It is, perhaps, the worst-kept secret in Washington that United States President Donald Trump will later this week announce that America is about to enter a new era of confrontation with Iran. The president will herald his new approach by announcing that he is not prepared to certify that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal it had agreed to in 2015 with six world powers, including Britain and the US, which was supposed to end decades of hostility over the ayatollahs’ obsession with developing nuclear weapons.
The decertification process, to use the technical term, should not come as a surprise, given that Trump has made plain his contempt for an agreement he calls “the worst deal ever”. Nor will the president’s decision be without controversy, not least because the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations-sponsored body responsible for monitoring the deal, reports that Iran is, technically, complying with the terms of the deal. Consequently, as William Hague warned in The Daily Telegraph, Trump’s stance is likely to cause friction with other signatories, such as Britain, which believes the deal should remain in place.
But to understand why the president is so determined to adopt a more confrontational stance with Iran, it is important to look beyond the narrow confines of the nuclear deal, and at the malign influence Tehran continues to exercise throughout the Middle East.
The root of Trump’s ire with Iran, and that of many other Republicans, is that, while the ayatollahs may have complied with the letter of the nuclear deal, they have made little effort to embrace the spirit of cooperation and constructive engagement with the West that the agreement was supposed to engender. On the contrary, the deal seems to have given Iran’s Revolutionary Guards — the storm-troopers of the country’s Islamic revolution — a new lease of life.
Instead of defusing regional tensions, the Iranians have simply used the billions of dollars of largesse they have received from the lifting of sanctions to intensify their efforts to cause yet more regional mayhem.
These days, the Russians get all the credit for turning the tide of the Syrian conflict, thereby allowing the detestable regime of Bashar Al Assad to claim victory. But none of this would have happened had it not been for the dramatic intervention of Qasim Sulaimani, the Revolutionary Guards commander who, when Al Assad was staring into the abyss of certain defeat in the summer of 2014, flew to Moscow and persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch his game-changing military intervention. Iran’s success in turning the tables in Syria has also resulted in Tehran increasing its support for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
Further afield, Iranian agents have been active in trying to undermine pro-western states such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The malevolent hand of Iran is also to be found in Yemen, where the continuous shipment of weapons by the Revolutionary Guards to anti-government Al Houthi militias has been a significant factor in that hapless country’s descent into chaos. Iran’s contribution to the conflict is one of the reasons the World Health Organisation estimates that more than a quarter of Yemeni children under five are at risk of contracting cholera.
To this roll-call of shame must be added Iran’s continued meddling in Iraq, through which it still entertains ambitions of building a superhighway of influence that stretches from Tehran to the eastern Mediterranean.
None of this activity can in any way be deemed useful to western interests. Iran’s persistent aggression against key US allies such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states is simply a recipe for further political instability.
Trump’s decision to decertify Iran over the nuclear deal must therefore be seen in the context of Iran’s continued hostility towards the US and its allies. If Iran were really serious about initiating a new chapter in its relations with the West, then it would be doing a lot more than merely observing the technical details of the nuclear deal.
The impending escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran should also serve as a wake-up call to those British policymakers, particularly in the Foreign Office, who still believe that Britain’s long-term interests would be better served by tilting towards Tehran than standing by our traditional allies in the Gulf. The fallacy of this proposition is evident in Tehran’s appalling treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British charity worker who has been jailed for five years on trumped-up spying charges, and now faces a further 16 years in prison after the Iranian authorities this week said she was to face fresh charges.
This is not the conduct of a government that is serious about improving relations with the outside world. It is the behaviour of a regime that, with or without nuclear weapons, remains deeply hostile to the West and its allies.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.