Is Trump looking for a pre-election fight with Iran? – analysis
By Yonah Jeremy Bob
The US will attempt to start playing a fascinating high-stakes game this weekend, only six weeks from Election Day.
Starting on Saturday, the US appears to not only be saying it will economically penalize countries worldwide who have any arms dealings with Iran, but that it may also actively intercept shipments.
Until now, the maximum pressure campaign from the US side has been mostly about money.
Anytime things got militarily hairy with the Islamic Republic, Washington was usually reacting and not initiating – though there is a debate about whether the assassination of Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp Quds Force Chief Qasem Soleimani changed that paradigm.
But some experts believe that the US may start intercepting arms shipments even in areas where the ayatollahs have more military assets and might be more likely to respond.
In a Wednesday report by the Jewish Institute for National Security in America (JINSA), one recommendation for arriving at a nuclear deal that more comprehensively blocks Tehran from a nuclear weapon was highlighting a credible military threat. Citing examples from 1988 and 2003 to 2012, the report said that, “credible military threats have most reliably forced decisive changes in Iranian behavior, including where sanctions alone could not.”
The report continued that an effective maximum pressure policy must supplement “existing robust economic sanctions with stronger military and diplomatic policies to compel Tehran to agree to an acceptable deal.”
Further, the report said that, “the Pentagon should make clear it is updating contingency planning, both to neutralize Iran’s nuclear facilities and counter potential retaliation by Iran and/or its proxies in response to Israeli military action.”
In addition, the report said that, “American officials also should prepare contingency plans to defend the United States and its allies from Iranian tests of nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missiles, including visible demonstrations of US missile defense interceptors and clear threats to shoot down these tests if necessary.”
Most importantly, the report said that the US “should ensure that the rules of engagement for its forces around the Middle East – both onshore and off – permit appropriately forceful self-defense responses to potential escalation by Iran and its proxies.”
JINSA is an influential think tank, but does not make policy. Also, none of this is a declaration of war and it seems more about threatening nuclear sites than about seizing ships bearing illegal weapons.
But robust self-defense, coupled with a more aggressive policy in physically boarding and seizing ships carrying arms to or from Iran, can easily be understood as an explosive formula.
Earlier Thursday, US Special Representative for Iran Elliot Abrams held an unusually detailed press conference about US intentions.
Abrams made no explicit threats of boarding or using military force. But when confronted that US arms sanctions – without support from the UN and compliance from China and Russia – could be toothless, he pushed back hard.
Referring to US-EU cooperation in enforcing arms sanctions, he said, “they could cooperate closely with us as – and when they see any effort by Russia, China, or anybody else to sell arms to Iran. We – again, we will be enforcing those UN sanctions.”
It is very hard to believe that the US would risk seizing Russian and Chinese boats bound for Iran. But what about Iranian ships bound for Hezbollah or Yemen?
Integrating the above with Abrams’ answer about the significance of the US strike on Soleimani, it seems that the US might be ready to bump heads to enforce the arms embargo.
He said that prior to the US killing Soleimani, some “were in doubt about the willingness of the United States to conduct an activity like that…And I think it’s much clearer now that the United States is truly willing to act to defend itself and its allies and to act against terrorism in the region.”
Abrams added, “there are indications of some degree of caution on the part of Iran about what reaction from the United States a particular Iranian action might evoke.”
All of this could still be about financial sanctions and trying to deter Iran from initiating any new military adventures. Such an approach would square much more with US President Donald Trump’s general aversion to any drawn use of force (despite constant threats) and desire to withdraw troops from the Middle East.
But down in the polls, it is also possible that Trump might calculate a low-grade fight with Iran could have a rally around the flag effect.
Along these lines, it is interesting that the US has used its legal reading of the snapback regime to start its push in mid-September – a full month before the arms embargo itself was even set to expire.
If Trump just wanted to generally look tough, he could keep talking about the arms embargo issue. But he could have waited until after election day to do anything about it – given that the embargo expiration date of October 18 was two weeks from the election.
The rapid rollout of US snapback sanctions against the background of multiple defeats over the issue in the UN Security Council is part of what could suggest a desire by the Trump administration to force a more serious exchange with Tehran leading into the election.
Another possibility is that hawks like US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Abrams are pushing for butting heads. Maybe Trump is giving them leeway, but it is unclear if he will pull them back before things get messy.
Whether the new pressure relating to the arms embargo is to make noise about the financial measures or a more physical world altercation over an arms shipment, the new US wave highlights how little relevance the current case before the International Court of Justice has.
The ICJ is hearing a bizarre case by Iran suing the US for withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and imposing sanctions, by using a 1950s friendship treaty.
In some ivory tower that ignores Iranian terror toward the US since 1979, the US’s failure to withdraw from the treaty until 2018 might serve as a basis for the ICJ to intervene on this intensely diplomatic and global security issue.
But whether the ICJ intervenes or not is ultimately irrelevant.
The Trump administration is currently sanctioning the International Criminal Court for daring to allow a criminal probe of the alleged torture of mostly al-Qaeda detainees by US forces in Afghanistan in 2003-2004.
Unlike the powerless ICJ, the ICC can actually issue arrest warrants, which bind around 125 countries and can also be enforced by INTERPOL.
If the Trump administration is that disdainful of the ICC, one can imagine how easily it will dismiss any dictates about Iran policy from the ICJ which has no enforcement powers whatsoever.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post