The U.S. and Iran in the Trump Administration: Conflict, Accommodation or Both?

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The Takeaways

The United States has put Iran "on notice" in the wake of Iran’s latest ballistic missile test and signaled the Trump administration’s intention to toughen up the U.S. response to Iran’s actions in the region; and yet, at the same time, administration officials have signaled that they intend to abide by the terms of the nuclear deal assuming Iran does too. Can President Trump’s White House navigate this fine line? Does it want to? And what does Iran expect from the Trump administration? On February 16, 2017 Wilson Center President and CEO Jane Harman welcomed a panel of experts for a discussion on where Iran-U.S. relations may be headed. Aaron David Miller, Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar, moderated the discussion. Joining him were Robin Wright, USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Fellow; Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations and former Senior Advisor on Iran, Department of State; Robert S. Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies.

Robin Wright began the discussion by emphasizing that the Trump administration will take a much harder line towards Iran. She noted that the United States is in a transition period once again following the resignation of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor and the nomination of Robert Harward for the post. With Flynn’s statement that Iran was “on notice” and belief that regime change in Iran was needed, those positions may change under Harward. Wright pointed out that Harward grew up in Iran in the 1970s and speaks Farsi, so he has a much different experience with Iran and its people. Another key issue in President Trump’s approach to Iran would be the possibility that the administration would demand that the IAEA inspect Iran military sites along with nuclear facilities. Wright noted that, at present, there is no indication of non-compliance by Iran on the nuclear deal.

Wright also emphasized that the nuclear agreement may not be the main area of focus. She identified four areas of possible tension moving forward. They include more Iran ballistic missile tests, disagreements in the Persian Gulf surrounding U.S. and Iran navies, support by Iran for terror groups and militias in the region, and human rights abuses of Iranian-Americans imprisoned within Iran. Wright suggests that much of President Trump’s approach must factor in the U.S. Congress, which currently has eight bills in the House and Senate focused on restraining Iran. “Bottom line: we may not see as much tension surrounding the nuclear deal, which may actually survive the Trump administration, but I do think we will see more tension over a host of other issues, which may escalate,” Wright concluded.

Ray Takeyh noted that the Iranian regime has often been cautious during the start of new U.S. administrations. This is especially true with Iran’s presidential elections taking place in May 2017. Takeyh pointed out that many politicians and officials in Iran are currently debating the merits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement. “My guess is the Trump administration is still trying to figure out their policy and approach towards Iran,” Takeyh suggested. He also stressed that, because Harward's time in Iran was before the revolution, it may not indicate a firm understanding of the current regime. Takeyh observed, like Wright, that much of President Trump’s agenda on Iran will, in large part, depend on Congress’s actions. Congress may have a bill by March or April which designates the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. He concluded that, “it will be a tense relationship, for the same issues that Robin mentioned. The theme of the day is pushback on Iran, and now everyone has to define the content of that, and once this is done you have to figure out the cost of this as well.”

Robert Litwak began by warning that the Trump administration faces a major decision on the nuclear deal, in addition to handling increased tensions with North Korea. Litwak underscored that the administration has already issued two “red lines” in President Trump’s twitter posts. In referring to North Korea’s development of a missile capable of reaching the U.S., Trump responded “It won’t happen!” and Michael Flynn announced that Iran was now “on notice.” Litwak then recapped recent history of U.S. policy toward Iran, noting that under George W. Bush the approach toward Iran changed from one of containment to one of regime change. The Obama administration took a different approach and worked toward “engaging with adversarial states.” This new engagement “helped in achieving multilateral support for pressure on Iran, which culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” Litwak stated, “Coercive engagement yielded the Iran nuclear deal, which was a discrete agreement which constrained the program. It’s not a grand bargain. It’s transactional and not transformational.”

Litwak also observed that, despite President Trump’s rhetoric, the new administration has shown little indication of wanting to abandon the nuclear agreement with Iran. Litwak explained that a key test for President Trump is how the U.S. will respond to areas outside the agreement, such as ballistic missile tests by Iran. “What does ‘on notice’ mean in practical terms?” asked Litwak. “Iran also gets a move and we should be recognize the hundreds of Americans advising Iraqi forces in the campaign on Mosul.”

Litwak concluded by pivoting to North Korea and warning that the regime is on the verge of a nuclear breakout. Some officials have estimated that North Korea will possess over one hundred missiles by 2020. Litwak suggested three options are available for President Trump here including bombing, negotiating, or acquiescing. Litwak suggested that something similar to the Iran nuclear deal might be an effective way forward in approaching North Korea and the containment of the regime’s nuclear program.

 

 

Speakers

Introduction

Moderator

Speakers

  • Robert S. Litwak

    Senior Vice President and Director of International Security Studies
  • Ray Takeyh

    Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, former Senior Advisor on Iran, Department of State
  • Robin Wright

    Robin Wright

    USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Fellow
    Journalist and author/editor of eight books, and contributing writer for The New Yorker