The abrupt dismissal of the US defence secretary, Mark Esper, and reported plans for multiple layers of new sanctions on Iran have made clear that Donald Trump’s last 10 weeks in office could still prove a very bumpy ride for the rest of the world.
Trump is refusing to concede his loss to Joe Biden and, while he launches a quiver of baseless legal challenges to the results, he is also seeking to demonstrate he is still in charge of foreign and defence policy – fueling fears about the impact a vengeful president might have on the US role on the world stage over the coming 10 weeks of transition.
It was unclear on Monday whether Esper’s firing by tweet was just an act of score-settling with an outgoing defence secretary who openly disagreed with the president, or whether it was intended to clear the way for actions in the domestic or foreign sphere that Esper had been blocking.
On the same day as Esper’s departure, the Axios news website cited Israeli sources as saying the US, Israel and their Gulf allies were discussing a plan to add more bricks to the sanctions wall they have built around Iran, potentially with a new raft of punitive measures a week running up to Biden’s inauguration on 20 January.
The Trump administration strategy in recent months has been to build up pressure on Iran with the aim of provoking a response from Tehran which would make it harder for the incoming administration to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA).
So far, Tehran has remained broadly within the JCPOA, while shrugging off some of the constraints it imposed on its nuclear activity in a calibrated response to US sanctions. But the Trump administration has clearly not given up trying to goad the Iranians into more irreversible actions.
“Given Donald Trump’s record of chronically ignoring norms and customs, I would be quite concerned about the hijack that he and his administration might pull during this transition period, which is perilous even in normal times and all the more so today given the domestic and international crises facing the United States,” said Rebecca Lissner, co-author of a book on US foreign policy, An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First-Century Order.
Trump could declare formal withdrawal from the New Start treaty with Russia, which limits the nuclear arsenals of both states and which is due to expire in February, or seek to “unsign” the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the US signed but which remains unratified by the Senate. Those acts could be reversed by an incoming Biden administration but the whiplash effect would add confusion over Washington’s standing and sap confidence around the world that the US will stick to agreements it signs.
The Biden team intends to negotiate a return to the JCPOA by both countries, but new sanctions would sour the mood. On Sunday and Monday, the Trump administration’s Iran envoy, Elliott Abrams, was in Israel for talks on the new measures with the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other senior officials and was expected to fly on to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.
The new sanctions were expected to be imposed for Iran’s ballistic missile programme, its alleged links with terrorism and its dire human rights record, rather than for the nuclear programme, potentially making it harder politically for a new Biden administration to remove them.
“The intent seems to be to max out maximum pressure in the short term and throw up procedural and political hurdles for a Biden administration to contend with if it moves to provide Tehran with sanctions relief after January,” said Naysan Rafati, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group. He called the coming 10 weeks as “less a lame-duck period and more of an adrenaline-infused mallard”.
Trump’s refusal to recognise his election loss or cooperate in an orderly transition has other significant implications for foreign policy and national security. Biden’s team is not receiving intelligence or defence briefings, as would be normal during a transition, because a Trump-appointed official running the General Services Administration has refused to sign the necessary paperwork.
New national security officials entering their offices for the first time in January could arrive entirely unaware of what actions the US is pursuing around the world, equivalent to changing drivers of a huge truck travelling full speed down a busy highway. The Trump administration may well fail in forcing its successor to follow its direction on critical issues, but it shows every sign of bequeathing a legacy of chaos.