The Trump administration’s war of words against Iran reflects a widening diplomatic chasm, and comments from four leaders over the past two days make it clear that tensions are rising dramatically.
First up was President Hassan Rouhani, who warned President Trump on Sunday, “do not play with the lion’s tail, because you will regret it eternally.” Rouhani noted that a war with Iran would be the “mother of all wars.” Then came Rouhani’s boss, Ayatollah Khamenei who, with a thin veil, warned Rouhani that Iran will not suspend its strategic design of expanded theological power. Rouhani is pressuring Khamenei to divert funds away from the revolutionary guards and into domestic economic investment and liberalization. But Khamenei is siding with the hardliners.
Some—erroneously— talk about the necessity of separating diplomacy from ideology, while there is nothing wrong with an ‘ideological diplomacy’. It is wrong and illogical to inculcate [in public opinion] that there exists a contradiction between ideology and national interests.
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) July 22, 2018
The U.S. messaging came first from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Speaking on Sunday, the former CIA director warned that U.S. policy in Iran “is clear. It’s to deny the Iranian leadership the resources, the wealth, the funds, the capacity to continue to foment terrorism around the world.” The Trump administration knows that their focus on restricting Iran’s leaders of their oil export revenue means a serious risk of violent interaction. The Iranian hardliners have threatened as much in recent weeks.
On Monday, President Trump quite literally capped off the war of words with an attempt to deter Iranian aggression against U.S. interests.
To Iranian President Rouhani: 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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2018
But what happens next?
Trump must clarify his words here if he wants to achieve his Iran interests without a violent conflict. The vagueness of Trump’s threat is problematic in that it gives the hardliners great space to fray U.S. credibility without acting in a way that would justify a U.S. military response.
Still, the major issue underpinning these tensions is the complete isolation of the Iranian more-moderates. Khamenei won’t give them more power to assuage populist anger over the country’s moribund economy and the U.S. now regards the more-moderates as one and the same as Khamenei and the hardliners, and thus undeserving of a more nuanced U.S. policy. As Pompeo put it on Sunday, “Some believe that President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif [are more moderate.] The truth is they are merely polished front men for the Ayatollahs’ international con artistry. Their nuclear deal didn’t make them moderates; it made them wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
There’s no question that the U.S. holds more of the cards here, but if he is serious about avoiding unnecessary wars, President Trump should consider his position carefully. After all, what happens if the Rouhani-bloc now collapses and the hardliners seize all elements of national power?
That increasingly likely possibility would require the U.S. to employ the immediate use of force (in a context of other near-term global conflict threats), or accept an implausible acquiescence to the new Iranian order.