The Wednesday White House press briefing didn’t go quite as expected today. During the briefing, being conducted by Sean Spicer, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn walked out to the lectern and gave a short statement on the provocations mounted by Iran in the last week. Video of the statement is below.
Flynn summarized the Iranian provocations — the test launch of a ballistic missile, the attack by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels on a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea — and tied them to the context of equally provocative actions in the preceding six months. At the outset, he highlighted that the missile launch violates UNSCR 2231, from 2015, which implemented the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on international supervision of Iran’s nuclear program and relief of sanctions.
Without adding specifics, Flynn concluded with this ominous announcement: “We are officially putting Iran on notice.”
Whereupon he walked out.
I think we can say this was a very Trump-like scripted demonstration. Going forward, everything will depend on what it means — “We are officially putting Iran on notice.” So, a few observations.
1. It’s obvious what it probably means. The specific reference in the statement to UNSCR 2231 invokes the vow of restored sanctions on Iran, which the Obama administration insisted was a matter of a simple “snapback.”
International sanctions would not be restored as easily as that. But the U.S. sanctions that were relaxed by executive action under Obama can be restored to full force by Trump, by the same method. Since 2015, Congress has affirmed its support for continued sanctions and tough enforcement. Trump isn’t likely to encounter domestic resistance on this. (See, for example, The Tower’s update from today.)
As regards international sanctions, it won’t be possible to readily recover the U.S.-EU unity — imperfect, but still worthy of the name — that obtained before the JCPOA implementation. However, the sanctions on Iran since 2007 were actually imposed largely without that unity, which in terms of trade in goods was a latecomer. Banking was the most effective realm of isolation for the sanctions program. Using America’s power in international banking, the Bush and Obama administrations were able to severely curtail Iran’s conventional access to banking services and cash, by threatening third-party banking systems if they dealt with Tehran. That can be done again.
The reenergized special relationship with the UK can also be tested here. More than that, the process of dealing with Iran’s violations and provocative behavior becomes a vehicle for examining and evolving our common interests with France and Germany, as well as with Russia and China — a salutary prospect at a time when too much military metal is trundling around the planet based on too little thought.
2. There are options for using military activity to signal a new U.S. posture, and early signs seem to suggest we are making use of them. In the immediate aftermath of the 30 January Houthi attack on the Saudi warship, we are holding a joint maritime exercise in the Persian Gulf with the Royal Navy — the exercise sponsor — and the navies of France and Australia.
The exercise, Unified Trident, has of course been in planning for some time. It’s not a reaction to the Houthi attack on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula. But it functions as a timely demonstration. This is the first iteration of a “Unified Trident” exercise. It’s a general maritime-warfare event, and is taking place in the international waters of the Gulf.
The flagship for the exercise is HMS Ocean (L12), an amphibious assault ship commissioned in 1998 and now Britain’s largest naval warship. Ocean has been in the Persian Gulf since late 2016, making her first appearance there since the Iraq War in 2003. Among the four allies, there are 17 ships and a number of aircraft participating — in the context of the last decade, quite a large exercise. In recent years, smaller exercises, typically with only one or two Western navies and a few GCC participants, have been more customary.
(Note: USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) is in the Mediterranean Sea heading for the Gulf. The carrier has been ready for deployment since before Christmas, but was not deployed until 20 January, the day Trump took office. There has been a carrier gap in the Middle East since early December.)
Although the signal may be too subtle for civilians to pick up on it, the feel of Unified Trident is unmistakable for experienced military observers. The American posture has shifted, and with it, the posture of the allies who have worked with us most closely in the Persian Gulf over the last 40-odd years.
And interestingly, the Iranian reaction to Unified Trident has been relatively subdued. When the previous U.S. administration went out of its way to accommodate Tehran, the Iranians responded with vituperation and threats. Now, facing the largest naval exercise in years by Western allies in the Persian Gulf, Iran’s reaction is milder:
In remarks reported by Iranian new agencies Jan. 30, the head of the Iranian Navy, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, said he was aware of the upcoming allied exercise and warned against any incursion of the participating ships into Iranian territorial waters.
“We don’t care what is said by whom or what they do. For us, it is important to be so ready in our defensive capabilities to stand any threat at anywhere,” Mehr News Agency reported that Sayyari said. “Anybody who wishes to stage a war game within the limits of the free waters should follow the international law, and we do not allow anybody to get close to our waters and this is our red line.”
No threats to sink anyone this time, and no heroic overreach in claiming Iranian sovereignty over international waters.
As an additional note, it is probable that execution of the maritime rules of engagement has been, or is being, delegated more robustly to give USN unit commanders greater discretion, and more back-up from the chain of command, for self-defense. That should translate into less tolerance of dangerous nonsense from Iranian patrol boats and aircraft — with a commensurate deterrent effect.
3. There is a great deal more to say, and I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive survey here. But it’s worth mentioning as a discussion point that in terms of communication tactics, Trump is, in one particular way, more like Obama than like Obama’s predecessors — while also being quite unlike Obama in another particular way.
Trump and Obama are alike in lobbing out undeveloped signals about their intentions. I characterized Obama very early as a sort of “Delphic” proclaimer of policy. He never outlined policy intentions — goals, strategy — from which practical plans and methods would obviously flow. The further we get from his presidency, the more I expect even his supporters to acknowledge that. You could never tell from what Obama actually said what the substance of his foreign policy would be. You just had to guess, based on clues from other sources, such as his background, the known ideas and connections of his top advisers, and so forth.
Trump’s communications about foreign policy are starting out in a somewhat similar (although not identical) vein. He’s holding his intentions close to the vest; emitting summary-sounding assertions, like “We are putting Iran on notice,” but not fleshing them out with fully formed statements of U.S. interests and goals.
With Trump, I assume this is a negotiating tactic. With Obama, it clearly was not a negotiating tactic. (If anything, it was more often a delaying tactic: a way of kicking the can down the road and avoiding action for as long as possible.)
In neither case, Obama’s or Trump’s, is it a typically American mode of statesmanship. Bill Clinton and LBJ were not very good at that mode, but even they carried it off more conventionally than Obama — and, so far, Trump. The Bushes, Reagan, and Nixon were masters of the form: stating U.S. interests, outlining a picture of what our policy was intended to do, and declaring principles that would create reliable expectations for both our allies and our opponents. Jimmy Carter adhered to the form, even if his substance was often appalling. JFK, Eisenhower, and Truman adhered to it as well.
We are where we are today, and frankly, it’s better to be here with Trump than it would be with Hillary Clinton, or was with Obama. But we are a long way now from the days of stately foreign policy. It will be interesting to see how Trump’s methods perform in the arena of foreign policy and national security. I’m not convinced yet that it will be better to issue unclarified warnings.
But that cycles us back to how Trump differs from Obama. Plenty of people will criticize Trump’s style. But they will also take his warnings seriously. Trump isn’t being Reaganesque in terms of method; Reagan clarified his formal warnings up front. Always. But unlike Obama, Trump will be taken seriously, as his auditors wait to see what happens.