Trump’s no-holds-barred representative at the UN Nikki Haley recently issued a not so veiled threat against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Haley stated several days ago that the president "has grounds" to declare that Iran is not complying with the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The statement stoked doubts about whether the president intends to keep up the international agreement achieved by Obama over two years ago that many saw as a core legacy achievement for the former president.
Under the deal, Iran agreed to curtail certain elements of its nuclear program in exchange for relief from heavy international sanctions.
Some observers saw Haley’s statement as laying the groundwork for the United States to rescind the agreement. Haley finished her comments, made at a meeting of the American Enterprise Institute with this: "What I am saying is should [Trump] decide to de-certify [the deal] he has grounds to stand on."
The original deal codifies that the president must report to Congress every 90 days, certifying that Iran is complying with its end of the bargain in order for the deal to remain in effect.
The “grounds” that Haley referred to were issues, which while serious, are not necessarily tied to the topic of nuclear armaments, such as human rights violations and weapons testing. This was pointed out by critics of Haley shortly after her statements were made public. France's ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud for instance, tweeted in response to Haley: "The Iran deal is about the nuclear issue, nothing else. So far, Iran is abiding by the commitments taken in this mutually agreed framework."
This may actually be true.
To date, we haven't seen any hard evidence that Iran is flagrantly violating conditions of the nuclear bargain (not that these conditions were so demanding of Iran to begin with, as pointed out by the deal’s critics).
It is clear that there is something more fundamental at play, beyond the technicalities of the JCPOA, that forms the motivation for the US to come out against Iran, and that something is likely the US-Israel interest to push against the Shiite Axis, i.e., Iran and its proxies.
Recently, the Israeli Defense Forces conducted one of the most massive and comprehensive series of maneuvers in recent memory on its northern border. The drills consisted of some 10,000 ground forces, naval units, as well as air support participation. According to Israeli media quoting senior IDF officers who participated in the drills, the exercises were simulating war with the Shiite terror organization Hezbollah. The radical Shiite group supported both financially and logistically by Iran, possesses a full-fledged guerrilla fighting force, which although lacking big military hardware, boasts advanced gear and tactical training. According to interviews with officers on the ground, the exercises were based on the scenario of an infiltration of Hezbollah forces into Israel that had succeeded under the cover the terror group’s advanced short range missile arsenal. The drills then simulated the counter offensive of Israeli forces deep into Lebanese territory.
Israel’s preparedness to act militarily to its north is real, and cannot be overstated. The recent airstrike against targets in Syria, almost certainly executed by the Israeli Air Force, is a stark testament to that.
The most interesting comment from IDF sources was the explicit assertion that any military action would be designed to instigate an agreement with Israel’s enemies to its north. The deep thrust into Lebanon the IDF would gain, “would allow the political ranks to secure a deal” with all the opposing factions involved in the conflict.
What would the nature of this “deal” be?
To answer this question, it is important to understand that any Israeli conflict with Hezbollah is, in a very real way, a proxy war with Iran. In this way, the Israeli interest of keeping its borders safe parallels the US administration’s goal of keeping Iran from spreading mayhem in the Middle East. A hard loss for Hezbollah on the battlefield could be an essential part of bringing Iran in line on a variety of issues.
Late last week Donald Trump informed the public that he was weighing a strategy involving a more aggressive US responses to Iran, specifically its support for Shiite proxies and other militant groups.
The report which was presented to Trump at the last National Security Council meeting was prepared by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster among other top officials.
The fact that this report comes on the heels of Haley’s comments on the nuclear deal, clearly indicates that its introduction is an attempt to threaten Iran about its activities in the region. In the words of one official quoted by Israeli media, "I would call it a broad strategy for the range of Iranian malign activities: financial materials, support for terror, destabilization in the region, especially Syria and Iraq and Yemen."
As for the diplomatic end on Israel’s side consider recent statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, currently touring South America. During his stopover in Buenos Aires, Netanyahu addressed the Iran problem in bold terms at a gathering at the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AIMA) building, site of the massive 1994 bombing that killed 85 people, also making reference to the Israeli Embassy bombing in 1992 that killed 30.
"Today, just as in the past, Iran instigates terrorism all over the world.” Just as two and a half decades ago, when Iran was the one to light the fuse of the explosive that hit Argentina twice."
The coordinated effort between the United States and Israel to come down on Iran is clearly there. Questions that remain are, how Iran will respond, and what will American action look like if the administration doesn't get the response it’s looking for?
Truth be told, the majority of both US and Israeli policymakers want the Obama deal to stay intact, including those that may have opposed the enactment of the agreement to begin with. They see JCPOA as the most stable option right now, and pulling out completely will only make matters worse, by letting go of the little bit of leverage the deal does grant, and turning their backs on international partners that supported it.
The bold moves by the administration as of late do signal that the US isn’t willing to stand by quietly and watch Iran further conflagrate the region. Nuclear deal or no nuclear deal, the United States has options to tighten the screws on Iran and its allies if need be.