TSG IntelBrief: U.S. Paints Iran as Major Threat
June 7, 2017

U.S. Paints Iran as Major Threat

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• The Trump administration has characterized Iran as a major threat to U.S. national security, nearly on par with that of North Korea. 

• President Trump has equated the terrorism threat from Iran with that of Sunni Muslim-dominated groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

• During his recent trip overseas, President Trump made clear that the U.S. was aligned with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states in their major rivalry with Iran, which has fueled regional sectarian violence for years.

• Senior U.S. officials did not congratulate Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani for his May 19 re-election, and President Trump instead expressed some support for regime change.

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U.S. President Donald Trump’s May 2017 trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel clarified his administration’s policies toward Iran. In April, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson certified that Iran has been complying with its commitments under the landmark 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement, while at the same time saying the deal had only delayed—not ended—Iran’s ambitions of becoming a nuclear-armed state. While the certification signaled that the Trump administration will continue to uphold the Iran nuclear agreement, Tillerson also announced that the administration was undertaking a comprehensive Iran policy review, to include the nuclear agreement, and that the administration is committed to countering the broader Iran threat. 

In Saudi Arabia in May, President Trump accused Iran of giving terrorists “safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing for recruitment.” His comments on Iran came in the context of an address urging solidarity among Western and Muslim-inhabited nations against Sunni Muslim-dominated terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The speech drew no distinction between Sunni groups and those supported by Iran, and appeared to characterize all of Iran’s regional activities as terrorism, rather than as part of Iran’s national and regime defense strategy. The visit also clearly aligned the U.S. with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in their existential rivalry with Iran. That rivalry has been playing out most actively in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and to lesser extents in Lebanon and Iraq. However, two weeks after the Trump visit, splits within the GCC on dealing with these same regional conflicts complicated U.S. anti-Iran coalition-building efforts when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain—joined by Egypt and the recognized Yemen government—suspended relations with Qatar, primarily over Qatar’s continued support of regional groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and relatively positive relations with Iran. 

Aside from President Trump’s recent trip, U.S. Iran-related policy has manifested in several significant ways. The Trump administration has largely dropped human rights conditions on sales of sophisticated U.S. arms to the GCC countries, particularly combat aircraft. The presidential visit also advanced U.S. efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to purchase the U.S.-made Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense system as a means of addressing the growing missile threat from Iran. The Trump administration has also signaled it might increase its military support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The policy represents a sharp break from Obama administration policy that urged Saudi Arabia to search for ways to co-exist with Iran and withheld some arms sales from the GCC states on human rights grounds. 

President Trump’s trip coincided with the pivotal May 19 election in Iran that pitted incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian architect of the nuclear agreement, against hardliner Ibrahim Raisi, an ally of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As President Trump was arriving in Saudi Arabia, Rouhani was declared the winner with a decisive 57 percent of the vote. Even though Rouhani had campaigned on a platform that included attempting to resolve outstanding issues with the U.S., the Trump administration did not publicly congratulate Rouhani or express support for his re-election. Rather, in a clear rebuff to Rouhani and other Iranian leaders, President Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia called on “all nations of conscience [to] work together to isolate Iran.” Trump hinted that the U.S. would not only fail to seek to engage Rouhani, but would instead “pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.” The formulation suggested Trump’s inclination to perhaps seek opportunities to change Iran’s regime. 

The U.S. statements and actions on Iran policy were underpinned by the May 11 U.S. intelligence community assessment on worldwide threats. The congressional testimony was replete with analysis asserting that Iran constitutes an “enduring threat to U.S. national interests” based on Iran’s support for terrorism, its development of ballistic missiles, its advancing cyber-attack capabilities, and its development of numerous types of conventional weapons systems. The intelligence community presentation also asserted that the naval forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are “operating aggressively in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz” and “pose a risk to the US Navy.” U.S. intelligence leaders added that Iran is utilizing its increasingly close relationship with Russia to expand Iran’s regional influence and counter U.S. pressure. In its actions and assessments, the Trump administration has painted Iran as a broad and significant national security threat nearly at the level of that posed by North Korea. At the very least, the Trump administration has signaled that it has abandoned the Obama administration vision of rapprochement with Iran, or any attempt to enlist Iran as a potential negotiating partner to resolve Middle East regional conflicts.

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