Several people have, either in the comments on the original post or on Facebook, asked about the US’s response to the Iranian missile test on Sunday, January 29. On Friday, February 3, the Trump administration levied sanctions against 13 individuals and 12 companies associated with Iran’s missile program. This was followed by a war of words, with President Trump and National Security Adviser Flynn warning Iran about further tests and telling Iran that they had it easy under President Obama, while Iran called out Trump as an “inexperienced person.” The sanctions are rather limited, as they do not touch Iran’s $16 billion deal with Boeing and aren’t significantly more punishing that the sanctions regime already in place.
So, what did Iran likely learn from these events? Given that they conducted a series of missile tests on Saturday, February 4, the day after the imposition of the new sanctions, it’s likely that they learned–rightly or wrongly–that the Trump administration is lots of bluster but is ultimately nothing to fear. True, the most recent missile launches were conducted entirely within Iranian sovereign airspace, making them less problematic for the international community. But the test should still be seen as an act of defiance.
First, given the limited and more or less predictable sanctions imposed by Trump, Iran must be asking itself why did it take nearly a week for the administration to respond? It’s possible that the delay is simply a product of a new administration seeking to develop its own decision making processes and policies. But given that US called out the tests on Wednesday, February 1, it’s strange that it took another two days to announce the sanctions. This possibly suggests to Iran that, especially in the context of all the press surrounding President Trump’s disinterest in policy, briefings, or even paying attention to what’s going on in the world, his threats and bullying are little more than hot air.
Second, these tests might have boxed the US into a corner, much in the same way that President Obama constrained himself with his “red line” concerning Syrian use of chemical weapons. The US had threatened that Iran had been put “on notice” and then followed through with a slap on the wrist over the first test and, to date, not responded or even mentioned the second test. Remember, President Trump hasn’t just threatened Iran over missile tests; he also claimed that a future North Korean missile launch “won’t happen.” It’s not just Iran who’s paying attention to how the US responds to Iranian missile tests, it’s the world.
By threatening that these missile tests either will be prevented or punished, Trump is putting US credibility on the line; by responding in such a weak manner, he is undermining that credibility (yes, there is a serious academic debate about whether credibility actually matters in international relations. That’s a subject for another post, but Vox has a nice summary of the debate here.)
If I were an Iranian or North Korean decision maker, I’d take away that Trump’s threats lack seriousness and that business will be conducted, more or less, as usual. The danger is that if Iran or North Korea continue to behave as usual, President Trump will respond erratically or escalate a situation to satisfy his hubris and narcissism.