The frenetic spirit conveyed by the U.S. administration in President Donald Trump’s second week in office can clearly be seen in the international arena.
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On Monday, Fox News reported that Iran had decided to size up Trump by conducting a ballistic missile test over the weekend. The test failed, but the launch seemed to be taunting the new U.S. president. Throughout his campaign Trump threatened to cancel the nuclear agreement between Iran and the six world powers, but he has been more reticent on the matter of late.
According to the Fox report, the test took place at a site near Tehran, with a missile the Iranians call Khorramshahr (which is actually a North Korean ground missile version of an older Soviet missile, originally launched from a submarine). The missile has a range of about 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) and a warhead that weighs about a ton; it can also carry a nuclear warhead. Fox quoted senior U.S. officials who claimed the missile was able to fly 965 kilometers before exploding.
The test launch is not a breach of the agreement signed in Vienna between Iran and the world powers in July 2015. But it goes against the UN Security Council resolution passed shortly thereafter (in the wake of the Vienna agreement), prohibiting such tests. The Iranians, who object to this interpretation of the resolution, held similar tests about six months ago, which the Obama administration chose to show restraint over.
But as we know, Trump has a radically different style to that of his predecessor. In the year before his election, he harshly criticized the nuclear accord, attacked Iran’s hidden schemes and promised to act more harshly toward the United States’ enemies.
Now it seems Tehran is challenging Trump to see just how serious he is. Iran seems to be playing with fire. By his own admission, Trump started his administration at a breakneck pace. It’s hard to predict how he will respond to such a move.
Even so, Sunni Arab states are pressing Trump to take a more aggressive stance against Iranian provocations. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video in which he condemned the missile launch, saying that in his upcoming meeting with Trump on February 15, he will recommend that the U.S. president reinstate sanctions against Tehran for violating understandings in the nuclear realm and for the assistance it gives terrorist groups. “Iranian aggression cannot be left unanswered,” Netanyahu said.
This time, the prime minister did not directly address the question of reopening the Vienna accord, for which he expressed support in the past, and made do with calling it a “weak agreement.” As reported recently in Haaretz, some of Israel’s intelligence agencies object to the cancellation of the agreement and have warned Netanyahu that such a development could cause more harm than good.
Trump created a huge predicament, all on his own, by issuing an executive order banning entry into the United States to citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries. While his new and inexperienced administration is dealing with the ramifications of last Friday’s decision, including mass protests throughout the United States, the Iranians have arranged a test for him in the realm of foreign relations (if we ignore for a moment the Mexican crisis over the wall).
If the president chooses to respond with practical steps to the challenge from Iran, he could discover that Russia and China – two of the signatories to the Vienna accord – do not necessarily share his opinion. The European Union also has different concerns.
It’s unclear whether Iran thought through the results of its move. But assuming that Trump won’t be able to stay quiet over the provocation, there might be further tension in this arena as well.