War Stories

Iran Is Not North Korea

And Trump’s new fight won’t end as easily as the last one.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images and Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

President Trump’s Sunday night tweet threat to Iran was a head-scratcher. Was he signaling imminent warfare, pressuring Tehran to renegotiate the nuclear deal, seeking a distraction from his own domestic problems? Whatever he was up to, the tweet will do no good, and its premises are mistaken.

Here, in full, is the much-cited tweet:

It’s remarkable that, for all his hours in the Twittersphere, Trump hasn’t yet learned that ALL CAPS denote a lack of seriousness. (Call it the Inverse Teddy Roosevelt Maxim: Tweet loudly and carry a small stick.)

Still, let’s take this one seriously and parse what it might be serious about. A common observation is that its tone is reminiscent of the “fire and fury” threats, almost exactly a year ago, against “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un. Those comments—or so Trump believes—scared Kim into moderating his behavior and dashing to the negotiating table; therefore, maybe this one will have the same effect on Rouhani.

There are four reasons for casting a very cocked eyebrow on this notion. First, it’s not at all clear that the threat shook Kim to back down; in fact, it may have had the opposite effect. Trump made his “fire and fury” statement on Aug. 8. About three weeks later, on Aug. 29, Kim test-fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan. On Sept. 3, he detonated his most powerful nuclear device to date, one so powerful that it was believed to be a hydrogen bomb. On Nov. 29, he fired another missile, this one having sufficient range to strike U.S. territory.

In other words, far from quaking in fear, Kim pushed ahead steadily on his path to acquire a nuclear arsenal—possibly accelerating the effort—after Trump’s most bellicose warnings. Only after declaring that he now had a nuclear deterrent did Kim pivot to his New Year’s Day charm campaign.

Second, Trump’s stratagem, if that’s what it was, hasn’t paid off. Let’s stipulate that his threats played some role in bringing Kim to the table; they’ve had no effects since. Post-summit talks between U.S. and North Korean negotiators have gone nowhere; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attempt to prod progress, during a third trip to Pyongyang, ended disastrously; Trump continues to insist that the summit was great and that there’s no timetable, much less a deadline, for his great pal Kim to “denuclearize”—which, of course, gives Kim permission to stall indefinitely.

Third, the “fire and fury” fusillades of last summer did have a rattling effect on South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who, dreading the looming prospect of war on the peninsula, embraced Kim’s overtures with alacrity and enthusiasm. From that point on, Moon—as an American ally and an advocate of engagement with the North—worked hard to maneuver Trump and Kim toward the summit.

The point here is that no one is in a position to play middleman with Trump and Rouhani. The European Union might have been, given that it co-signed the Iran nuclear deal, but Trump has labeled the EU as a “foe.” In a bizarre twist, one might imagine Russian President Vladimir Putin playing the role of behind-the-scenes intermediary, but Putin has little influence over Iranian politics, despite their converging interests in Syria.

Fourth, there is the larger matter of Iranian politics. Kim has enough power in Pyongyang to shift his rhetoric toward the United States and execute anyone who protests. By contrast, Rouhani faces constant pressure from hard-line factions, which have grown more hard-line since Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal and announced the reimposition of sanctions. At his point, Rouhani cannot buckle to any overtures, hostile or friendly, from Trump.

Rouhani already conceded an enormous amount—and took a huge domestic gamble—when he signed the nuclear deal with President Obama and the leaders of five other countries. Then Trump backed out of the deal, even though international inspectors and his own Cabinet secretaries attested that Iran was in full compliance with its terms. It is unclear why even Trump believes Rouhani would sit down for further talks, much less agree to a still more restrictive deal.

In short, no Nobel Peace Prize seems in the offing here.

What about the theory that Trump is ginning up for a war with Iran? It’s unlikely that Trump wants a war; he seems to think that loud demonstrations, whether in the form of tweets or military parades, are enough to make foes tremble. But his rhetoric and actions are ratcheting up the tensions.

His national security adviser, John Bolton, has been advocating regime change for years—and now that Trump has rejected his advice to attack North Korea and go hawkish on Russia, Iran stand as his last chance for redemption. Nor, in this theater of possible conflict, does Bolton stand alone. Pompeo all but called for the forcible ouster of the mullahs in a speech to Iranian Americans, delivered at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library just hours before Trump’s Sunday tweet. Trump has also been egged on to confront Iran by some of his favorite foreign leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi royal family.

These pressures are not abstract. Under Trump’s policy, sanctions will be renewed against Iran in August. The United States does no business with Iran, but the sanctions will also apply to other countries’ dealings with Iran—and that could have crippling effect. (By contrast, with North Korea, Trump has maintained sanctions since the summit but is not punishing countries, such as China and South Korea, that continue trading.) Some EU countries have proclaimed that they’ll ignore the sanctions, but they may change their tune when forced to choose between doing business with Iran and doing business with the United States, or even conducting basic transactions with U.S. banks.

Trump seems to believe that the Iranian regime is fragile—he has claimed several times that the nuclear deal, with its promises of sanctions relief, saved the regime from crumbling—but few serious observers of Iran agree.

Even if the regime fell, it is doubtful that pro-Western democrats would be the ones to storm the palace; they have no coherent organization to pull this off. (The mullahs have seen to that over the years.) A likelier successor would be the military, perhaps the Revolutionary Guard, which never liked the nuclear deal and may start spinning centrifuges upon taking power.

Meanwhile, if it comes to light that the United States had been involved in toppling the regime, even young democrats might rush to support their military, or at least not mind the Guard’s ascension. The ghost of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected Iranian leader who was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup in 1953, still rides through the country’s streets and countryside.

In 2006, President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, publicly asked the Senate for $75 million in emergency funding to aid opponents of Iran’s regime. “The United States,” Rice testified, in words similar to those of Pompeo’s speech this past Sunday, “will actively confront the policies of this Iranian regime, and at the same time we are going to work to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom in their own country.”

Many of these Iranian freedom fighters implored Rice, at the time, to retract her request and to lower her voice, and for good reason. The regime intensified its crackdown against opposition movements, citing Rice’s speech as proof that they were foreign agents. Especially with the current street protests against the regime’s economic hardships, Pompeo’s speech—combined with Trump’s more blatant threat—might have the same counterproductive effect.

The one remaining “grown-up in the room,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, has been keeping a low profile lately, probably to protect several NATO projects from political interference and to avoid embarrassing questions whose answers would put him at odds with Trump. Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general, is hawkish on Iran, as are most officers who saw their troops killed by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. But he also knows war, and what it involves, and probably isn’t keen to send 100,000 troops to invade and occupy Iran—a country about three times the size of Iraq.

Still, small incursions, fueled by belligerent talk, can escalate very quickly.

Escalation is quite possible even if Trump doesn’t mean any of his fiery words and if he typed out that ALL-CAPS tweet strictly to distract attention from Helsinki, the Mueller probe, the Cohen tapes, and other political crises. Wag the Dog holds up unsettlingly well. So does this Trump tweet from November 2011: “In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.”

As it turned out, Obama was easily re-elected without a war and followed up by making a sort of peace. But Trump seemed to think, back then, that starting a war with Iran was an effective way for a president to get re-elected. The question of the moment: Does he still think so now?