Trump Makes Last-Ditch Efforts to Increase Pressure on Iran

With Defence Secretary’s Firing and New Iran Sanctions, the President is Moving to Eliminate Any Hope of Iran Deal Revival

On Monday afternoon, President Donald Trump fired his secretary of defense, Mark Esper, via tweet. The move came just two days after Joe Biden won the 2020 Presidential election, a development Trump so far refuses to accept. In the wake of Esper’s departure, the Trump administration imposed a new round of sanctions on Iran, blacklisting six companies and four people accused of facilitating the procurement of sensitive goods for an Iranian military firm. These developments have drawn immediate attention and raised questions over the Presidents manoeuvres in his final 72 days in office.
Esper is thought to have been at the top of a list of officials Trump was looking to fire, after he contradicted the President several times in public. “The United States is not seeking a war with Iran…We are seeking a diplomatic solution,” Esper told the media in early January 2020. He even openly contradicted Trump’s claim that US-assassinated Iranian General Ghasem Soleimani was plotting attacks on four US embassies around the world. Esper also stood up to Trump, who threatened to wipe out Iran’s cultural centers, by flatly stating that the Pentagon had no such bombing plans.  
Trump announced that Christopher Miller, respected director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will be Esper's replacement. Officials say Miller was a driving force in some of Trump's anti-Iran and anti-Hezbollah policies, as well as counterterrorism efforts in Syria and Iraq. 
Analysts say that with Esper gone and the State Department’s plans of a “flood” of new Iran sanctions in the coming days, the stage could be set for a sharp escalation in the US-Iran tensions.
According to the New York Times: "Defense Department officials have privately expressed worries that the president might initiate operations, whether overt or secret, against Iran or other adversaries during his last days in office." Elissa Slotkin, a former Defense official and now a Democrat representative for Michigan, added: "There would only be a few reasons to fire a secretary of defense with 72 days left in an administration. "One would be incompetence or wrongdoing, which do not seem to be the issue with Secretary Esper.
"A second would be vindictiveness, which would be an irresponsible way to treat our national security.  "A third would be because the president wants to take actions that he believes his secretary of defense would refuse to take, which would be alarming."
The administration has already proved willing to risk a direct clash by hitting Iran-linked targets in Iraq, notably Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. Iran is also thought to still want to avenge Soleimani’s killing and some analysts believe it could use the unstable transition period to do so. 
Two years ago, Trump abandoned the 2015 Iran nuclear deal struck by his predecessor, Barack Obama, and has since restored harsh U.S. economic sanctions designed to force Tehran into a wider negotiation on curbing its nuclear program, development of ballistic missiles and support for regional proxy forces. 
The Trump administration is planning a flood of new sanctions before President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20. Biden, who was Obama’s vice president. Biden has said he would return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, under which Tehran agreed to restrict its nuclear program in return for relief from U.S. and other sanctions, if the Iranian government resumes compliance. Trump’s aim is to make it as difficult as possible for Biden to return to the 2015 agreement.
Iran has reacted positively to Biden’s victory. President Hassan Rouhani said an opportunity had come up “for the next US administration to compensate for past mistakes and return to the path of complying with international agreements through respect for international norms”.  He said the Trump policy “was doomed to fail” and argued that Iran “considers constructive engagement with the world as a strategy”.
Tuesday’s sanctions were imposed on six companies and four people, accusing the network of supplying sensitive goods to an Iranian military firm in the Trump administration’s latest move to increase pressure on Tehran. “The Iranian regime utilizes a global network of companies to advance its destabilizing military capabilities,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “The United States will continue to take action against those who help to support the regime’s militarization and proliferation efforts.”
Iran Communication Industries, which was already sanctioned by both the United States and European Union, produces military communication systems, avionics, information technology, electronic warfare and missile launchers, according to the Treasury. The department accused a number of companies based in Iran, Hong Kong, China and Brunei of facilitating the transaction of US-origin electronic components and other goods on behalf of Iran Communication Industries.
According to a report from Reuters, the Trump administration is readying another round of sanctions against Iranians who played a role in the violent suppression of anti-government protests in November 2019. The unrest in Iran left hundreds dead, marking the country’s deadliest uprising since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
The new sanctions come as Trump’s special envoy for Iran, Elliott Abrams, told reporters during a visit to Israel this week that the administration would keep up its maximum pressure campaign against Iran through the transition. Abrams has said in a closed briefing several days prior that the Trump administration wants to announce a new set of sanctions on Iran every week until January 20, a source who was privy to the briefing Axios. The special envoy has moved on to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates for discussions ahead of a visit by secretary of state Mike Pompeo. His trip is also going to focus on the Trump administration’s last-ditch effort to increase pressure on Iran.
MK Uzi Dayan, a retired IDF general, said Netanyahu’s first priority should be to find a way to make the US’s exit from the Iran deal permanent. “We need to anchor, as much as possible, America’s non-return to the previous Iran agreement,” he told The Times of Israel. He didn’t say how to do that, but suggested some kind of presidential declaration that would make it harder for the Biden administration to revive the flailing deal.