During a White House briefing Wednesday afternoon, spokesman Sean Spicer brought National Security Adviser Mike Flynn to the podium to deliver a prepared statement offering more detail on Iran’s recent “destabilizing behavior” in the region.
On Sunday Iran conducted a ballistic missile test, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls upon Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”
On Monday Iranian-backed Houthi rebels waged a suicide attack on a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea that Pentagon officials believe may have been intended to target a U.S. Navy ship. Flynn condemned both actions and issued a warning. “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”
It’s not clear exactly what the warning may entail, but it marks a sea-change in U.S. foreign policy toward Iran, which during the course of eight years of the Obama administration was, to say the very least, indulgent. The previous White House, as Flynn noted, “failed to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions—including weapons transfers, support for terrorism, and other violations of international norms.”
Indeed, the Obama administration positioned itself as Tehran’s chief advocate, playing the role of investment banker by trying to drum up business for the Islamic Republic in Europe and Asia. It also appointed itself as Iran’s lawyer, defending the regime against Congress, which the Obama administration blocked from imposing non-nuclear sanctions on Iran for, among other actions, terrorism, and ballistic missile tests—or, what Flynn called Iran out on today.
The Obama White House famously protected Iran, and the nuclear agreement, when Congress passed legislation suspending the visa waiver program. Shortly after the ISIS attacks in Paris in November 2015, Obama signed into law a bill suspending the visa waiver program for nationals from seven countries—Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Iran, Yemen—dual nationals from those countries, or anyone who had visited those countries in the last five years. The Iranians complained, saying it was a violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and would make it more difficult to cultivate business. Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry concurred and the administration carved out loopholes for Iran.
The Trump administration turned that on its head. Instead of whitewashing Iran, it threw the regime back into the cesspool from whence it came.
The executive order suspending issuance of visas from nationals of those seven countries makes no exception for Iranians, Iranian businessmen, students, or even Oscar Award nominees. That’s because the issue is not about private individuals, but rather states—states that sponsor terrorism or failed states that incubate it. Therefore, Iran is no different from, say, Sudan. And that drives the Iranians crazy.
“Iran thinks it’s a France,” says a former Bush administration official and long-time Iran watcher. “It sees itself as a great center of culture and civilization. They’re obsessed with America and what Americans think about them. And now the new administration has stuck it in the same box as countries it’s utterly contemptuous of. Iran sees itself as shackled to the same hand that Somalia uses to wipe itself clean.”
It’s hardly surprising then that the regime in Tehran is acting out. In response to the executive order, the Iranians have put an American flag on the floor of the central airport in Tehran so that visitors trample Old Glory on their way in and out.
What is odd is that so many Americans have taken to the streets or massed in airports across the country in effect to protest on behalf of Iran’s right to spy on America, especially perhaps Iranian-Americans. Southern California is home of the largest concentration of Iranian-Americans, with 300,000-500,000 in Los Angeles itself, and perhaps another 300,000 in surrounding areas. It is an extremely successful and largely conservative community, many of them second and third generation Americans whose ancestors fled the 1979 revolution and are therefore opposed to the clerical regime. And it is partly this community against which Iranian spies, whether the Ministry of Intelligence and Security or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, are collecting intelligence.
There is no doubt that many if not most of the Iranians seeking to travel to the United States or live here would contribute just as vitally to the social and cultural fabric of America. But some would not. The reality is that the Iranians for whom it most easy to leave Iran are connected to the regime. Which Iranians, with lots of money and connections, gets to come to America with no questions asked at point of departure? Regime intellectuals, like Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who from his perch at Princeton University served, as some wags have described it, as the Islamic Republic’s envoy to gullible American academics.
The regime likes to chant “Death to America” but sends many of its children to earn degrees from the Great Satan. President Rouhani’s niece did her undergraduate work at Columbia. The son of Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and the nephew of the deputy foreign minister, Seyed Abbas Araghchi, earned their degrees, as Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Emanuele Ottolenghi explained, at the taxpayer-funded City University of New York.
The standard State Department-style explanation for granting visas and even green cards to Iranian officials, their allies and children, is that showing them an open America might allow them to shape Iranian policy for their better. Doubtful. The reality is that we’ve given room to figures like Moussavian to put a human face on a monstrous regime that has American blood on its hands and regularly targets our allies—from Israel to Saudi Arabia—with terrorism.
And here is a key point for those many Americans generously and honestly protesting on behalf of Muslims. It’s not just that the Iranian regime has assisted Bashar al-Assad in his campaign of sectarian cleansing against Sunni Arabs in Syria—the regime also murders its own people. What kind of message are we sending to Iranians under the yoke of the regime that we are rewarding those who trample them by issuing them visas and green cards making room in our universities for their children? There is nothing moral about privileging rapists, torturers, murderers, and their children. It’s better for decent Iranians as well as the United States to find out who Iran is sending to America, and to discriminate against the regime and its beneficiaries.
Just today, Representatives Peter Roskam (R-IL), Lee Zeldin (R-NY), Leonard Lance (R-NJ), and Doug Lamborn (R-CO) introduced the Iran Nonnuclear Sanctions Act of 2017 to target the Islamic Republic’s support for terrorism, its human rights abuses, and ballistic missile program. It’s unlikely the Trump administration will block Iran non-nuclear sanctions, as its predecessor did. Instead, it appears that the new White House will pressure Iran, which will include the kind of rigorous enforcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action the Obama administration balked at.
As for Iran, presumably, both the Houthi attack on the Saudi ship as well as the ballistic missile test are part of how it intends to probe the new White House, trying to discover the new parameters of U.S.-Iran relations. Perhaps the Iranians believe that Trump is already on the defensive. With protests around the country over the executive order, Tehran might assume, the last thing the new White House wants is conflict with a Muslim country.
If Iran believes that it alone defines the nature of the relationship, as it did with the Obama administration, this might turn out to be a very dangerous assessment. It is true the regime in Tehran is not irrational, for the simple fact is that no ruling order ever seeks its own demise. And yet history is nothing but the chronicle of regimes that gambled wrong, that miscalculated its own power and that of its adversary.