US President Donald Trump took to the podium earlier today to announce his administration’s new policy toward the “rogue regime in Iran,” which comes after a period of strategic review. When President Obama took office in January 2009, he ordered a similar review, a move that fundamentally changed President George W Bush’s belligerent tone toward Iran and ultimately resulted in the negotiations that led to the historic Iran Deal in 2015.
During his angry speech, Trump declared that, as expected, he refuses to certify the Iran deal. As a result, Congress has now 60 days to react. Unless Congress and US allies are able to come up with a better deal, the Trump administration will “terminate” it, the president said. He once again referred to the deal as “one of the worse and most one-sided” the US has ever entered — a refrain he used throughout his campaign for presidency, as well as since his inauguration in January.
The new US policy is to be based on a “clear-eyed assessment of the Iranian dictatorship” and its “sponsoring of terrorism,” the president said, before attacking Iran’s “fanatical regime,” which has “forced a proud people to submit to its extreme rule.” Such language was never used during Obama’s years. When he was president, the White House sent a Nowruz message each year, even when President Ahmadinejad was in office, that addressed “the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
While the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly declared Iran to be complying with the 2015 deal, Trump claimed that the country hasn’t lived up to the “spirit” of the deal, and that it has “intimidated” the inspectors into not using their full range of powers. Iran was possibly “dealing with North Korea,” he said, before adding that he has asked US intelligence to carry out a “thorough analysis” on the matter.
When it comes to actual policy, the speech was short on details — he said lots of angry words but did not refer to much specific action. For instance, while he promised the “execution of long overdue tough sanctions” on the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), which he called the “Iranian Supreme Leader’s corrupt personal terror force and militia,” he stopped short of designating it a terrorist organization. Legislation criminalizing the IRGC had been passed months before and was nothing new.
Trump concluded his speech by declaring sympathy with Iranian regime’s “longest-suffering victims, its own people.” He said they were “longing to reclaim their country’s proud history, its culture, its civilization and its cooperation with its neighbors.” He also said that he’d “pray” for a future in which young children, “Iranian and American, Christian, Muslim or Jewish” can grow up together but that “before that blessed day comes,” he will do everything to “keep America safe.”
Anger, and Lessons to be Learned
Initial reactions on social media showed a diverse array of Iranians reacting angrily to his speech. It didn’t help that he did just about the surest thing to unite the largest possible number of Iranians against him: He used the A word. Trump referred to the “Arabian Gulf” even though the White House’s hand-out on the speech uses the official term Persian Gulf. Iranians, of virtually every creed, are fanatical about the name of this body of water and they were quick to take to socila media to attack Trump on the issue. The hashtag #NeverTrustUSA was a Twitter trend for many Iranians.
Trump’s allusion to the “Green Revolution” also angered many.
“How heinous for Trump to abuse the name of the Green Movement when all its leaders and Iranian reformists are serious supporters of the Iran Deal and clear opponents of Trump,” tweeted Mohammadreza Jalayipoor, a reformist activist and a research fellow at Harvard, in Persian.
Azar Mansoori, a leading reformist politician in Tehran, also reacted negatively to Trump.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani went live shortly after Trump’s speech with a predictably calm yet firm speech. Trump needs lessons in “history, geography, international commitments, manners, ethics and international norms,” the Iranian president said. During his speech, Trump had recounted a history of Iran’s post-1979 anti-US actions, including its support for the Lebanese Shia militia-cum-party Hezbollah, which reputedly bombed US sites in Beirut in the 1980s, and its little-known sheltering of some of the Bin Laden family. Rouhani responded by outlining the US’s role in organizing the 1953 coup in Iran, its support for the shah and its refusal to condemn Saddam's chemical attacks on Iran during the 1980-1988 war. He also raised the US’s use of atomic weapons in Japan and its “bombing of thousands, from Vietnam to Latin America.”
The US can’t unilaterally annul the Iran deal, Rouhani said, echoing what the European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini had said minutes earlier.
On the specific issue of the Iran Deal, Rouhani said that even after months in power, Trump has actually failed to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (as it is officially known), even though he had promised to do so in his campaign. This showed that the deal “is stronger than what he thought.” So long as “Iranian interests are met,” Iran will continue honoring this multilateral deal and working with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rouhani declared.
The Iranian president’s words included a firm defense of the Revolutionary Guards (which has often butted heads with his administration on the domestic front) and its fight against ISIS, and a declaration that Iranians were all united behind the “orders of the Supreme Leader.” These points, especially the last one, will probably prove to be a bit over the top for many Iranians, even if they stand against Trump’s belligerence.
Predictably, Riyadh and Tel Aviv have backed Trump’s new strategy as strongly as Tehran has opposed it. But the real question might be about the reaction of the rest of the world, from Moscow, Beijing and Ankara to Paris, Berlin and Brussels. It also remains to be seen what will happen, beyond the tough talk, in terms of the specific policy changes the US will pursue. Even so, the words of the world's most powerful man have made people around the world extremely nervous.