Analysis

How Iran and Israel Are Testing Trump

The missile test and the American response come at a very bad time for Iranian President Hassan Rohani.

Iran's President Hassan Rohani looks at an exhibit during a ceremony marking National Day of Space Technology in Tehran, Iran February 1, 2017.
HANDOUT/REUTERS

Why did Iran decide to measure U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration last month by testing a ballistic missile? A similar question could be asked, of course, about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who decided to similarly try out Trump by announcing plans to build 5,000 new homes in the territories, including a new settlement.

In both cases the answer could be identical and pretty simple: Both regimes, in Iran and Israel, are establishing facts on the ground to force Trump to make clear what boundaries are acceptable to him, to test how flexible he is, and to understand what could be derived from his responses. Trump’s answers to both countries were not identical but they were similar. To Israel he made it clear that new construction in the territories was liable to harm the peace process, while he imposed a few sanctions on Iran that aren’t terribly burdensome.

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But there’s also a more complex reason for the entrance exam that Israel and Iran gave the new president. Both countries are immersed in a boiling cauldron of political struggles that are spewing in the direction of the United States as well. One can assume that if Netanyahu was not trapped in Naftali Bennett’s chokehold, he would not have hastened to announce new construction in the settlements. It also seems that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which are very busy with tense preparations for May’s presidential election, wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to carry out the ballistic missile test now.

The missile test and the American response come at a very bad time for Iranian President Hassan Rohani. The waves of criticism of him aren’t coming just from the ultra-conservative side of the political map; many liberals and reformers are also disappointed in his record during his first term. The economic benefits that he’d promised would follow the signing of the nuclear agreement have yet to trickle down to the populace, despite the improved macroeconomic statistics, including 7.4 percent growth, during the first half of Iran’s fiscal year (which begins in March).

Unemployment is still high, more than 12 percent, and 26 percent among young people. The human rights situation hasn’t improved and in some areas has even worsened. And now the Rohani regime’s historic achievement, the nuclear agreement, is probably going to be reexamined by the American administration – or worse, might turn into a power struggle between the United States and Iran.

President Donald Trump listens to the Palm Beach Central High School Band as they play at his arrival at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., Feb. 5, 2017.
Susan Walsh, AP

Rohani still hasn’t announced that he’s running for a second term (which would be his last under the Iranian constitution), apparently fearing that declaring too early would fire up his rivals, who would begin working in earnest to invalidate his candidacy and pave the way for a more aggressive and radical candidate. Still, it’s interesting that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has not publicly addressed the missile test, leaving the Revolutionary Guards and radical preachers to deliver the warnings and threats to the United States.

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Meanwhile, the official, cautious Iranian position, as presented by Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif, is that Iran has the right to conduct missile tests as part of its conventional defense plan, and that the test did not violate the nuclear agreement. But that’s only partially correct. Although the nuclear agreement does not deal with ballistic missiles, the UN resolution that ratified the agreement includes a clause that forbids Iran to test missiles that could carry nuclear warheads, which the missile tested is capable of doing. This gap between the agreement and the UN resolution actually leaves it to the United Nations, not the Trump administration, to decide whether or not the test constitutes a violation. There would need to be a Security Council resolution, which the Russians could be expected to veto, to formally punish Iran or even to issue an accusatory statement that might pave the way for re-imposing sanctions.

Trump, of course, could add new American sanctions, and he could even withdraw from the nuclear pact, but then he would be putting the United States on a collision course with the European Union, three of whose members – France, Britain and Germany – are signed on the agreement, and with Russia and China, both of which oppose canceling the deal. These countries are already deeply invested in the Iranian economy. Britain has renewed its diplomatic relations with Iran, the EU has signed a deal worth billions to supply civilian aircraft, France has oil-drilling contracts, and presumably Boeing, an American company, wouldn’t be pleased to lose a $16.5 billion-dollar deal to supply Iran with 80 airplanes. Boeing, incidentally, has rushed its first plane to Iran to turn the deal into a fait accompli.

The question now is whether Trump, on his own, and against the position of America’s allies, could turn Iran into a “non-partner” by taking positions that strengthen that country’s tempestuous radicals.