by Joseph Braude
A rising war of words between the White House and the Tehran regime dominated headlines this week. The exchange commenced with a statement by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani during an address to an international diplomatic gathering July 22 in the Iranian capital: Americans, he said, “must understand that war with Iran is the mother of all wars and peace with Iran is the mother of all peace.” He then warned President Donald Trump explicitly, “Do not play with the lion's tail, because you will regret it eternally.”
Donald Trump responded later that day on Twitter — in capital letters: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”
It was not the only harsh statement from the Trump Administration. The same day, during an appearance at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo , “The level of corruption and wealth among regime leaders shows that Iran is run by something that resembles the mafia more than a government … These hypocritical holy men have devised all kinds of crooked schemes to become some of the wealthiest men on Earth while their people suffer. … We are asking every nation who is sick and tired of the Islamic Republic's destructive behavior to join our pressure campaign. This especially goes for our allies in the Middle East and Europe, people who have themselves been terrorized by violent regime activity for decades.” The following morning, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton stated that the president had told him “[I]f Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid before."
This verbal escalation, in turn, triggered the following words from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Twitter July 23: “COLOR US UNIMPRESSED: The world heard even harsher bluster a few months ago. And Iranians have heard them — albeit more civilized ones — for 40 y[ea]rs. We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, incl[uding] our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries. BE CAUTIOUS!” Zarif was joined the following day by Bahrain Qassemi, a foreign ministry spokesman. Referring to U.S. pressure on other countries to stop importing Iranian oil, he said, “If America wants to take a serious step in this direction it will definitely be met with a reaction and equal countermeasures from Iran."
Some American observers, striving to interpret the war of words, saw Trump’s Tweet as either more evidence of an erratic, impulsive personality or an attempt to divert attention from Trump’s problematic performance alongside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Others cited the concurrent statements by Pompeo and Bolton as indicative of a more reasoned, coordinated campaign of public pressure. In this more charitable reading, the recent summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was sometimes held up as cause for optimism: Trump’s verbal attacks on the Pyongyang regime had come along with unprecedented international sanctions. The two factors together appear to have brought Un to the table. Washington is now three weeks away from reapplying international secondary sanctions on Tehran following Trump’s departure from the JCPOA. Between new financial pressure, ongoing domestic unrest in Iran, and the apparent campaign of psychological warfare, perhaps a new breakthrough is on the horizon.
Yet Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, warns that one should be careful about what one wishes for — as Trump may veer from bluster and threats to an overindulgence of Tehran that would make the Obama-Kerry negotiations seem hard-nosed by comparison: “The reality is he's such an erratic President that you could see him dropping bombs on Iran or you could see him trying to build hotels in Iran.” Eli Lake of Bloomberg meanwhile lamented that Trump’s language undercut the nuances of Pompeo’s speech, which, in addition to its harsh words for the regime, called for empowering and protecting the Iranian people. Whereas Pompeo’s language appeared calculated to encourage Iranian citizens to resist their regime, Trump may have inadvertently helped unify society and state in Tehran against a perceived aggressor. And if, as in the North Korean example, the bluster yields a new diplomatic process, Trump may prove far too quick to cut a deal.