Trump signals he will choose approach on Iran that preserves nuclear deal

The New York Times reports: President Trump kept the Iran nuclear deal alive on Thursday as a critical deadline lapsed, a sign that he is stepping back from his threat to abandon an agreement he repeatedly disparaged. He is moving instead to push back on Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East in other ways.

Thursday’s congressionally imposed deadline, to renew an exemption to sanctions on Iran suspended under the 2015 deal, was significant because had the president reimposed economic punishments on Iran, he would have effectively violated the accord, allowing Tehran to walk away and ending the agreement. But Mr. Trump was convinced by top Cabinet members and aides that he would also blow up alliances and free Iran to produce nuclear weapons material.

The move was more consequential than the decision the president faces in October about whether to recertify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the deal, which has no effect on the nuclear agreement itself.

Though Mr. Trump insisted that he has not settled on an overall Iran strategy and that he would announce one next month, administration officials said they were already trying to refocus on using military and economic leverage to counter Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.

The approach, which aides said Mr. Trump came to reluctantly in a series of National Security Council meetings, is part of a pattern that has emerged in the president’s attempts to keep his campaign promises. Falling short in some cases, including on his hard line on immigration, Mr. Trump has portrayed the outcome as consistent with his stated objectives. [Continue reading…]

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Arms control experts urge Trump to honor Iran nuclear deal

The New York Times reports: Alarmed that President Trump may soon take steps that could unravel the international nuclear agreement with Iran, more than 80 disarmament experts urged him on Wednesday to reconsider and said the accord was working.

In a joint statement, the experts said the 2015 agreement, negotiated by the Obama administration and the governments of Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, was a “net plus for international nuclear nonproliferation efforts.”

Because of the monitoring powers contained in the agreement, they said, Iran’s capability to produce nuclear weapons had been sharply reduced. They also said the agreement made it “very likely that any possible future effort by Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, even a clandestine program, would be detected promptly.”

Mr. Trump has repeatedly assailed the agreement — a signature achievement of his predecessor — describing it as “a terrible deal” and a giveaway to Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration may make the Iran deal the Senate’s problem

J. Dana Stuster writes: The Trump administration continued laying the groundwork for decertifying Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last week. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on the nuclear agreement and broader U.S. policy toward Iran. Though she stressed that she was “not making the case for decertifying”—instead she said she was arguing that “should [Trump] decide to decertify, he has grounds to stand on”—it was hard to read Haley’s comments as any anything else.

Haley’s speech was mostly a rehash of criticisms leveled against the JCPOA at the time of its proposal in 2015. Like previous critics, Haley expressed frustration that the agreement deals with Iran’s nuclear weapons program in isolation from Iran’s other aggressive actions in the Middle East, raised concerns about inspectors’ ability to detect potential clandestine enrichment sites, and cited Iran’s record of sponsoring terrorism as a check against its credibility. None of this is new, and the counterarguments have been made well for years. But as President Barack Obama pointed out at the time, “You don’t make deals like this with your friends.” The agreement addressed the foremost U.S. security interest with regard to Iran: the rapid expansion of its uranium enrichment that could be used to make a nuclear weapon. Haley’s speech didn’t articulate an alternative for containing Iran’s nuclear program.

The JCPOA was an international agreement only made possible by the participation of a coalition that included Russia and China; that Washington, Moscow, and Beijing could all agree to the terms is still an incredible diplomatic achievement by itself. But those international partners to the agreement got short shrift in Haley’s speech, only coming up in the question and answer portion. “This is about U.S. national security. This is not about European security. This is not about anyone else,” she said, which the New York Times reports left “several European diplomats in the audience fuming.” [Continue reading…]

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Merkel offers German role in Iran-style nuclear talks with North Korea

Reuters reports: German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a newspaper she would be prepared to become involved in a diplomatic initiative to end the North Korean nuclear and missiles program, and suggested the Iran nuclear talks could be a model.

South Korea on Saturday braced for a possible further missile test by North Korea as it marked its founding anniversary, just days after its sixth and largest nuclear test rattled global financial markets and further escalated tensions in the region.

“If our participation in talks is desired, I will immediately say yes,” Merkel told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in an interview to be published on Sunday. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s next self-inflicted crisis is a nuclear Iran

Jeffrey Lewis writes: Oct. 15, 2017. Put it in your calendar.

By that date, President Donald Trump must yet again certify that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Indeed, owing to the infinite wisdom of the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” the U.S. Senate, the president must make such a certification every 90 days. Trump has done so twice, although each time at the last possible moment and only following a knock-down, drag-out fight in which a bunch of globalist cucks, also known as Trump’s national security team, implored him not to walk away from the agreement. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said, “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago.”

Which is a weird thing to say because, you know, it is up to him whether to certify that Iran is in compliance. If Trump simply does nothing, Congress can reimpose sanctions on an expedited basis, which it would almost certainly do, thereby possibly collapsing the agreement.

The Iranians, of course, have noticed this little carnival of bellicosity. Both President Hassan Rouhani and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the nuclear energy program, recently said that if the United States reimposes sanctions, Iran could quickly resume a limited number of nuclear activities. These statements were widely misquoted, as Ariane Tabatabai notes, but they remind us that Iran is contemplating its options.

So it is time for a stark warning: If the United States walks away from the JCPOA, Iran could have a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) much more quickly than you might think, possibly before Trump leaves office.

The United States walked away from the Agreed Framework with North Korea in 2003. Three years later, North Korea exploded its first nuclear weapon. This summer, North Korea started testing long-range missiles that can carry those nuclear weapons to cities in the United States like New York and Los Angeles.

If the United States walks away from the JCPOA, Iran could do the same thing — only faster. This is admittedly a worst-case scenario, but as you may have noticed last November, unlikely, even unthinkable things occasionally do happen. [Continue reading…]

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Rouhani 2.0 vs. the hawks in Washington and Tehran

Ali Vaez writes: The inauguration of Hassan Rouhani on Saturday as president of Iran for a second term may be a bittersweet moment for him.

He appears at once stronger and weaker: His 19-point margin of victory in May after a bruising campaign against hard-line opponents surely increased his confidence. Yet, perhaps for that very reason, the conservative establishment, led by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is trying to stymie his efforts to translate his electoral mandate into policies aimed at opening Iran economically and politically. This augurs trying times, made more difficult by the belligerent stance of President Trump toward Iran.

History suggests that Mr. Rouhani has reason for concern. All his predecessors over the past three decades suffered gradual obsolescence in their second terms. Without the option of a consecutive third term, they all followed the same script: an initial forceful push of their agenda, followed by a clash with the Iranian system’s custodians and the frustration of becoming premature lame ducks.

In some ways, though, 2017 seems different. This is no ordinary moment in Iran’s history. The men who led the revolution to victory in 1979 are dying off, and Ayatollah Khamenei, who is 78, has suggested that he may soon need a successor. Two competing visions are vying for the Islamic Republic’s future: that of the principlists, who seek to preserve its revolutionary nature, and that of the more pragmatic elements, who want the revolution to mellow. [Continue reading…]

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Is Trump scheming to kill the Iran deal?

Steve Andreasen and Steven Simon write: As if the steeply rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula weren’t enough, President Trump seems determined to kill the Iran nuclear deal, against the near unanimous opinion of his closest foreign policy advisers.

According to a recent article in Foreign Policy, after he grudgingly agreed to recertify the deal a few weeks ago, Mr. Trump assigned a team of White House staff members to develop a case within the next three months for declaring that Iran had violated the agreement.

With this new initiative on Iran, Mr. Trump puts the world, and his presidency, at great risk.

For one thing, it brings to a boil the simmering conflict between the president’s official foreign policy advisers on the National Security Council staff and in the State and Defense Departments, and a circle of advisers led by the radical unilateralist Stephen Bannon. The latter group will handle the president’s Iran assignment, and while anything could happen, it’s a good bet that they will cherry-pick facts to give the president what he wants: an excuse to scuttle the Iran deal.

Will Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, or Gen. John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, let this happen? Some might resign; these are not men known for their willingness to tolerate such shenanigans. But whether they resign or try to stick it out, a political decision to decertify Iran would signal a clear defeat for the administration’s foreign policy professionals, and a victory for the ideologues. [Continue reading…]

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Iran says new U.S. sanctions violate nuclear deal

The New York Times reports: Furious over new American sanctions, Iran said on Tuesday that it had lodged a complaint with the commission that polices possible violations of the Iranian nuclear agreement.

The complaint, disclosed by the speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, accused the United States of breaching the 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, between Iran and six world powers, including the United States.

Some analysts interpreted the move as posturing aimed at ensuring that if President Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, as he has threatened, then his administration would be blamed and not Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Scuttling the Iran deal will lead to another North Korea

Jeffrey Lewis writes: If you like North Korea’s nuclear-armed ICBM, you are going to love America walking away from the nuclear deal with Iran.

On this week’s episode of the Federal Apprentice, the staff forced Donald Trump to certify that Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal brokered by his predecessor. None too happy with that outcome, Trump is reportedly exploring ways to collapse it. That’s a terrible idea. Two rocket tests launched last week in a single 24-hour span by Iran and North Korea help explain why. They offer a useful opportunity to compare two very different possibilities: what Iran looks like today, with the nuclear deal in place, and how things have turned out with North Korea following the collapse of efforts to negotiate limits on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

Last week, Iran launched a rocket called the “Simorgh” as part of a program to place satellites in orbit. The Simorgh itself is not an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, but the technologies are broadly similar.

Space launches do not, however, violate the terms of the nuclear deal, contrary to the claims of some of the deal’s opponents. The text of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is silent on the subject missile launches. Accordingly, U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which implemented the deal, toned down the tough language in previous resolutions. Iran is merely “called upon” — the diplomatic equivalent of a suggestion — to refrain from activities related to “ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” (And the term “designed to be capable” is so ambiguous as to be almost meaningless.) Indeed, the fact that the deal contained no limits on Iran’s missile program was something opponents highlighted and supporters, like me, lamented.

These details, though, don’t matter. The Trump administration is already signaling that it intends to sabotage the nuclear deal by insisting on inspections in a transparent and cynical effort to push Iran out of the agreement. The JCPOA already provides for inspections, but Team Trump seems to be envisioning the equivalent of a safeguards colonoscopy, not to catch Iran cheating but to make life under the agreement a constant source of friction. Whether or not a space launch is legally permitted or prohibited, Team Trump is likely to decide that it is one more calumny to launch against what Trump modestly called the “worst deal ever.”

But a casual glance at North Korea helps illustrate why that is shortsighted.

According to Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the Trump administration won’t be talking about North Korea’s missile launch. After all, what’s to talk about? North Korea’s recent tests of an ICBM clearly violate various U.N. Security Council resolutions, and the United States isn’t going to do anything about it. North Korea’s Hwasong-14 ICBM flew more than 3,700 kilometers in altitude, before landing in the Sea of Japan. Had North Korea fired the Hwasong-14 on a normal trajectory, it would have traveled far enough to hit most major U.S. cities including New York and Los Angeles. The people who are promising you a better deal with Iran have exactly no plan to deal with North Korea. It’s the equivalent of repeal and replace, except that stripping 20 million people of health care looks like a walk in the park compared with blundering into nuclear war. [Continue reading…]

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Trump is determined to blow up the Iran deal

John Glaser writes: What many observers have been nervously suspecting for months is now clear: President Donald Trump is intent on eviscerating the Iran nuclear deal, irrespective of the overwhelming evidence that it is successfully staving off Iranian nuclear weapons development.

According to an Associated Press report this week, the administration’s new tactic is to use the deal’s “snap inspections” provision, which allows inspectors to demand access to any undeclared sites in Iran reasonably suspected of engaging in off-the-books enrichment activity, to make Iran appear noncompliant. The problem is there is no clear evidence Iran is doing any illicit enrichment or development. So, Iran quite reasonably can be expected to refuse access, at which point the Trump administration can try to falsely depict Iran as violating the deal.

As Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association tweeted, the Iran deal’s “special access provisions were designed to detect & deter cheating not to enable false pretext for unraveling the agreement.” The administration is simply “seeking trumped up reasons to sink [the] Iran deal.” [Continue reading…]

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The mask is off: Trump is seeking war with Iran

Trita Parsi writes: Something extraordinary has happened in Washington. President Donald Trump has made it clear, in no uncertain terms and with no effort to disguise his duplicity, that he will claim that Tehran is cheating on the nuclear deal by October—the facts be damned. In short, the fix is in. Trump will refuse to accept that Iran is in compliance and thereby set the stage for a military confrontation. His advisors have even been kind enough to explain how they will go about this. Rarely has a sinister plan to destroy an arms control agreement and pave the way for war been so openly telegraphed.

The unmasking of Trump’s plans to sabotage the nuclear deal began two weeks ago when he reluctantly had to certify that Iran indeed was in compliance. Both the US intelligence as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed Tehran’s fair play. But Trump threw a tantrum in the Oval Office and berated his national security team for not having found a way to claim Iran was cheating. According to Foreign Policy, the adults in the room—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster—eventually calmed Trump down but only on the condition that they double down on finding a way for the president to blow up the deal by October.

Prior to the revelation of Trump’s Iran certification meltdown, most analysts and diplomats believed that Trump’s rhetoric on Iran was just that—empty talk. His bark was worse than his bite, as demonstrated when he certified Iran’s compliance back in April and when he renewed sanctions waivers in May. The distance between his rhetoric and actual policy was tangible. Rhetorically, Trump officials described Iran as the root of all problems in the Middle East and as the greatest state sponsor of terror. Trump even suggested he might quit the deal. [Continue reading…]

Note the carefully worded headline — seeking war — which should not be taken to mean Trump is intent on starting a war. The specter of war would surely be sufficient for his purposes.

But what are Trump’s purposes?

For Trump to be deeply vexed by the terms of the Iran deal, he’d have to know what those terms are and I doubt he’s even read the deal, let alone subjected it to critical analysis.

It seems much more likely that the only reason Trump has given the Iran deal any consideration whatsoever has nothing to do with geopolitics and everything to do with Barack Obama.

As unpredictable as Trump is, in this respect he has been absolutely consistent: in his determination to undo everything that has been dubbed Obama’s legacy.

He’s torn up the Paris climate accord; having failed to replace Obamacare he’s now intent on destroying it; and this leaves as unfinished business, the Iran deal.

For however long Trump remains in office he will regard his term as successful if it is seen as having erased Obama’s impact on history. In this way, Trump will have left his mark — with the sophistication of a dog.

The Trump doctrine is very simple since it can be reduced to two words: Donald Trump.

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Trump assigns White House team to target Iran nuclear deal, sidelining State Department

Foreign Policy reports: After a contentious meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week, President Donald Trump instructed a group of trusted White House staffers to make the potential case for withholding certification of Iran at the next 90-day review of the nuclear deal. The goal was to give Trump what he felt the State Department had failed to do: the option to declare that Tehran was not in compliance with the contentious agreement.

“The president assigned White House staffers with the task of preparing for the possibility of decertification for the 90-day review period that ends in October — a task he had previously given to Secretary Tillerson and the State Department,” a source close to the White House told Foreign Policy.

The agreement, negotiated between Iran and world powers, placed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting an array of economic sanctions.

On Tuesday, Trump relayed this new assignment to a group of White House staffers now tasked with making sure there will not be a repeat at the next 90-day review. “This is the president telling the White House that he wants to be in a place to decertify 90 days from now and it’s their job to put him there,” the source said. [Continue reading…]

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Is the nuclear deal with Iran slipping away?

Robin Wright writes: On Monday, the White House hastily organized a press teleconference on the Iranian nuclear deal. The accord—brokered by the world’s six major powers two years ago—is to President Trump’s foreign policy what Obamacare is to his domestic policy: he is determined to destroy it, without a coherent or viable strategy, so far, to replace it. It’s also not clear that Trump fully understands its details, complex diplomatic process, or long-term stakes any more than he does health care.

During the White House briefing, I asked the three senior Administration officials whether, after months of inflammatory declarations about the “bad deal” and the “bad” government in Tehran, the Trump Administration is moving toward a policy of regime change. It often sounds like it. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress in June that U.S. policy includes “support of those elements inside Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” Last month, the Defense Secretary, James Mattis, described Iran as “a country that is acting more like a revolutionary cause, not to the best interests of their own people,” and added, “until the Iranian people can get rid of this theocracy.” Shortly after Trump’s Inauguration, a memo circulated by hawks within the Administration suggested that Iran was susceptible to “coerced democratization,” a euphemism for regime change. Authored by Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the memo argued that “the very structure of the regime invites instability, crisis and possibly collapse,” and urged the White House to work against the reëlection this year of President Hassan Rouhani, the chief sponsor of the nuclear deal on the Iranian side. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. certifies that Iran is meeting terms of nuclear deal

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration certified to Congress late Monday that Iran has continued to meet the required conditions of its nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers.

But senior administration officials made clear that the certification was grudging, and said that President Trump intends to impose new sanctions on Iran for ongoing “malign activities” in non-nuclear areas such as ballistic missile development and support for terrorism.

“We judge that these Iranian activities severely undermine the intent” of the agreement as a force for international stability, one official said. Iran is “unquestionably in default of the spirit of the JCPOA,” or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that took effect in January 2016 after years of negotiations, the official said. [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration plans to certify Iranian compliance with nuclear agreement

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration, delaying an anticipated confrontation with Iran until the completion of a long-awaited policy review, plans to recertify Tehran’s compliance with the Obama-era nuclear deal, according to U.S. and foreign officials.

The recertification, due Monday to Congress, follows a heated internal debate between those who want to crack down on Iran now — including some White House officials and lawmakers — and Cabinet officials who are “managing other constituencies” such as European allies, and Russia and China, which signed and support the agreement, one senior U.S. official said.

As a candidate and president, Trump has said he would reexamine and possibly kill what he called the “disastrous” nuclear deal that was negotiated under President Barack Obama and went into effect in January last year. The historic agreement shut down most of Iran’s nuclear program, in some cases for decades, in exchange for an easing of international sanctions.

Under an arrangement Obama worked out with Congress, the administration must certify Iranian compliance with the terms of the accord every 90 days. If the administration denies certification, it can then decide to reinstitute sanctions that were suspended under the deal.

The Trump administration issued its first certification in April, when it also said it was awaiting completion of its review of the agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The senior official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations, said the review should be completed before the next certification deadline in October.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations and other signatories have said repeatedly that Iran is complying with the agreement, under which the country dismantled most of its centrifuges and nuclear stockpile, shut down a plutonium production program and agreed to extensive international monitoring of all stages of the nuclear process. [Continue reading…]

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Trump wants to push back against Iran, but Iran is now more powerful than ever

The Washington Post reports: President Trump’s tough talk on Iran is winning him friends in the Arab world, but it also carries a significant risk of conflict with a U.S. rival that is now more powerful than at any point since the creation of the Islamic republic nearly 40 years ago.

With its warning last week that Iran is “on notice,” the Trump administration signaled a sharp departure from the policies of President Barack Obama, whose focus on pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran eclipsed historic U.S. concerns about Iranian expansionism and heralded a rare period of detente between Washington and Tehran.

Many in the region are now predicting a return to the tensions of the George W. Bush era, when U.S. and Iranian operatives fought a shadow war in Iraq, Sunni-Shiite tensions soared across the region and America’s ally Israel fought a brutal war with Iran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Except that now the United States will be facing down a far stronger Iran, one that has taken advantage of the past six years of turmoil in the Arab world to steadily expand its reach and military capabilities. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Theresa May has resisted pressure to re-examine the viability of the international nuclear deal with Iran from her Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, who urged her to follow Donald Trump’s example by imposing fresh sanctions.

May also said only a two-state solution could bring about peace in the Middle East, and her spokeswoman said the extension of illegal settlements made a solution more difficult.

Netanyahu had said “responsible” countries should follow Trump in imposing new sanctions against Iran after it test-fired a ballistic missile. But May expressed her concern about Iran’s actions without saying there was a need for sanctions. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s belligerence towards Iran plays into the hands of Tehran’s hardliners

Saeed Kamali Dehghan writes: Distorting realities, ignoring nuances and hijacking people’s fears: that’s the recipe for a demagogue who lives not on his own wits but others’ miseries. It is particularly bad when the person or the country being targeted by that demagogue does little to straighten things out, which is exactly what is happening right now with Iran and Donald Trump.

Iranians know too well from their own experience with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, their hardline former president, how dangerous it is to have a politician telling you passionately half of the truth without caring that the other half is often a lie or a distortion of facts.

Trump’s increasingly bellicose approach towards Iran, first by imposing a blanket travel ban, then putting Tehran “on notice” after a ballistic missile test, as well as by reported plans of new sanctions, carries two subtle messages. The first message is that Iranophobia is going to be his adopted weapon to distract attentions at home, appeal strongly to the US’s wealthy Arab allies who are already welcoming him as a moderate president, and please Benjamin Netanyahu. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, reacting on Twitter to the missile test, is right to point out that Iran only spends a fraction on defence compared to the US’s Arab allies in the region, which are big recipients of US, UK and French arms.

Trump’s second message, albeit one barely admitted by his officials, is that his administration’s problem is not just with the Iranian state, but with its people too. His executive order suspending all entries to the US from seven predominantly Muslim countries affects Iranians to a greater extent than it does nationals from the other six states.

There are more Iranians in the US, and far more Iranian students are likely to be affected by the new measures than those from Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen put together. Last year, there were 12,269 Iranian students studying in the US, according to data by the Institute of International Education, compared to 5,085 from the six other countries. Iranians are struggling to understand why they are being targeted in this way. [Continue reading…]

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