August 28, 2017 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1333

Iran In First Year Of Trump Administration, Second Year Of Historic Nuclear Deal: Regional Expansion, Religious War With No Political Boundaries, 'Death To America,' And Show of Readiness To Confront U.S. Militarily As Supra-Regional Power

August 28, 2017 | By A. Savyon, Yigal Carmon, and U. Kafash*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1333

The Great Reversal: The U.S. vs. Iran – From Might And Deterrence To Weakness And Retreat

Within three months, the U.S.'s position in the Middle East has changed from one of might and deterrence against Iran to one of weakness, retreat, and being deterred by Iran. This situation, of course, in no way reflects the real balance of power between the U.S. and Iran, neither generally nor regionally. It is an image created jointly by President Trump's policies and Iran's offensive approach.

In the first three months of Trump's term, Tehran was apprehensive about what his Iran policy would be. It significantly dialed back its provocations – both its verbal threats and its naval forays against U.S. vessels in the Gulf – and even cancelled the launch of a ballistic missile, removing the missile from its launching pad on the eve of Iran's Revolution Day on February 10, after the Trump administration announced that Iran was being "put on notice."[1]

Three months later, Iran has changed its approach: It is stepping up its naval provocations; its anti-U.S. discourse is again in evidence – including the "Death to America" chant; and its verbal threats against the U.S. are increasing. Additionally, the same missile which was taken off the launching pad last February was launched on July 27, 2017, in disregard of the U.S.'s warning.[2]

The naïve expectations of President Trump, that, as with a business deal, a positive approach on his part would be met with an equally positive approach, yielded the opposite. Like what happened with President Obama – whose experience President Trump ignored – Iran reacted to the U.S.'s positive policy with more hostility and aggression. The Iranians have interpreted both presidents' approach as weakness, and stepped up their antagonism to the U.S., including threats and chants of "Death to America." Moreover, they have used the Trump approach as an opportunity to advance their regional expansion and the ideology of exporting the Islamic Revolution.[3] 

It is the approach of the Trump administration – which has agreed to Iran's regional expansion, under the cover of the war on ISIS – that has prompted this huge shift in the attitude of Iran, which also is relying on Russian backing.

What Happened In Recent Months That Led To This Huge Reversal?

During this time, the Trump administration has changed its approach towards Iran: While the discourse remained confrontational, the actual political moves reflected a clear attempt to advance understandings with Iran, thus continuing President Obama's policy. National Iranian American Council director and head of the unofficial Iranian lobby in Washington Trita Parsi also noted this, saying: "Prior to the revelation of Trump's Iran certification meltdown, most analysts and diplomats believed that Trump's rhetoric on Iran was just that – empty talk. His bark was worse than his bite, as demonstrated when he certified Iran's compliance back in April and when he renewed sanctions waivers in May. The distance between his rhetoric and actual policy was tangible. Rhetorically, Trump officials described Iran as the root of all problems in the Middle East and as the greatest state sponsor of terror. Trump even suggested he might quit the deal. In action, however, President Trump continued to waive sanctions and admitted that Iran was adhering to the deal. As a result, many concluded that Trump would continue to fulfill the obligations of the deal while sticking to his harsh rhetoric in order to appease domestic opponents of the nuclear deal – as well as Trump's allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel."[4]

The Washington Post's August 20, 2017 editorial too, while expressing concern that Trump is planning to pull out of the JCPOA, also noted his practical conciliatory moves towards Iran: "Despite much heated rhetoric, the Trump administration is doing little to counter Iranian aggression. In Syria, its strategy of striking deals with Russia has opened the way for Tehran’s forces to establish control over a corridor between Damascus and Baghdad. In Afghanistan, Iran is steadily building a strategic position even as President Trump balks at a plan to strengthen U.S. support for the Afghan government. In Yemen, the United States enables its Persian Gulf allies to pursue an unwinnable proxy war with Tehran whose main result has been the world’s worst humanitarian crisis... Yet perversely, Mr. Trump is matching his passivity toward Iran’s regional meddling with an apparent determination to torpedo the nuclear pact."

What Were Trump's Conciliatory Steps Towards Iran?

-   In April and July 2017, the Trump administration sent Congress a letter confirming that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. The IAEA reports reflected, and will also in future reflect, the results of inspecting only the nuclear sites that were declared by Iran, and at those sites Iran has apparently complied with the JCPOA. However, the Trump administration totally ignored the fact that the JCPOA does not allow the IAEA to conduct inspections in any other location, including military sites (which in the past were used for secret nuclear military activity), and therefore IAEA certification is meaningless, since it reflects inspection only where Iran allows it. It appears that neither President Trump nor his national security team have read the JCPOA, and that they do not know that the agreement, designed by President Obama, does not allow real inspections in Iran. Indeed, had they been familiar with the limitations imposed by the JCPOA on inspections, they would not have requested that IAEA to conduct inspections in military facilities, as did U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley during her August 23 visit to IAEA headquarters in Vienna. The Trump administration's silence about the impossibility of real inspection because of the terms of the JCPOA is a clear cover-up for the Obama administration. It should be stressed that had the Trump administration demanded a change in the terms of inspection, such a change would not have constituted a change in the essence of the JCPOA, which is the lifting of the nuclear sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran's temporary and targeted suspension of some of its nuclear activities.[5] Therefore, it seems that Trump's much-celebrated public demand in the media that his national security team bring him, by October 2017, evidence of Iranian violations without any change in the terms of inspections which preclude doing so is nothing but a broadly announced alibi for not demanding a change in the terms of inspection. In October, Trump will have to say that as much as he wanted to act against the JCPOA, his national security team brought him no evidence that would allow him to do so, and that as a result his hands are tied and he must recertify the JCPOA. The intelligence agencies will be blamed, and nothing will be said about President Trump's failure to demand a change in the ridiculous terms of inspection – which are not even of his own making, but are inherited from Obama.

Moreover, even if Trump's national security team does provide the president with intelligence information about violations by Iran, the JCPOA imposes a process of verification which precludes practical action against Iran. Trump can, of course, on the basis of such intelligence, act unilaterally, disregarding the JCPOA, the P5+1, and the UN Security Council,  and do whatever he sees fit. But as long as he wants to act according to the agreement and in coordination with the P5+1 and the Security Council, he is obliged to deal with this intelligence as specified in the JCPOA – which makes the intelligence useless.[6]

In response to Ambassador Haley's visit to the IAEA, several Iranian officials stated that the U.S.'s policy is chaotic, that the Americans are not familiar with the agreement, and that Section 74 of Annex 1 of the JCPOA does not allow the ambassador to demand this of IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano. Hassan Firouzabadi, senior military advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Iranian armed forces chief of staff said, on August 27: "The U.S. representative to the UN, Haley, is lying when she claims that the JCPOA allows visits to military sites in Iran, because the JCPOA does not allow this... It is best that America stop inciting [against Iran]. Trump is seeking, with this puppet show, to distract the world from the racist conflicts in America." Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said, also on August 27: "The framework of the cooperation with the IAEA is set in advance, and cannot be changed. We will not submit to the excessive demands of certain governments, and will not allow foreigners entrance into places defined as forbidden by the JCPOA."[7]

-  In April 2017, the Trump administration also endorsed the G7 Statement on Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which states that the G7 countries support the JCPOA as "an important contribution to the [nuclear] non-proliferation regime."[8]

-  On April 18, 2017, after his highly confrontational anti-Iran speech, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that there would be a comprehensive review, by all branches of the administration, of the U.S.'s Iran policy – for which no official concluding deadline has been given. This review, which would appear to be unnecessary considering how Tillerson depicted Iran in his speech, has in effect stalled Senate bill S.722 – Countering Iran's Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017.[9]

-  The administration has refrained from designating Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a terror organization, following Iranian pressure.

-  President Trump made a public statement at the May 2017 Riyadh conference that the U.S.'s allies should not expect the U.S. to act for them: "America is prepared to stand with you – in pursuit of shared interests and common security. But the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them."[10]

-  President Trump legitimized Iran's expansion into Syria and in fact all the way to the Mediterranean by accepting the Russia-Turkey agreement, the De-Escalation Zones Plan, in Syria. Illustrating this was the June 2017 statement by the spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition, Col. Ryan Dillon, who said that the U.S.'s goal is to defeat ISIS wherever it exists. He added that if others, including the Syrian government and its Iranian and Russian allies, want to fight the extremists as well, then "we absolutely have no problem with that."[11]

-  According to Iranian officials, Iran and the U.S. have exchanged messages about the status of the IRGC in other matters (see MEMRI reports).[12]

Changes In The Political Arena In Iran And Region Have Also Contributed To The Great Reversal

Prominent pragmatic camp leader Hashemi Rafsanjani's disappearance from the political scene, with his death in January 2017, as well as the military victories of the IRGC and its local Shi'ite militias in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen in recent months, have strengthened the ideology and consolidated the path of the camp headed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, pushing it ahead of the pragmatic camp. It would be a mistake to interpret Hassan Rohani's May 2017 electoral win as a victory for the pragmatic camp, which has in the past been critical of the policy of regional expansion led by the IRGC. This is because the position of President Rohani and his camp has shifted, and they have recently expressed their full support for this expansion. They are mending their relationship with the IRGC and doing everything they can to defend the IRGC against the U.S. administration and to prevent it from being designated a terror organization.

Rohani's second presidential term marks the pragmatic camp's new direction in the Iranian political arena, as it now unhesitatingly accepts the policy of regional expansion that is led by Khamenei by means of the IRGC – and is even advancing it. Thus, Rohani's reelection constitutes a victory for the ideological camp headed by  Khamenei, as Rohani becomes increasingly subordinate to both and does their bidding.

Several IRGC commanders, including Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, IRGC commander Ali Jafari, IRGC Aerospace Force commander Brig.-Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, Basij commander Gholam-Hossein Gheibparvar, and Gen. Kothari met with Rohani on July 24, 2017. It was reported that Rohani thanked the IRGC for its efforts and said that it must preserve "unity" and strengthen the military might of the IRGC and the Iranian Army.[13]

At his August inauguration, Rohani gave his "nuclear speech," in which he announced that the U.S. needed to know that if it continues its violations of the JCPOA, Iran can, "within hours," restart its nuclear program, even at a more advanced stage than where it was prior to the JCPOA.[14]

Future Trends – Assessment

According to the discourse of Iranian regime officials, including both members of the Iranian armed forces and the ayatollahs, it appears that the regional expansion of Iran has become the main goal of the Iranian regime during Trump's presidency, including a declared readiness to confront the U.S., strengthening its own and its allies' military readiness, and openly endorsing supra-regional goals. This was expressed, for example, in speeches by Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and deputy IRGC commander Hossein Salami, and in statements by Ayatollah Alam Alhoda, who is close to Khamenei:

Qods Force commander Soleimani said on August 20, 2017 at the World Mosque Day conference in Iran:  "Thank God, today Iran enjoys real might that cannot be harmed. It is unprecedented in Iran's history that it will have such might, that will manage to merge two ideologies – the Shi'a and the Sunna...

"When we intervened to defend the Iraqi people, we never differentiated between Iran's interests and Iraq's interests. We defined the interests of the Iraqi people as our own... We didn't say that if Palestine did not declare [itself] Shi'ite we would not support it. The Palestinians are 99.99% Sunni, but we defend them.

"Iran is the factor in the stabilization of the region... ISIS has created a state that was bigger than Iraq or Syria, and called it the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham [Syria], [but] God has determined that our state [Iran] will be the center of the Islamic world, and will be responsible for instating stability in the region..."[15]

IRGC deputy commander Hossein Salami said at a conference of IRGC Navy commanders and directors on July 18, 2017: "The political geography of the Islamic Revolution is expanding. The conditions of power in the world are changing in light of the sphere of influence, the atmosphere of development, and the role shown by Iran's sympathizers in the region.

"The spread of the political geography of the Islamic Revolution is increasingly marginalizing the classical political and imperialist control. Once, the countries were under enemy security, political, economic, and intelligence control. But today, they have become great arenas of fighting, [in which we fight] against our enemies.

"A great structure of power is coming into being, inspired by the Islamic Revolution. This power can struggle against distant countries that are the enemies of Islam, can stop them, can divert them, and can destroy them.

"Our power has global legitimacy. Today, the enemies officially recognize this capability of ours, and treat it like something special, like a superpower...

"Today, our strategy is steadfastness that is active, not passive; we are both advancing and expanding the region of our power. We are further developing our area of activity, enlarging its quantity and quality, and also improving the technical capability of our [fighting] apparatuses..."[16]

At a ceremony commemorating IRGC fighter Mohsen Hojaji, who was beheaded recently by ISIS, Salami said: "Today, the geography of the jihad knows no national borders. Our [i.e. Iran's] borders are the borders of [Islamic] ideology and jihad. We must trap the enemy outside the borders, bury his policy, and send his wishes to the graveyard. With young revolutionary believers [such as we have], no power – not even one with might equaling that of America – can defeat us...

"Today, in the regional equation, America is marginalized... We are not concerned about the sanctions, because the leader [Khamenei] and the rest of the officials are united as never before, and they have decided to stand against the enemy on the first front of the fighting and to force him to accept Iran's unrestrained might...

"When we control the Persian Gulf, will the world be able to besiege us? And when we can fight any naval force, can the world speak to us in the language of threats? We have succeeded in transferring the war from Karcheh and Karun [in Iran] to the eastern Mediterranean and to the Red Sea."[17]

Ayatollah Alam Alhoda, who is close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said at the tomb of Imam Reza, the eighth imam in Twelver Shi'a, in Mashhad on August 18, 2017: "The forces going out from here are in fact the emissaries of the Imam Reza, who come to the battlefront of Islam in order to fight global unbelief. Today, Iraq, Syria, and the Mediterranean shores are no longer considered regions outside Iran's borders. The battlefront of Islam was created here. The forces going out to defend the holy places, and giving their lives at the battlefront, are in effect the emissaries of the Imam Reza, who come to Iraq and Syria in order to expand the religion...

"Oh filthy arrogant ones [i.e. Americans, people of the Global Arrogance], you have tried to make Iran the abode of corruption and licentiousness; you have attacked us in order to strip our nation of its cultural identity and pollute our young people with various types of moral corruption. You wanted to strip the religion from our young people, with [your] immodesty, immorality, and prostitution... [But] this is our generation, [that calls] 'Death to America'... Oh brothers and sisters, today, Mashhad and Khorasan are considered the direction of prayer in Islam, and the site of the [tomb of] the Imam Reza is considered the Ka'aba of Islam in the world."[18]


* A. Savyon is director of the MEMRI Iran Studies Project; Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI; U. Kafash is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[1] This was due to the sense of besiegement and threat developing against Iran and in light of its fear of the formation of a U.S.-Russia-Arab front. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1305, Facing Trump Administration, Iran Shows Fear And Military Self-Restraint, Halts Provocations, Threats, And Incitement – While Boosting Morale At Home And Delegating The Bulk Of Conflict To Its Proxies, March 20, 2017.

[3] Also vis-à-vis Afghanistan, the Trump administration is showing a similar naïve approach, which reassures the Iranian leadership that it understands Trump's moves very well, and that it can continue its aggressive approach. This is because while the administration announced that it was sending another 4,000 American troops there to "fight to win," although these additional troops cannot bring about any military victory, and while Trump is also reiterating that ever since his election campaign his basic approach has been that the U.S. must withdraw from Afghanistan, Secretary of State Tillerson is explaining that this step is just a threat aimed at obtaining the Taliban's consent to negotiations for a solution to the crisis. It seems that U.S. policymakers have not even the smallest grasp of how to manage political and strategic affairs, and that they are counting on one outcome in a place where it is elementary that the opposite outcome will occur, just as happened vis-vis Iran, both during the Obama administration and now during the Trump administration. Additionally, the messages that are coming from the U.S. State Department are different from those coming from the White House. Tasnim, Iran, August 20, 2017.

[4] Trita Parsi, "The Mask Is Off: Trump Is Seeking War with Iran,", July 28, 2017.

[5] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1325, Discussion Of Iranian Violations Of JCPOA Is Futile; The Inspection Procedure Designed By The Obama Administration Precludes Actual Inspection And Proof Of Violations, August 18, 2017. Several supporters of the JCPOA in the U.S. fear, due to an incorrect assessment of President Trump's policy, that he is about to exit the JCPOA, and are proposing that negotiations be held with Iran to extend the agreement's duration. For example, The Washington Post recently discovered, suddenly, that there is a weakness in the agreement, and explained in its August 21, 2017 editorial that this weakness lies its short duration – not in its failure to provide any possibility of conducting real inspections – and proposed that such negotiations be launched. The truth is that the main problem with the JCPOA is that its inspection procedure precludes actual inspection, in light of the fact that the file of Iran's PMDs was closed by political decision after the inspection of the Parchin site was carried out by the Iranians themselves as IAEA observers looked on, and when it was impossible to know where the samples provided to them by Iran were taken from. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6229, Statements By Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi Indicate: IAEA's PMD Report Is Being Written In Negotiation With Iran, Not Independently, November 26, 2015 and Special Dispatch No. 6113,  Atomic Energy Organization Of Iran Chief Ali Akbar Salehi: We Have Reached An Understanding With The IAEA On The PMD, Now Political Backing Exists And The Results Will Be Very Positive, July 22, 2015.

[7] Tasnim (Iran), August 27, 2017. Also, Abbas Aslani, director-general of the foreign policy department at the Tasnim news agency, which, is close to the IRGC, said in an August 27 television interview that "Section 74 of the first annex of the JCPOA" does not allow inspection that is not "in good faith." Tasnim, Iran, August 27, 2017.

[8], April 10-11, 2017.


[11], June 23, 2017.

[13], Iran, July 24, 2017.

[14] It should be further noted that the new sanctions on Iran by the U.S. administration in July 2017 were defined by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and senior negotiating team official Abbas Araghchi himself as follows: "He [Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei] stressed that every new law, even [one passed] on the pretext of human rights, constitutes a violation [of the JCPOA]. At this time there are no new sanctions; people have only been added to the list. With regard to the question of whether this matter is considered a new sanction, I spoke with the [Iran's] supervisory team [for the JCPOA] and they did not have that impression." Tasnim (Iran), July 30, 2017.

[15] Tasnim (Iran), August 20. 2017.

[16] Fars (Iran), July 18, 2017.

[17] Tasnim (Iran), August 14, 2017.

[18], August 18, 2017.

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