Some days, news you do not read – is the real news. Case in point: President Trump’s handling of Iran’s belligerence with extraordinary caution, care and unblinking focus.
Facts are riveting, and argue that the president’s team has a strategy, knows the stakes, accepts the mission, understands the objectives and is flush with options. That does not make resolving Iran’s geopolitical conundrum – preventing an oppressive, radical Shia and objectively terrorist state from obtaining nuclear weapons – easy.
Review the timeline: In May 2018, President Trump’s team – after studying details – concluded the Obama-era executive agreement with Iran was an elaborate bribe, hundreds of billions of US dollars buying delay of nuclear weapons. It was also a dangerous fiction.
The unratified accord – if left in place – would legitimize a nuclear Iran, while unenforceable, and risking a nuclear Middle East. Trump withdrew and re-imposed “highest level” economic sanctions on Iran, seeking renegotiation.
Said the President: “The fact is this was a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made. It didn’t bring calm. It didn’t bring peace, and it never will.” European countries disagree, and do not re-impose sanctions.
In late May 2018, the US offered another plan: End uranium-235 enrichment, end ballistic missile proliferation, end nuclear-capable missiles, and verify through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The US will then end all sanctions, open full diplomatic and commercial relations. Europe objected.
By August 2018, US sanctions were re-imposed, diplomatic overtures renewed. They were ignored by Iran. Iran’s central bank was cut off by the US, as Europe offered Iran economic aid.
In September, President Trump detailed Iran’s bad acts to the United Nations. In November, the US imposed new sanctions on Iran, which remained intransigent. Some 300 entities were named, although oil import waivers were granted to nine countries.
In February 2019, the US urged European allies to get on board with sanctions, but they continued doing business with Iran. In March, the US imposed sanctions on entities formerly tied to nuclear weapons development. Europe objected.
In April, the US designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Evidence of terrorism was compelling; many thought the move overdue. Iranian President Rouhani responded by putting new centrifuges at an enrichment site in Natanz. Raising the sanction bar, State ended waivers for those still importing Iranian oil.
Iran’s economic decline accelerated, with inflation rising – or put differently, currency value falling. Access to commodities was curtailed, government leaders looking after themselves.
In May, relations took a sudden downturn. Reports suggested Iran was preparing to strike US assets in the region. Four tankers near UAE were damaged by explosions. The US sent USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Battlegroup to the Arabian Gulf – as a deterrent.
Iran announced it would repudiate limits on stockpiles of enriched uranium, unless given relief from sanctions imposed, lifted and re-imposed for Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program.
If you are following Iran’s logic, bad behavior got forgiven by Obama-Biden, who also paid Iran billions of dollars to delay nuclear work. Trump said no dice, and re-imposed sanctions – until an authentic end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program is reached. Iran doubled down, saying they were back at uranium enrichment – until America lifts sanctions.
The US added sanctions on industrial metal exports. Europe meantime told Iran it was uncomfortable with “ultimatums,” and politely asked Iran to “refrain” from enriching uranium. Iran announced it would quadruple uranium enrichment, surpassing limits in the accord.
In June, as before, the US made clear diplomacy was available, with “no preconditions.” Russia defended Iran, knocking US diplomacy. The IAEA became concerned. Japan’s prime minister visited Iran for diplomacy but was rebuffed.
On June 13, two tankers in the Gulf were attacked. Evidence pointed to Iran, which denied involvement. On June 20, Iran shot down an unmanned US drone over international waters.
Although the US retaliatory strike was minutes away, President Trump held fire – to protect 150 Iranian lives. Instead, on June 24, sanctions were imposed on Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Over the past two weeks, Iran has remained intransigent, as UN regretted Iran’s resumption of enrichment, exceeding limits – and the IAEA confirmed the breach. The US responded: “Maximum pressure on the Iranian regime will continue until its leaders alter their course of action” to comply with “longstanding nonproliferation standards of no enrichment ….”
A diplomatic solution remains available. Europe regrets Iran’s breach, and asks “full compliance by Iran.” The US effort to spur an end to Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles remains firm, incremental and unblinking. Responses to Iran’s aggression have been restrained – some might say exceptionally restrained. Ronald Reagan destroyed half of Iran’s navy when they mined the Arabian Gulf and sank a US ship.
Do not expect to media credit for President Trump. This weekend, the New York Times ran stories on Tunisia, New Zealand, Spain, Sudan, Indonesia and Italy – no Iran. If the President had hit Iran hard that would have been news. But reporting Trump’s diplomacy is not news.
That said, keep your eyes on Iran, as every indication is the President Trump is keenly focused. He wants a no-nukes accord or end to nuclear weapons development. He is not a warmonger, but knows stakes are high. Iran could go to weapons grade – enough for a bomb – in a few months. Iran will be more important before less, but Trump is focused on success – whether you read about it or not.