A year and a half into the Trump administration, we’re at the point where the first reaction to the president tweeting an early morning threat of nuclear war at Iran is eye-rolling.
After a week of heavy criticism—even from some of his normal supporters—following his performance at the summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Trump’s all-caps Twitter blast seems like a transparent, but likely effective, effort to shift the conversation onto more comfortable ground (more comfortable for him, unnerving for the rest of us).
Trump also has a well-documented habit of stoking, or at least unnecessarily inflating, international crises so that he can claim victory when things return to the status quo. Trump demonstrated a version of this maneuver during his recent trip to a NATO summit in Brussels, when he came in with (mostly misleading) accusations about allies’ defense spending, then departed with (mostly inaccurate) claims that these allies had promised to increase spending thanks to his threats.
On a much grander scale, this is also roughly what has happened with North Korea under Trump. The president would have you believe that through his strong rhetoric, tough sanctions, and skillful diplomacy, he has averted a catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula and removed the North Korean nuclear threat. But there was only widespread alarm about a catastrophic war breaking out because Trump was threatening to launch one. Even the Pentagon was reportedly reluctant to provide Trump with military options for fear he’d use them. As for the nuclear threat, it’s still there: Kim has his weapons and seems in no hurry to give them up, despite the photo-op in Singapore.
Now Trump appears to be trying the same maneuver with Iran: Ramp up the tension until Iran makes a deal with him—any deal, the details are unimportant—then claim victory for preventing catastrophe. As French President Emanuel Macron said after discussing Iran with Trump in April, “His experience with North Korea is that when you are very tough, you make the other side move and you can try to go to a good deal or a better deal.”
But Iran is not North Korea, and there’s reason to believe the playbook won’t work the same way this time—one reason, perhaps, to be a little more concerned about Monday’s threats. For North Korea, just getting a summit in which Kim Jong-un was treated as an equal by the president of the United States was a victory. Iran already signed a deal with the U.S. that hardliners in Tehran, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were skeptical of. After Trump pulled out of that deal, it’s hard to imagine the Iranians signing another one—and certainly not one with “tougher” terms than the last one, as Trump has promised.
Iran is also much less economically and diplomatically isolated than North Korea. While Israel and Saudi Arabia might cheer Trump’s stance, Iran’s traditional allies and trading partners are unlikely to work with the U.S. on measures to punish Iran. (European countries are, probably hopelessly, seeking exemptions from U.S. sanctions for their own companies.)
And with influence and proxies in countries including Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Iran also has more means of retaliating against U.S. interests than North Korea ever did.
Another reason to, perhaps, take Trump’s latest threat more seriously are the indications that the administration has embraced, or at least is open to, a strategy of regime change when it comes to Iran. The latest flare-up between Trump and the Iranian government came after a speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in which he, again, stopped just short of calling on Iranians to overthrow their government. Influential GOP voices on foreign policy like Sen. Tom Cotton have said that regime change should be Trump’s strategy, and the president’s lawyer and ally Rudy Giuliani claims it already is. Giuliani and national security adviser John Bolton both have been paid speakers at events sponsored by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a controversial and influential Iranian opposition group—listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. until 2012—that has long lobbied Washington to pursue regime change. Bolton has also argued for a preemptive military strike against Iran in the past.
What does not seem likely, despite Monday morning’s threats, is an actual military intervention. The administration’s tactics more likely will be increased financial pressure through sanctions, rhetorical support for the Iranian opposition and protests, and moves to counter Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. (It’s a little unclear how that last goal would work with a rumored Vladimir Putin–brokered deal that would accept Bashar al-Assad’s and Iranian-backed forces’ control of Syria.)
After the American experience of the last 18 years, there’s little appetite in Washington for another war for regime change in the Middle East. And given Trump’s own statements about Iraq and Afghanistan, it would seem to run counter to his instincts as well. But with U.S.-Iran relations as volatile as they are right now, this crisis could escalate much faster than either side intends. It may be that Trump can only threaten “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED” so many times before those consequences actually materialize.
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