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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Iran may learn to its cost the grave danger of provoking Trump

The US president is increasingly using the threat of America’s overwhelming military firepower to achieve his desired political result, writes Con Coughlin

Rubble fills a street in Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, near Damascus. Hassan Ammar / AP
Rubble fills a street in Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, near Damascus. Hassan Ammar / AP

Now that the Trump administration has again demonstrated its willingness to launch military action against the Syrian regime, do not be surprised if Iran is the next country that finds itself in the crosshairs of the Pentagon’s military planners.

Ever since Donald Trump took office there have been question marks over his willingness to involve the US military in foreign conflicts, prompted by his remarks on the campaign trail that he did not want to embroil America in any overseas military adventures similar to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But while Mr Trump still remains opposed to launching large scale ground operations, that does not mean to say that he is unwilling to deploy America’s military might when the right circumstances present themselves.

Last weekend’s limited airstrikes against the Assad regime’s chemical weapons infrastructure was the second time Mr Trump has authorised the use of force against Bashar Al Assad. On both occasions they have been relatively small, targeted operations designed to send a clear warning to the Syrian regime that its use of chemical weapons will no longer be tolerated.

A similar approach can be seen in the Trump administration’s dealings with North Korea, where Washington’s decision to deploy a heavily-armed naval battlegroup to the Korean peninsula has had a salutary effect on North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Rather than continuing with his attempts to develop a nuclear arsenal capable of striking mainland America, Pyongyang has taken the extraordinary step of entering tentative talks with Washington, a development confirmed by the revelation that CIA director Mike Pompeo held secret talks with the North Korean leader.

Thus, we are starting to see the formation of what might be called the Trump doctrine: use the threat of America’s overwhelming military firepower to achieve the desired political result.

We will have to wait to see whether Mr Trump’s strategy produces any long-term solutions to the challenges of Syria and North Korea.

But the president clearly believes that threatening to use American firepower is a worthwhile tactic, which is why the ayatollahs in Tehran would be well-advised to take note of Washington’s new approach.

Mr Trump has made no secret, both on the campaign trail and as president, of his distaste for the nuclear deal his predecessor, Barack Obama, helped to negotiate with Tehran, calling it “the worst deal ever”.

Washington is currently reviewing the deal and is threatening to withdraw America’s involvement on May 12 if changes are not made that impose further restrictions on Tehran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons.

Despite opposition from the other signatories – Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China – there is a growing belief in Washington that Mr Trump fully intends to follow through on his threat. Earlier this week Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Senate’s all-powerful Foreign Relations Committee, said that Mr Trump was “perfectly fine walking away from” the nuclear deal if a new agreement is not reached.

The likelihood of Washington terminating its involvement, moreover, has increased dramatically with the appointment of John Bolton as the administration’s new National Security Adviser. Mr Bolton, a renowned Iran hawk, has previously denounced the deal, warning that military strikes against Iran may be the only means of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Nor is it just the inherent failings in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the nuclear deal’s full title – that is causing concern among Washington policymakers.

The manner in which the ayatollahs have exploited the recent unrest in the Middle East to expand their military footprint in the Arab world is viewed with deep suspicion.

In Syria, for example, Tehran has used its close alliance with the Assad regime to expand its network of military bases throughout the country. These include its own airfields, underground command and control facilities, missile bunkers and even its own base for operating drones.

The main purpose of Iran’s military build-up in both Syria and southern Lebanon, where it is also said to be reinforcing positions held by Hezbollah, is to improve Iran’s ability to confront Israel directly. But, given that Mr Trump regards Israel as a close ally of Washington, any such Syria-based aggression on the part of the Iranians against Israel is likely to provoke a response from Washington, as well as Israel itself.

The civil war in Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are waging a brutal campaign against the Saudi-led coalition, is another conflict where Washington is taking a dim view of Iran’s involvement, particularly after the Houthis succeeded in firing a number of missiles aimed at the Saudi heartland.

Earlier this week a senior Pentagon official told the Senate Foreign Relations committee that Iran was using the Yemen conflict as a “test bed” to develop its military capabilities. Robert S Karem, assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs, said Iran was arming opponents of Yemen’s internationally recognised government, which had enabled the Houthis to launch more than 100 ballistic missiles and “countless” rockets into Saudi Arabia, targeting major population centres, international airports, military installations and oil infrastructure.

“Yemen has become a test bed for Iran’s malign activities,” said Mr Karem, adding that only a political solution to the conflict will “reduce the chaos that Iran has exploited to advance its malign agenda”.

Tehran, of course, has no interest in a negotiated solution to the conflicts in either Yemen or Syria. And so long as it prefers to pursue its “malign agenda”, the more likely it is find itself in a direct military confrontation with Washington.

Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor