Nukes, Riots and Proxy Wars: The Three Urgent Decisions Trump Must Make on Iran

Experts on what Trump’s choices could mean for the Americans, Iranians and the Middle East

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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In this photo released by the semi-official Iranian Mehr News Agency, Iranian revolutionary Guards personnel, foreground, watch the launch of a Zelzal missile during military maneuvers outside the city of Qom, Iran, Tuesday, June 28, 2011.
In this photo released by the semi-official Iranian Mehr News Agency, Iranian revolutionary Guards personnel, foreground, watch the launch of a Zelzal missile during military maneuvers outside the citCredit: Mehr News Agency / Raouf Mohseni
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – Iran is once again dominating the headlines in the international media and the conversations in Washington’s corridors of power. Over the coming days and weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump will have to make a number of critical decisions regarding the Islamic Republic.

The three issues facing Trump are the fate of the nuclear deal signed with Iran in 2015; the scope of America’s support for the protests currently taking place on the streets of Iran’s major cities; and the level of the U.S.’ commitment to combating Iran’s regional influence, particularly in Syria.

Haaretz spoke to several experts to understand what the president’s different options could mean for the United States, Iran and the Middle East.

The nuclear deal: Nix it or fix it?

Between January 11 and 17, Trump will have a chance to fulfill his campaign promise of ripping up the Iranian nuclear deal. Why those specific dates? Because that’s when Trump will have to sign a number of documents extending the temporary waiver of key economic sanctions against Iran – which were frozen as a result of the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers in July 2015. If Trump chooses not to waive the sanctions, it will allow Iran to claim the United States has breached the nuclear deal.

U.S. President Donald Trump announcing his decision to decertify the Iranian nuclear deal, October 2017. What will he do next?Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

Trump announced in October he was “decertifying” the deal, but stopped short of reimposing sanctions on Iran. His administration has already sanctioned Iran for its ballistic missile program and state support of terrorism, but those sanctions were not directly related to the nuclear deal.

If Trump had decided back in October to reimpose some of the sanctions that were lifted because of the nuclear deal, it would have had significant consequences. Instead, his televised address did little to change the actual situation and was seen by senior officials in countries committed to the nuclear deal as mostly aimed at internal politics.

What makes Trump’s upcoming decision even more complicated is the massive civil protest that erupted in Iran last week.

“The administration’s current position on the nuclear deal question will probably be hardened by the prospect that Iran’s regime could perhaps be more vulnerable now,” says Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow and Iran expert at the Brookings Institution.

“I don’t think these developments on the ground in Iran will prompt the administration to hold back from whatever steps they’re planning,” she adds. “There’s no way to truly predict what the president will do, but we know that television coverage affects his thinking, so I think it’s fair to assume these protests will be a factor.”

Georgetown University’s Ariane Tabatabai is an expert on Iran’s foreign policy and its nuclear program. She believes decisions that harm the nuclear deal or statements casting doubt over its future would not benefit the protesters in Iran. “I think a lot of Trump’s rhetoric over the last year has offended not just the regime but also a majority of ordinary Iranian citizens,” she notes.

She cites two examples: Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly in September; and his statement decertifying the nuclear deal in October, both of which described Iran as a destabilizing presence in the world.

“These speeches and other things he said brought a strong sense of criticism against the United States” from Iranians, says Tabatabai. “It’s been largely negative. It’s hard to know where he goes next: Does he destroy the deal altogether, or does he once again take a ‘Wait and see’ approach, leaving the deal’s fate in the hands of Congress.”

After Trump’s October speech, there was some expectation in the White House for congressional action on the issue, including legislation targeting some of the “loopholes” highlighted by the nuclear deal’s opponents. Yet as of January 1, no such legislation has made significant progress on Capitol Hill, with Congress mostly focused on Trump’s tax reform plan and avoiding a shutdown of the government.

Michael Doran, a former senior director at George W. Bush’s National Security Council and an expert in U.S. policy toward the Middle East, says that before the protests his assumption was that Trump “would kick the can down the road.” Now, though, Doran sees potential for “squeezing them [Iran], putting back sanctions and pushing back against their regional aggression.”

Doran was a prominent critic of the nuclear deal, yet says the Trump administration’s top priority right now shouldn’t be just dismantling the deal, but instead building a “regional coalition” against Iran that would stop it from expanding its influence and dominance in the Middle East.

The White House has stayed mum on what Trump will eventually do regarding the nuclear deal. Last week, after Israel’s Channel 10 reported on a visit by a senior Israeli delegation to Washington to discuss Trump’s Iran policy, a White House official told Haaretz that discussions between the United States and Israel on this question are ongoing. However, they did not provide any specific details on how Trump plans to handle the upcoming sanctions deadline.

University students attending a protest inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by anti-riot Iranian police, December 30, 2017.Credit: /AP

The protests: Support or stay out?

Beyond the question of how they will influence Trump’s decision on the nuclear deal, the current mass protests in Iran present a dilemma of their own for the Trump administration.

In 2009, when tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in what became known as the “green revolution,” the Obama administration deliberately stopped short of expressing support for the protests. The administration later explained this was done in order to prevent the Iranian regime from branding the pro-democracy protesters as agents of the United States. Critics of the administration claimed its response was influenced by its strategic commitment to achieve a nuclear deal with Iran.

Over eight years on, Trump is now facing a similar dilemma: How much should the Americans support demonstrations against a repressive, anti-U.S. regime in a country where the United States (and its current president) are far from popular?

Maloney believes it would be a mistake to repeat the Obama administration’s 2009 reaction. “I think [Barack] Obama at the time tried to avoid being sucked into the unrest as an indirect player,” she observes. “It made some sense in light of the diplomatic and political developments that took place later in Iran, but it has also been a ‘lesson learned’ for the United States. The regime is going to accuse any opposition of being driven by foreign inspirations and seek to discredit it through any means possible,” she says.

The White House has issued statements calling on Iran to respect its citizens’ rights to protest and express their beliefs, while Trump himself published a number of tweets backing the protests, all of which included strong verbal attacks on the Iranian regime.

Maloney says the official statements by the White House, which were less combative than Trump’s tweets, were “right on target, responsible and constructive.”

Doran, meanwhile, is more approving of Trump’s response – “So far, so good” – adding that more should be done to embarrass the Iranian regime while its people protest over economic hardships and corruption. “We should make our propaganda war a lot sharper by declassifying some intelligence on the Iranian leadership’s financial holdings, and on their personal corruption,” Doran says. “It’s always hard to get this kind of idea through the intelligence people, for obvious reasons, but at a time like this it could be critical.”

He totally rejects the argument that the United States would be helping the regime and hurting the protesters by taking such steps. “The people making this argument – who do they think they’re dealing with?” he asks. “They think this regime is not going to come down on these protesters anyway and accuse them of being tools of foreigners? It’s in the regime’s very nature to do such things, no matter what the United States does,” Doran adds.

Tabatabai believes Trump’s reactions, especially his tweets, have not served the protesters in any way, and have likely caused them more harm than good. She highlights one tweet in which Trump linked the demonstrations to U.S. military power and another in which he wrote that the Iranian people are “getting wise” to reality as examples of the wrong type of message from the White House.

“Those tweets aren’t going to sit well with the regime, but neither will they be appreciated by average Iranians,” she says. “They may be good for Trump’s internal politics, but not for the United States’ foreign policy objectives. The hard-liners in the regime will accuse the protesters of empowering someone who has been very negative toward Iran. His words will help them discredit the protesters.”

Tabatabai, incidentally, was in Iran during the 2009 protests and says she has never fully made up her mind on Obama’s reaction at the time.

The demonstrations in Iran broke out during a week when much of the federal government in Washington was on vacation. The administration’s reactions will come under more scrutiny in the coming days, with the resumption of official press briefings at the White House and State Department. Government bureaucrats will also have more involvement in crafting the next set of official responses to the situation.

If the demonstrations persist and expand, they will probably become the Trump administration’s first major test in the Middle East during its second year in power.

Iran's army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking into binoculars as he visits a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria, October 2017.Credit: Uncredited/AP

Regional aggression: Real policy or just talk?

Last but not least, the Trump administration will soon have to decide what it wants to do in Syria – where over the last three years Russia has increasingly been the country calling the shots, with its ally Iran the main benefactor.

A White House official told Haaretz last week that Iran’s presence in Syria was one of the main issues discussed during the recent visit by the senior Israeli delegation to Washington. The concern in Israel – and other countries in the region that oppose Iran – is that while Trump expresses tough rhetorical positions toward Iran and bashes the nuclear deal, he might choose to continue his predecessor’s line of inaction in Syria, thus allowing Russia and Iran to continue achieving their policy objectives there.

Doran, who is mostly supportive of Trump’s presidency, says the real question is, “How much is Trump actually following a coherent worldview? And if he is, how much is he capable of fulfilling it? The Europeans are dismissive of him – they think he just wants to differentiate himself from Obama, not to actually change the status quo. I give him more credit, but his test will be whether he succeeds in building a regional coalition to fight back against Iran’s aggressions in Syria and elsewhere in the region.”

Another interesting question is how much the protests will influence Iran’s regional activities. Maloney says that “unfortunately, I don’t see a real opportunity for public opinion in Iran to change the regime’s regional activity. The Iranians supported terror organizations in the region even when they were under worse economic pressure than now. They will continue to do that.

“What they can’t do is create jobs for their people. If they acted responsibly, eventually all the sanctions would collapse and the economy would be in a much better shape. But that’s not the situation right now,” she notes.

Tabatabai points up the “hypocrisy” of the Trump administration, which is criticizing Iran for its regional aggression and human rights violations at home, while simultaneously praising Saudi Arabia’s leadership, despite the deteriorating situation in Yemen (where Saudi Arabia is at war with Iran and its proxies) and the human rights situation in the kingdom itself.

“Many Iranians see [Trump’s] embrace of MbS [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] as an American president endorsing a young and reckless leader, who is adding fuel to the fire all across the region,” Tabatabai says. The more aligned Trump becomes with Saudi Arabia’s regional priorities, she adds, the harder it will be for him to convince the Iranian people he opposes the regime but supports them and their interests.

Trump is not facing a specific deadline on this issue, unlike the nuclear deal deadlines that are mandated by congressional legislation or the daily deadline over the protests in Iran, which are currently a leading news story.

Syria has become a massive tragedy that, on most days, the world simply ignores. Yet as Syrian President Bashar Assad, supported by Iran and Russia, continues to regain control of parts of the country, Trump’s dilemma in Syria will grow more urgent. And just like the two other issues, it’s not clear exactly what he intends to do.

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