National security adviser Michael Flynn “putting Iran on notice” last week. (Screen shot via Politico)

Last Wednesday, national security adviser Michael Flynn appeared in the White House briefing room to issue a statement. He singled out what he characterized as Iran’s “destabilizing behavior across the Middle East,” including “a provocative ballistic missile launch” that was, in his opinion, done “in defiance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231,” which was passed July 20, 2015. UNSCR 2231 endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal among Iran, the United States, Russia, China and the European Union is officially known. “As of today,” Flynn darkly declared, “we are officially putting Iran on notice.”

The Iranian test, which involved a Khorramshahr medium-range missile, took place three days earlier, on Jan. 29. After flying roughly 630 miles, the missile exploded in midair in what appeared to be a failed test of a re-entry vehicle. As Flynn noted in his statement, the Security Council had, in its Resolution 2231, “called upon” Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.”

Iran maintains that its missile test was not in violation of any Security Council resolution, saying that it has no nuclear weapons program, its missiles are designed as conventional weapons only and it has a legitimate interest in self-defense, inclusive of the right to test and deploy ballistic missiles. Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and current policy adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, dismissed Flynn’s statement as “baseless ranting.”

Legally, Iran has the stronger position. Although a previous U.N. resolution, UNSCR 1929, passed in 2010, directed “that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles,” that resolution was terminated as a result of the ground-breaking nuclear deal. It was replaced by the resolution cited by Flynn. The later resolution, UNSCR 2231, only calls upon Iran not to test missiles, a far less stringent standard that falls short of an outright prohibition on missile testing. While the Obama administration, when negotiating the JCPOA, had opposed watering down of the language, Russia, China and Europe disagreed, and the new verbiage was approved.

But neither legality nor reality seems to be a defining feature in the worldview of the Trump administration. “Iran is playing with fire,” President Trump tweeted after the Iranian test. “They don’t appreciate how kind President Obama was to them. Not me!” Shortly after the newly inaugurated president’s tweet, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions against Iran for its “continued support for terrorism and development of its ballistic missile program.” After the sanctions were announced, Flynn issued a follow-on statement: “The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.”

The charges supporting the Trump administration’s justification for sanctioning Iran, however, are factually and intellectually unsustainable. While there is no arguing that Iran’s behavior during the early years of the Islamic Republic’s existence justified it being labeled as a sponsor of state terrorism, the same cannot be said of its policies since 2001. Iran was quick to condemn the 9/11 terror attack on the United States and played a role in supporting American actions against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Iran’s overt and covert actions in opposing what it viewed as an unjust and illegal occupation of Iraq by the United States are often cited by those opposed to the theocracy in Tehran as proof of the ongoing legitimacy of the “terrorist” label. Viewed broadly, however, the Iranian policies toward Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 are part and parcel of a coherent approach to opposing the very Sunni-based Islamic fundamentalism that motivated the 9/11 terror attacks and continue to drive al-Qaida, Islamic State and other Islamic extremist elements around the world today, a fundamentalism against which the United States wages its “global war on terror.” Iran is helping lead the fight against Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria and is a sworn enemy of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Yemen. Seen in this context, Iran is more ally than foe, and the label “state sponsor of terror” appears trivial and inappropriate—especially when viewed beside the policies of erstwhile America allies such as Saudi Arabia, whose citizens constituted the majority of the 9/11 attackers and which is responsible for underwriting the financial and material support of Islamic extremists around the world, including Islamic State and al-Qaida.

When asked about the range of responses his administration might consider in dealing with a recalcitrant Iran, Trump replied, “Nothing is off the table,” implying a military option. Any military action against Iran, however, void of just cause and proper preparation and planning, would be foolish and counterproductive to U.S. national security objectives in the Middle East and around the world. It would also be near suicidal for U.S. forces deployed in the region.

An American military strike against Iran based upon continued testing of ballistic missiles would most likely trigger a response from Tehran that would neither be limited nor readily containable. American forces in Syria and Iraq that are currently focused on defeating Islamic State could be put at genuine risk from the thousands of Iranian troops and pro-Iranian proxies operating in their vicinity. Moreover, any military action against Iran could draw both Israel and Russia into the fight (and not necessarily on the same side) while alienating European allies and creating levels of uncertainty that neither the American military nor foreign service is prepared to deal with.

Trump committed to a strong anti-Iranian stance during his campaign, promising to do away with the “bad deal” that was the JCPOA. While more pragmatic minds seem to have convinced the new president that it would not be in America’s best interests to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran, the words and actions of the Trump administration seem to indicate a willingness to foment a crisis with the theocracy in Tehran. This is not sound policy.

In May of this year, Iran will hold elections for the office of president. The incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, has proved to be a moderating influence on the more conservative elements inside Iran—he was singularly responsible for Iran’s willingness to negotiate a nuclear deal that many inside Iran opposed. Rouhani’s re-election is not a foregone conclusion; indeed, the recent death of his long-time mentor and ally, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has substantially weakened the position of the Iranian president in the face of strong conservative opposition to his policies, further complicating any re-election bid by the incumbent.

Iran under Rouhani has shown itself more than capable of navigating difficult diplomatic waters made even more treacherous by inconsistent and often hostile American policy. A conservative Iranian president would not necessarily be able, or willing, to do the same. If the goal of the Trump administration is to do away with the Iranian nuclear deal, there is no more certain path to that outcome than the election of a conservative successor to President Rouhani. Such an outcome would be disastrous for Iran, the United States and the rest of the world. While the decision as to who will govern as president of Iran is ultimately one that the people of Iran, through their constitutionally mandated processes, will decide, there seems to be a lack of recognition within the Trump team as to the ramifications of the administration’s words and actions when it comes to shaping events involving Iran and other countries.

The Trump administration’s foray into Iran policy—courtesy of Michael Flynn’s statement—seemed to have been driven by a national security adviser flying solo; Secretary of Defense James Mattis was in Asia and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was not yet confirmed. One can only hope that Trump will, in the future, rely more on the advice of such senior Cabinet officials when it comes to issues with the complexity and magnitude of Iran, and less on the inflammatory words of Flynn. Military conflict with Iran is not desirable policy. Playing with fire is one thing, getting burned another—especially when it is the United States holding the match.

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