Trump and Iran in 2017

December 21, 2017
Garrett Nada

Donald Trump’s election produced dramatic change in U.S. policy in 2017. As a candidate, he had blasted the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers as “the worst deal ever negotiated.” If elected, Trump said his number-one priority would be to dismantle the deal.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has taken an increasingly aggressive posture toward Iran. The tone was set less than two weeks into Trump’s presidency when then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn responded to an Iranian missile test. “The Obama Administration failed to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions—including weapons transfers, support for terrorism, and other violations of international norms,” he said. “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”

President TrumpPresident Trump’s rhetoric on Iran was just as bellicose throughout the year  In his first address to the U.N. General Assembly, he called Iran a “murderous regime” and “a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy.”

Trump reluctantly certified Iran’s compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal in April and again in July, as required every three months by law. But in October, the president refused to recertify the agreement, on grounds that that the Obama-era deal was not in the U.S. national security interest. “We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror, and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout,” he said. Trump wanted to give lawmakers a chance to fix what he perceived as flaws in the deal. Congress had 60 days to re-impose sanctions lifted. But lawmakers allowed the window to pass without taking further action.

Trump also tightened the squeeze on Iran in a wave of new sanctions as punishment for Tehran’s support for militant groups, missile proliferation and destabilizing behavior in the Middle East. By the end of 2017, the United States had sanctioned 93 Iran-related entities and individuals.

After Trump’s first year in office, the nuclear deal had survived, albeit shakily. The following is a review of the Trump administration’s actions on Iran in 2017.

The first sign of a new dynamic between Washington and Tehran came less than two weeks into Trump’s presidency. On January 27, Trump issued an executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen — from entering the United States for 90 days. Iranian leaders reacted angrily. The ban is “a clear insult to the Islamic world, and especially the great nation of Iran,” said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. It will be “a great gift to extremists and their supporters.”


Tensions escalated a few days later. On January 29, Iran test launched a medium-range ballistic missile. As with previous tests, the launch was not a violation of the nuclear deal, which does not include restrictions on Iran’s missile program. But the launch appeared to be inconsistent with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which bans Iran from testing ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The United States called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting to raise its concerns. “The United States is not naïve. We are not going to stand by. You will see us call them out,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters.

On February 1, then-National Security Advisor Flynn officially put the Islamic Republic “on notice.” He did not elaborate, but his tone and Trump’s tweets were aggressive.


On February 3, the U.S. Treasury announced new sanctions on 13 individuals and 12 entities for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Iranian officials responded defiantly. “We will not allow any outsider to interfere in our defense affairs,” said Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterated that missiles were not covered by the nuclear deal and said Iran will never use them to attack another country. The launch was “was not a message to the new U.S. government,” explained Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghasemi. “There is no need to test Mr. Trump as we have heard his views on different issues in recent days.”


Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei weighed in on Trump’s actions in an address to air force commanders on February 7. He thanked Trump for revealing the “true face” of the United States. “What we have been saying, for over thirty years, about political, economic, moral, and social corruption within the U.S. ruling establishment, he came out and exposed during the election campaigns and after the elections,” said Khamenei.


On March 17, the State Department sanctioned two Bahrainis with ties to Iran for supporting terrorism. “Today’s actions follow a recent increase in militant attacks in Bahrain, where Iran has provided weapons, funding, and training to militants. This marks yet another step in our continued effort to aggressively target Iran’s destabilizing and terrorism-related activities in the region,” read a statement. Iran said the claims were bogus.

Trump, like his predecessors, issued a statement marking Nowruz, the Persian New Year, a holiday celebrated in several countries in the Middle East and Asia. Only one out of five paragraphs was directed at the Iranian people. “To the Iranian people and all those around the world celebrating Nowruz: On behalf of the American people, I wish you freedom, dignity, and wealth,” read the statement. It notably lacked any reference to Iran’s government. President Obama had used some of his messages to project openness for engagement with Iran or to express hope for a future in which Tehran and Washington would have better relations.

On March 21, the United States imposed sanctions on 11 entities and individuals for transferring sensitive items to Iran’s ballistic missile program. “Iran’s proliferation of missile technology significantly contributes to regional tensions. As an example, we have seen indications Iran is providing missile support to the Houthis in Yemen,” the State Department noted.

Iran responded five days later with sanctions on 15 American businesses. Tehran blacklisted companies that have done business with the Israeli military or that were involved with Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

On April 13, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned the Tehran Prison Organization and Sohrab Soleimani, a senior official within Iran’s State Prison Organization. The announcement cited an April 2014 incident at the infamous Evin Prison, when dozens of security guards and prison officials attacked political prisoners in Ward 350 for several hours. At least 30 were injured; some were placed in solitary confinement without medical treatment. Soleimani was the head of the Tehran Prisons Organization at the time. He is also the brother of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force, according to the White House

On April 18, the Trump administration acknowledged that Iran was complying with the nuclear deal. By law, the administration must notify Congress every 90 days whether Iran is fulfilling its commitments. At the same time, the administration announced the launch of an interagency review to determine whether sanctions relief for Iran, as part of the nuclear deal, is vital to U.S. national security interests. “Notwithstanding, Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods,” wrote Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a letter to Congress.

Foreign Minister Zarif shot back with a tweet implying that the United States had not been living up to its obligations under the deal. In a statement, he accused Washington of supporting militant extremists, including al Qaeda’ affiliate in Syria. He, emphasized that Iran remained committed to its obligations under the JCPOA, despite “the malign behavior of the U.S. Government.”


On May 17, the Trump administration issued sanctions waivers, as required by the JCPOA. He also said that the United States would not pursue efforts to reduce Iran’s sale of crude oil, consistent with U.S. obligations. On the same day, however, the Treasury Department blacklisted three individuals and four entities, including a China-based network, for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Iran countered with sanctions on nine American individuals and firms involved with Israeli and/or U.S. businesses, military and intelligence. For example, it alleged that Booz Allen Hamilton’s contractors were affiliated with the CIA and had conducted security operations against the Islamic Republic. “Iran condemns America's unacceptable ill will in its effort to undermine the positive outcome of Tehran's commitment to implement the nuclear deal by adding individuals to its list of unilateral and illegal sanctions,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qasemi.

Trump visited two of Iran’s top regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Israel, on his first trip abroad as president. On May 21, he accused Tehran of fueling “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” in an address in Riyadh to leaders of 50 Muslim countries.


Trump’s remarks came just after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose chief achievement is the nuclear deal, won a second term. Secretary Tillerson said that the United States hoped that Rouhani would change its foreign policy and protect human rights domestically. When asked whether he would meet with Foreign Minister Zarif, Tillerson said that he would “not shut out anyone who wants to talk” or have a productive conversation. “In all likelihood, we will talk at the right time.”

In Israel, Trump criticized the Obama administration for negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran and major world powers. “We not only gave them a lifeline, we gave them wealth and prosperity. And we also gave them an ability to continue with terror… no matter where we go we see the signs of Iran in the Middle East,” he said on May 22

Rouhani mocked Trump’s trip and his signing of a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The visit was “just a show” that lacked “political and practical value,” he said. Rouhani called out Riyadh monarchical government. The kingdom “has never seen a ballot box,” he quipped. “Buying arms or building weapons won't make a country powerful.” Rouhani also alluded to the involvement of 15 Saudi citizens in the plotting of the September 11 attacks. “I do not think the American people are ready to trade the lives they lost on September 11 with billions of dollars gained through weapons sales.”

In June, U.S. forces shot down two Iranian-made drones in Syria, raising the threat of U.S. military confrontation with pro-regime forces there. Since 2011, Iran has provided key logistical, technical and financial support to the Assad government, including military advisors. One of the drones dropped a dud munition, which the U.S. forces perceived as a “show of force,” according to a defense official. It was reportedly the first time that pro-regime forces had fired on the U.S.-led coalition.

The U.S.-led coalition to defeat ISIS released a statement indicating it was not looking for a new confrontation. “The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend Coalition or partner forces from any threat,” it read.

On July 17, Trump recertified Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA for the second time. Trump reportedly agreed only after arguing with his top national security advisors less than a week before the legal deadline.

On the same day, the Department of Justice announced that two Iranian nationals were charged for hacking a Vermont company best known for producing software for aerodynamics analysis and projectile design. The men allegedly sold the software to Iranian entities, including universities and military and government entities.

On July 18, the State Department announced new sanctions on “18 entities and individuals supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program and for supporting Iran’s military procurement or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as an Iran-based transnational criminal organization and associated persons.” Additionally, the Treasury Department “designated seven entities and five individuals for engaging in activities in support of Iran’s military procurement or the IRGC, as well as an Iran-based transnational criminal organization and three associated persons.”

Iran’s foreign ministry denounced the sanctions as “contemptible and worthless” and warned of reciprocal action. “Surely, if the Americans seek to apply sanctions against us under whatever title or pretext, the great nation of Iran would aptly respond to them,” said President Rouhani.

Also in July, Iran’s judiciary announced that an American graduate student had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for spying. The student was later identified as 37-year-old Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-born doctoral candidate at Princeton University. He was arrested in August 2016 while conducting research in Iran on the administrative and cultural history of the late Qajar dynasty for his doctoral dissertation.


On July 21, the White House blasted the Islamic Republic for taking hostages.

President Donald J. Trump and his Administration are redoubling efforts to bring home all Americans unjustly detained abroad. The United States condemns hostage takers and nations that continue to take hostages and detain our citizens without just cause or due process.

For nearly forty years, Iran has used detentions and hostage taking as a tool of state policy, a practice that continues to this day with the recent sentencing of Xiyue Wang to ten years in prison. Iran is responsible for the care and well-being of every United States citizen in its custody. President Trump urges Iran to return Robert Levinson home, who has been held for over 10 years, and demands Iran release Siamak and Baquer Namazi, who were taken during the Obama administration, along with all other American citizens unjustly detained by Iran. President Trump is prepared to impose new and serious consequences on Iran unless all unjustly imprisoned American citizens are released and returned.

On July 27, Iran announced the launch of a rocket capable of delivering satellites weighing 550 pounds into space. The test was not a direct violation of the JCPOA or U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls on Iran to refrain from activity involving ballistic missiles that are “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” The United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, however, issued a joint statement condemning the Simorgh launch: “Iran has again demonstrated activity inconsistent with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231.”

In an additional step on July 28, the Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on six entities with connections to Iran’s ballistic missile program. In response, Tehran formally complained to the Joint Commission overseeing the nuclear deal that the new sanctions breached the agreement. “Iran's JCPOA supervisory body assessed the new U.S. sanctions and decided that they contradict parts of the nuclear deal,” said Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani. 

On August 2, Trump signed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a bipartisan bill that imposed sanctions on Iran and Russia. It also included a provision known as the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 that directed the president to impose sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile and any weapons of mass destruction programs, the sale or transfer to Iran of military equipment or related technical or financial assistance, and the IRGC. It also increased the President’s ability to sanction individuals connected to North Korea. 

Iran’s leaders condemned the move. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said it violated the nuclear deal. “The Americans should know that they will be harmed more by such moves, as such acts will isolate them in the world,” warned President Hassan Rouhani. 

On September 14, the United States extended some sanctions relief guaranteed Iran as part of the nuclear deal. But on the same day, the Treasury Department sanctioned 11 entities or individuals for supporting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps or networks responsible for cyber-attacks against the United States. 

President Trump addressed the U.N. General Assembly for the first time on September 19. He called on the world to join the United States “in demanding that Iran’s government end its pursuit of death and destruction.” Trump blasted Iran for supporting terror and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Trump also warned that the United States cannot abide by the nuclear deal “if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program.”

In his own U.N. address, the next day, President Rouhani criticized President Trump for both the substance and tenor of his remarks. “The ignorant, absurd and hateful rhetoric, filled with ridiculously baseless allegations, that was uttered before this august body yesterday, was not only unfit to be heard at the United Nations - which was established to promote peace and respect between nations - but indeed contradicted the demands of our nations from this world body to bring governments together to combat war and terror.” Rouhani also seemed to reference Trump when he said that it would be a pity if the nuclear deal “were to be destroyed by ‘rogue’ newcomers to the world of politics.” 

Iran’s supreme leader and foreign minister were also critical.


Tillerson and Zarif met for the first time on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. On September 20, E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini chaired a ministerial meeting on implementation of the nuclear deal. Foreign ministers from all of the countries party to the agreement —China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Iran — attended. After the gathering, Tillerson told reporters that it was “a good opportunity to meet, shake hands” with Zarif. “The tone was very matter-of-fact, there was no yelling.” He added, jokingly, “We didn’t throw shoes at one another.” But Tillerson also emphasized that Washington and Tehran see the nuclear deal very differently. 

On September 24, Trump announced new travel restrictions on certain foreigners from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen, a revised version of his controversial earlier ban. Iranian leaders condemned the policy as offensive.

On October 13, Trump outlined a new U.S. strategy on Iran. In a speech, he said the regime’s support for terror and regional aggression had not changed since the 1979 revolution. “We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror, and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout,” he said. He outlined four broad initiatives:

First, we will work with our allies to counter the regime’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region.

Second, we will place additional sanctions on the regime to block their financing of terror.

Third, we will address the regime’s proliferation of missiles and weapons that threaten its neighbors, global trade, and freedom of navigation.

And finally, we will deny the regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.

In terms of specific steps, Trump said that he would not recertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. Trump said his national security team would work with Congress and U.S. allies to address “flaws” in the deal. But he also warned that he could cancel the agreement at any time if enforcement wasn’t strengthened and nothing was done to curb Iran’s missile program. 

Trump also directed the Treasury Department to further sanction the IRGC, its officials, agents and affiliates. He urged U.S. allies to follow suit. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin singled out the Qods Force, which is responsible for the IRGC’s foreign operations:

We are designating the IRGC for providing support to the IRGC-QF, the key Iranian entity enabling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s relentless campaign of brutal violence against his own people, as well as the lethal activities of Hizballah, Hamas, and other terrorist groups. We urge the private sector to recognize that the IRGC permeates much of the Iranian economy, and those who transact with IRGC-controlled companies do so at great risk.

The moves prompted an angry reaction from Tehran. “What was heard today from US officials was nothing but the repetition of incorrect words, false accusations and insults that have been repeatedly said during the past 40 years,” Rouhani said in a fiery televised address to the nation. He pledged to strengthen Iran’s defenses despite the new sanctions on the IRGC. Rouhani argued that Trump was wrong about being able to unilaterally revoke the JCPOA. “How can a president alone cancel a treaty that is a multilateral and in one sense, international document, as it has been approved in the United Nations?” Rouhani said, however, that Iran would remain committed to the JCPOA as long as it served its national interests. 

Other parties to the nuclear deal also questioning Trump’s decision. In a joint statement, France, Germany and the United Kingdom encouraged the administration and Congress “to consider the implications to the security of the US and its allies before taking any steps that might undermine the JCPOA, such as re-imposing sanctions on Iran lifted under the agreement.”

The Treasury Department moved against the IRGC Qods Force again on November 20. It sanctioned a wide network of individuals and entities involved in counterfeiting currency. “This scheme exposes the deep levels of deception the IRGC-Qods Force is willing to employ against companies in Europe, governments in the Gulf, and the rest of the world to support its destabilizing activities,” said Mnuchin.

On December 2, Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo confirmed Iranian news reports that he had sent a letter to the commander of the Qods Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani reportedly didn’t open the letter. “It didn't break my heart, to be honest with you,” Pompeo told an audience at the Reagan National Defense Forum. “What we were communicating to him in that letter was that we will hold he and Iran accountable for any attacks on American interests in Iraq by forces that are under their control.” 

Nikki HaleyThe United States stepped up its accusations of Iranian sponsorship of Yemen’s Houthis with a bold display. On December 14, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, presented what she referred to as "undeniable" evidence of Iran’s transfer of arms to Houthi rebels. “It’s hard to find a conflict or a terrorist group in the Middle East that does not have Iran’s fingerprints all over it,” she told reporters, standing in front of a missile allegedly fired by Houthis into Saudi Arabia. 

For years, Iran has been widely accused of backing the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that has been fighting Yemen’s Sunni-majority government since 2004. The Houthis took over the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 and had seized control over much of north Yemen by 2016, despite a military intervention led by Saudi Arabia. Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia escalated on November 4, 2017, when Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh.

Iran also figured prominently in the president’s long-awaited National Security Strategy, which he unveiled on December 18. The strategy described Iran one of the biggest threats to the United States and the Middle East’s stability:

Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, has taken advantage of instability to expand its influence through partners and proxies, weapon proliferation, and funding. It continues to develop more capable ballistic missiles and intelligence capabilities, and it undertakes malicious cyber activities. These activities have continued unabated since the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran continues to perpetuate the cycle of violence in the region, causing grievous harm to civilian populations.


Garrett Nada is the managing editor of The Iran Primer and The Islamists websites at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Garrett Nada