The shift in American strategy towards Iran is at its heart a recognition that Tehran's nuclear programme is part of a wider expansionist strategy. Whether through testing ballistic missiles or having Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leader Qassem Soleimani lead paramilitary groups in Arab countries, Iran has scaled up its aggressive behaviour in the Middle East since the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July 2015. This is a reality that those who support the Iran deal hate to admit. It is understandable. For a European who spent 12 years negotiating the deal, and also understands the implications of losing oversight on Iran's nuclear programme, the preference is to just stick to the time frame set by the deal. And yet, if left unchecked, the region faces a bleak future.
There is no doubt that Tehran's leadership was emboldened by the nuclear deal, and felt it could act with impunity. And that impunity is what Donald Trump and his administration are seeking to counter. Many pieces of analysis have been written on how Mr Trump's announcement last Friday does not count as a strategy. And yet, while the tactics are to be kept under wraps for now, US strategy on Iran is clearer than it has been for several years. The US is no longer bound to only make the "plan of action" a success, and that rather than being an end, it should only be a means to hold Iran in check. Furthermore, the strategy outline document released by the White House on Friday makes it clear that countering terrorism and constraining Iran's aggression in the region are now focal points. According to the White House, "the new Iran strategy focuses on neutralising the government of Iran's destabilising influence and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism and militants". At the heart of this vision is revitalising "traditional alliances and regional partnerships as bulwarks against Iranian subversion" and restoring "a more stable balance of power in the region". Furthermore, the White House committed to working "to deny the Iranian regime – and especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – funding for its malign activities, and oppose IRGC activities that extort the wealth of the Iranian people". The first move in this direction was the designation of IRGC as a terrorist organisation.
The other aspect of this strategy is to widen the scope of accountability to include "ballistic missiles and other asymmetric weapons". Missile delivery systems are of great concern for the region and beyond.
The reaction to Donald Trump's decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal has been closer to panic than sober analysis of what is at stake for Iran and the region. Those who supported the deal, particularly members of Barack Obama's former administration, denounced the move with outrage. And yet refused to accept that the deal had indeed adversely impacted the region. Wanting to project its power, Iran has used JCPoA as a fig leaf, sending smiling dignitaries to western capitals to pontificate on peace, while back in the region it is recruiting child soldiers from Afghanistan to fight in Syria. Former US officials will not argue against the hypothesis that the Iran nuclear deal was prioritised above all other – that includes Syrian lives and decades-old alliances. What the Trump administration is promising is a multi-faceted approach to the question of Iran and its ambitions in the region and beyond. For example, in a 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service, specialists in non-proliferation confirmed that "while there is no evidence that Iran and North Korea have engaged in nuclear-related trade or cooperation with each other, although ballistic missile technology cooperation between the two is significant and meaningful". Furthermore, the report found that "Syria has received ballistic missiles and related technology from North Korea and Iran and also engaged in nuclear technology cooperation with North Korea". The link has been Tehran.
Ironically, as Mr Trump announced his Iran policy, British newspapers ran reports that Iran was behind a cyber attack last June on the email accounts of prime minister Theresa May, several ministers and dozens of MPs. Again, Tehran's actions call into question its motivations.
Statements from Tehran in reaction to the US strategy have been, as expected, divided between anger for domestic consumption and willingness to compromise for external audiences. And yet there are those in Tehran who realise that "choosing which battles to fight" is now warranted as a more hawkish US approach sets in.
There is no denying that there is some merit in retaining the nuclear deal, which is why the Trump administration hasn’t pulled out entirely. It has put in a system of checks that didn’t exist previously. There is also the risk of undermining the negotiating power of the US – as signing a deal with Washington can now be seen as subject to change. There have been concerns that Mr Trump’s pushback against Iran will lead to more tensions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Yet, the view among many in Washington is that Iran is already doing all it can to push the sectarian wedge there.
Despite his strong differences with Mr Trump, Senator John McCain was among the first supporters for his Iran strategy. He said: "For years, the Iranian regime has literally been getting away with murder. Meanwhile, the United States has lacked a comprehensive strategy to meet the multifaceted threat Iran poses." Mr McCain echoed what many who follow Iran’s role in the region have long believed. He highlighted that "the goals [Mr] Trump presented in his speech are a welcomed long overdue change. They offer the United States a path forward that centres our policy towards Iran on its destabilising regional ambitions rather than its nuclear programme alone".