Donald Trump risks larger conflagration with Iran threats

Michael Flynn’s warning that Tehran is ‘on notice’ risks destabilising the nuclear deal

The Trump administration’s threat to put Tehran “on notice” after it test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile have raised tensions in the Gulf region and come at a time provocative US, British, French and Australian naval manoeuvres were taking place close to Iran’s shores.

When US national security adviser Michael Flynn issued the warning to Tehran last week, commentators in Washington were prompted to accuse the administration of looking for a pretext to abort the agreement which dismantled Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions.

The US is just one of six signatories of the deal and Russia, France, China and Germany are unlikely to go along with the US threat, although Britain could wobble.

Tehran argued it had not violated the nuclear deal and dismissed the US contention that the test breached UN Security Council resolution 2231 endorsing the agreement. This resolution calls on Iran not to launch ballistic missiles "capable of delivering nuclear weapons".


Western powers had complained that 11 previous tests violated the “spirit” of the resolution but no action was taken. This may be because US and Israeli experts have said Iran’s missiles are for deterrent purposes and would have to be redesigned to carry nuclear warheads, which Iran does not have.

Washington reaction

While Iran may have carried out the latest test to gauge Washington’s reaction, the Trump administration responded by imposing cosmetic sanctions on 25 individuals and entities accused of involvement in obtaining components for missiles. Vice-president Mike Pence warned Iran “not to test the resolve of this new president” and defence secretary James Mattis said the Trump administration would neither ignore nor dismiss Iran’s actions.

Republicans in Congress had called on the Obama administration to respond to missile tests by reimposing US sanctions on Iran itself, but this would have amounted to a violation of the nuclear deal and could have prompted Iran to cease implementation of its obligations.

A tougher reaction might have been expected from the new administration since, during the presidential election campaign, Donald Trump had pledged to "rip up" the deal and warned Tehran that if its patrol boats approached and harassed US Navy vessels in the Gulf, they would be "shot out of the water".

Trump later changed his tune on the nuclear programme, saying he would “police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance” of breaching it.

Trump will, however, have to "police" the nuclear deal without alienating Iran, which is playing a major role in the battle against the Islamic State terror group in Syria and Iraq.

Regional enemies

Iranian officers advise the Iraqi and Syrian militaries, and Iranian-backed militias are fighting on the front lines. Trump's anti-Iranian stance is in line with positions taken by Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of which see Iran as their main regional enemy. Trump may, however, have to change his approach to Saudi Arabia, which finances and arms Islamic State, which is also known as Isis, as well as al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

To ensure Trump has a free hand to get tough with Iran, the Republican-majority Congress is drafting a Bill that would permit him to wage “pre-emptive war” on Iran at any time he chooses without consulting the legislature. The stated aim of such a war would be to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons although, under the nuclear deal, Tehran has eliminated its nuclear programme and would need many months to create the means to build nuclear devices.

It would be impossible to limit an attack on Iran to its nuclear research facilities. The US would have to take out army and naval bases and other military installations to prevent retaliation against US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as on Israel and Arab allies, particularly those in the Gulf, disrupting the flow of oil to Europe and Asia.

Iran's Lebanese ally Hizbullah could strike Israel while Russia, allied to Iran in Syria, could support Iran with heavy weaponry and ammunition. All-out war in the region, in addition to being a humanitarian catastrophe, would have serious negative consequences for the fragile global economy.