It’s no secret that leaders in crisis often try to distract from domestic problems by redirecting attention to an international concern. One of President Trump’s campaign promises and one of his most consistent policy approaches has been isolating Iran. But instead of creating a more stable Middle East, the US-Iran relationship is, arguably, more fraught with danger than it has been since the days of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979.
Past actions and recent trends suggest that Trump may seek to take more action against Iran before leaving office on Jan. 20. This would be a serious mistake, with potential long-term consequences. Recent reports state that Israel’s defense force is on high alert, and that Iran is bracing for some sort of American action. Just days ago, Trump ordered acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller to keep the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Middle East rather than return home as Miller had directed.
This troubling trend started in 2018, with a US unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly called the Iran nuclear deal. The United States withdrew in spite of sharp criticism from other states in the agreement, including Germany and Britain, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which said that Iran had stayed in compliance with the agreement.
One year later, the United States ended waivers that allowed its allies to buy Iranian oil with the statement from the White House noting that their goal was to cut off Iran’s primary source of income, their petroleum sales. At the same time, the Trump administration also listed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, marking the first time the United States had applied this designation to a segment of a foreign government. In response to this decision, Iran designated the US Central Command (the regional command in charge of the Middle East) as a terrorist organization.
These actions led to increased tensions in the Persian Gulf, including both US and Iranian drones being downed in the summer of 2019. In December 2019, attacks on an airbase in Iraq, supposedly by Iran-backed Iraqi militias, prompted US air strikes on locations in Syria and Iraq. A second attack by Iraqi militia on the US Embassy in Baghdad was also believed to have been supported by Iran.
An escalation occurred on Jan. 3, 2020, with the American attack that killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, as well as an Iraqi militia leader, and a number of IRCG troops. Trump defended this attack by claiming that Soleimani was planning attacks on a number of US embassies in the Middle East, a claim that was later refuted by US Secretary of Defense Mike Esper.
Iran then announced that it would no longer uphold any of the remaining Iran deal requirements. And on Jan. 8, 2020, Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on the Iraq airbase that housed US-coalition troops. A passenger jet taking off from the Tehran airport was accidentally shot down by Iran hours after their attack on the US base, believing it to be an incoming missile.
Although the tensions of early 2020 did not accelerate to a full-blown conflict between the US and Iran, there have been consistent provocations by both sides. Random missile strikes on coalition bases in Iraq contributed to the US decision to reduce its number of troops in Iraq. In May, Trump vetoed a Senate resolution that would require him to get congressional approval for any military action against Iran.
It’s in this framework that we should consider various Trump administration actions in recent months. There has been no relaxing of tensions between the United States and Iran. And to forget about past events leaves everyone open to a dangerous surprise in the last days of the Trump administration.
The recent efforts to have various Arab League countries normalize relations with Israel should be viewed through the lens of US-Israeli-Iranian relations. For every country that the United States bribes to recognize Israel, they are further isolating Iran. Iran also has stated that these agreements are a “betrayal” of the Palestinians by these governments in favor of Israel.
The recent decision to recognize Morocco’s highly disputed claim over the Western Sahara has been roundly criticized as an abandonment of the US tradition of recognizing self-determination rights. It also further damages any potential credibility in dealing with Palestinian claims of the same sort.
Many of the agreements have included US promises to sell military equipment to various states in the Middle East. Encouraging normalizing relations with Israel, and adding arms to the deal, further threatens Iran’s position in the region. The Trump administration appears to be withdrawing US troops from the states where Iran has some influence (Syria and Iraq) but arming those states that are already disdainful of, if not downright hostile to, Iran.
The assassination of a major Iranian nuclear scientist in November was the latest apparent provocation. While the Trump administration claims no knowledge of the event, the unprecedented secret meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman just days before the assassination have fueled speculation about potential Israel or US involvement.
Further events add concern about Trump’s actions in the last days of his administration. At the beginning of November, four senior Department of Defense officials either resigned or were fired, including Esper, who had previously contradicted Trump’s claim that Soleimani had been planning attacks on US interests. Now Miller is blocking cooperation with the Biden administration’s transition team.
The storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6 has made the final days of the Trump presidency even more precarious. There is little to stop him from fulfilling whatever wish he has for Iran. The efforts at encircling Iran throughout the Trump presidency have not improved regional security, and any further escalation could severely damage future diplomacy efforts.
Christina Cliff is an assistant professor of political science and security studies at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H.