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US slaps sanctions on Iran, ticks off Israel, goes after Russia

Donald Trump Presidency Updated: Feb 03, 2017 22:52 IST
Yashwant Raj
US sanctions Iran

US President Donald Trump looks on following a swearing-in ceremony for Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon in Washington, US on January 27.(REUTERS FILE)

The Trump administration on Friday announced new sanctions against Iran, naming 25 entities and individuals connected to the country’s ballistic missiles programme and talked tough on Russia and Israel, veering its foreign policy closer to the mainstream than before.

The administration had put Iran on notice earlier, after it conducted a missile test, and President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter, “Iran is playing with fire - they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”

Just hours later, his administration announced the new sanctions. This is mainstream US foreign policy, as is being tough on Russia, which the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, was in her maiden speech at the Security Council. The Crimea-related sanctions will remain till Russia backed out, she said.

The Trump White House also steered its West Asia policy closer to that of the position of all recent administrations, telling Israel on Thursday expanding the contentious settlements will not help in achieving the goal of peace.

“US foreign policy shows signs of shift to constancy after 2 weeks of gobsmackers,” Strobe Talbott, president of Brookings, a leading US think-tank, noted in a Tweet with a link to a news article making that same argument.

Trump’s first two weeks in office were marked by exchange of unconditional love with leaders of Israel and Russia and angry phone calls with leaders of close allies Australia — he didn’t hang up, his officials are insisting — and Mexico.

There was also the usual saber-rattling directed at China, starting with Trump — before he assumed office — accepting a congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan, upending America’s decades-long one-China policy.

The Thursday turnaround came the day Rex Tillerson took charge as secretary of state. Though it wasn’t clear if he had anything to do with it, he and defense secretary James Mattis are expected to be a moderating influence on Trump.

Mattis, on his first trip since taking over the Pentagon, reaffirmed America’s commitment to its mutual defence treaty with Japan when he met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Friday. Earlier in the South Korean capital of Seoul, Mattis said any nuclear attack by North Korea would trigger an “effective and overwhelming” response as he sought to reassure Asian allies.

The White House statement on Israel said “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal (of peace)”.

Unlike past presidents, Trump doesn’t see Israel’s settlements in occupied territories as an impediment to peace, and the statement made that point but also, very gently and very noticeably, asked Israel to refrain from fresh expansions.

Israel has announced thousands of new housing units in existing settlements since Trump’s inauguration. But earlier this week, it spoke of plans to construct an altogether new settlement in West Bank, a first in decades, expanding the boundaries.

The White House statement said Trump will be discussing these and other issues with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had shared a publicly prickly relationship with former President Barack Obama, when they meet on February 15.

On Russia, the Trump administration was more forthright and plain. “The United States continues to condemn and calls for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea,” Haley said, adding, “Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.” Hers were the harshest remarks yet from an administration widely seen as soft on Russia.

On Iran, the administration was predictably tougher, as Trump had himself vowed to be as a candidate. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn told reporters on Wednesday the US was putting Iran on notice after it conducted a missile test on January 29.

“As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice,” Flynn told reporters at the White House news briefing on Wednesday, without tying it to a specific reason. He had no spelt out the consequences for Iran for failing to abide by the notice.

Senior officials had indicated on background than an entire range of options were available and did not deny or confirm if they included the use of military. Sanctions, a tool used before by past administration, was certainly among them.