Twenty-four hours after Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, senior US officials have quickly shifted focus to a post-agreement approach that addresses Tehran’s regional behaviour and what they saw as the increasing risk of a regional confrontation in Syria.
Speaking at a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, senior US officials urged a coordinated multilateral response to avert an Israel-Iranian confrontation in Syria.
One official called that risk “most urgent”, hoping – as Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks in Russia – for a concerted effort to lower the odds of such regional confrontation.
Since April 8, Israel has hit four Iranian military targets in Syria, the last taking place on Tuesday night which reportedly killed eight Iranian fighters.
“There needs to be a collective response,” one US official told The National. Accusing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) of committing acts of war across the Middle East, the official said – without disclosing the “operational plan” – that regional consultations are underway to address Tehran’s destabilising activities.
The US appears to be working for a united front in the region to counter Iran. Such efforts could culminate in a September summit at Camp David with the Gulf Cooperation Council members Egypt and Jordan.
The summit was initially scheduled for May but the crowded itinerary for Mr Trump between North Korea negotiations and the Iran deal decision, as well as the lack of progress on the Qatar dispute, have tentatively pushed it until later this year.
Asked if the withdrawal from the deal increases risks of Iranian retaliation against US interests in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and across the Gulf, one official said Tehran “will be ill-advised to do that.” Another official scoffed at the suggestion that Iran would only attack US interests because of withdrawal from the deal, calling it a “false notion” and that the threat has always been there.
A further official said the deal was not a good package for the Iranian people, and that Iran’s military budget increased by 40 % while [the cost of living] kept rising in Tehran.
Asked if the Iranian people will now point fingers at Mr Trump for their economic woes, the US official argued that the only blame here is the regime’s. “It is not the US who forced the regime to choose guns instead of butter [for their people], that’s the calculation of the IRGC and the internal unrest is theirs to own.”
Meanwhile, secretary of defense James Mattis defended Mr Trump’s exit from the deal to Congress. “We have walked away from the JCPOA because we feel that it was inadequate for the long-term effort and this is something that was probably noted by the Senate several years ago when the Senate did not endorse it as a treaty.”
“We will continue to work alongside our allies and partners to ensure that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon and will work with others to address the range of Iran’s malign influence,” Mr Mattis said.
For his part, Mr Trump said on Wednesday that Iran’s destabilizing behaviour “cannot be allowed to happen.”
“If you look at what’s happening in the Middle East with Syria, with Yemen, with all of the places they’re involved, it’s bedlam and death. And we can’t allow that to happen,” he said ahead of a scheduled cabinet meeting.
Mr Trump said the Iranian leadership “has got to understand life, because I don’t think they do understand life.”
He also appeared to be threatening action of some sort if Iran doesn’t return to the negotiating table. “But they’ll negotiate, or something will happen. And hopefully that won’t be the case,” Mr Trump said.
The president also poked fun at former secretary of state John Kerry’s negotiating skills. He said that after watching Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif’s interview in 2015 on American, his impression was that “there’s no way that Mr Kerry can negotiate against this gentleman [Zarif]... and that turned out to be a fact.”