plan yet.

180 degree turn from Obama

Issuing the statement and upping the ante on Iran was a clear departure from the Obama policy said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Schanzer said that “after a dozen previous ballistic missile tests (by Iran) went essentially unchallenged, it is refreshing to see the US government call out these violations. We have gone from not challenging Iran at all for its malign behavior (zero) to challenging Iran directly’ it’s a 180 degree turn and that seems significant.”

Flynn’s statement and the White House talking points that followed made reference to the provocative actions by Yemen’s Houthis — “supported and trained by Iran” — against Saudi Arabia and UAE.

Schanzer said he sees that reference as evidence that “the new administration will be looking at the full range of Iranian destabilizing behaviors after Obama chose to effectively ignore much of it.” He blames the latter on “what made our Middle East allies so irate.”

But for Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at American Progress, the White House statements and the president’s tweets, are concerning because “they confirm the risky and reactionary nature” of this administration’s response.

“A parent tells a child you’re on notice, but what’s next?” said Katulis. He cautions that without a clear plan and strategy to respond to Iran’s provocations, this hawkish rhetoric could backfire on US interests and regional security.

Pushed yesterday on what putting Iran on notice means in terms of policy, White House spokesperson Sean Spicer told reporters, “We will have further updates for you on those additional actions, but clearly (national security adviser Michael Flynn) warned to make sure that Iran understood that they are on notice that this is not going un-responded to.”

Vague game plan

The key question for the Trump administration now, said Schanzer, is “what does it do the next time Iran tests the US, violates UN resolutions or challenges a US ally?”
Katulis said there are plenty of vagueness and little strategy in how to respond to Iran.

“There is no deliberative process ... and there is no actual game plan,” he said. This obscurity on strategic planning and next to an escalatory rhetoric could end up “playing into the hands of the hardliners in Iran” Katulis warned.

“The hardliners in Iran might view this as an invitation to escalate in a manner that would undermine the security of our regional allies or make our troops vulnerable (to Iranian provocations) in Iraq, when we don’t have a strategy to respond yet.”

Schanzer said there are a number of options available for a response, noting “they have always been there but Obama refused to deploy them, and it’s up for Trump to determine the appropriate responses.” “Multilateral and unilateral sanctions are undoubtedly among the tools available and so are US sanctions through executive order are probably the easiest to deploy,” he said.

Two bills were introduced in the US congress since Flynn’s statement. The first in the House called “Iran Nonnuclear Sanctions Act of 2017” urges to “target the Islamic Republic’s support for terrorism, human rights abuses and ballistic missile program.”

The second in the Senate, called “Iran Ballistic Missile Sanctions Act,” targets directly the program and entities supporting it.

It is unclear yet in terms of policy where will these measures against Iran fall in the Trump administration. What is clear, however, is that the escalatory rhetoric between Tehran and Washington is already overhauling the dynamics from the past eight years.
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