US President Donald Trump’s tweet in all capitals, warning Iranian President Hassan Rouhani of a catastrophic war and to “BE CAUTIOUS!”, was, some would say, typical Trumpian bluster, and not dissimilar to his first salvos against North Korean President Kim Jong-un, which eventually led to a friendly summit.
And indeed, just days after putting Iran on notice that it must “NEVER EVER THREATEN the UNITED STATES”, the US president did an about-face in what is becoming a pattern in the Trumpian foreign policy game, and offered to meet Rouhani, without conditions.
Yet the US-Iranian war of words is different from what happened between Kim and Trump. Firstly, it has been voluble and toxic for years, ever since 1979, when the Islamic Republic assumed power after the fall of the Shah and held Americans hostage. Secondly, unlike any of his other foreign policy stances, Trump has been consistent towards Iran, steadily ratcheting up the rhetoric as he condemned the nuclear deal (the JCPOA) as no better than the paper it was written on, and withdrew from it in May, slapping new sanctions on Iran. Importantly, unlike in the case of the North Korea “Rocket Man” tweets, his salvos have been backed by strong statements by both his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his National Security Director John Bolton, indicating there’s a strategy behind the bombast.
Initially, Trump talked of negotiating a better deal, a tactic designed as much to deny President Obama’s legacy as to denounce Iran for undercutting the “spirit” of the deal. Iran’s response was mild and as Trump pulled out of the JCPOA, it stayed the course, relishing the unexpected windfall of being viewed by the other signatories as the victim of unreliable American action.
As Trump drew closer to Saudi Arabia and Israel, he raised the temperature of the insults and accusations against Iran, referring less often to a new deal. The mounting pressure, at last, galvanised Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to respond in kind with threats to close the Hormuz Straits and warnings not to “play with the lion’s tail”, rhetoric designed as much to counter the US as to save face within the complex layers of Iranian politics that differ so markedly from the one-man rule of North Korea. Though some viewed Rouhani’s speech defining peace with Iran as “the mother of all peace” and war with Iran “the mother of all wars” as an invitation to sit down with Washington, Trump made it clear he did not read it that way. His strategy was not containment, but confrontation, with the intent to cause regime change, either by forcing the clerics to change regime behaviour, or destabilising the country so the people themselves change the regime. This was Trump following the strategy of his advisers, who have devised long lists of preconditions that if unmet, mean bombing rather than deal-making.
Does this mean a US-led war is possible? Probably not. Trump’s America is too alone. The reasons are three: Europe, Russia, and Syria.
During the Bush Jr years, and even for a time Obama’s, war was an option on the table. But that was before the 2015 nuclear deal, which changed everything. It recognised sanctions were not sufficient, and rehabilitated the Islamic Republic, committing the signatories to a partnership with the regime as long as it complied with the JCPOA. The US withdrawal from the deal destabilised its relationship with its European allies, which has only deteriorated with Trump’s threats of a trade war and his handling of NATO.
Not surprisingly, in the face of Trump’s offer to meet, a suspicious Rouhani has turned to the Europeans, calling on them to proclaim the US as having “illegally” withdrawn from the deal, and stating the ball is in their court.
The US, therefore, can no longer rely on its old partners in Europe to make the strategy of confronting Iran work. Instead, the Trump administration is looking to Saudi Arabia and Israel – its closest friends today – and hoping for a little help from Moscow.
But Russia is in the ascendency, and in no mood to play Washington’s game, as was illustrated by the Helsinki meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Trump. As the latter was being assailed at home for selling out to Russia, Putin sent a high-level emissary to Tehran to confirm publicly that Iran’s presence in Syria was “legal”, and distinct from the illegal militias Russia had previously insisted must leave. Cooperation between the two nations in fighting terrorism there, he noted, would continue. Further, Russia’s ambassador to Iran, Levan Dzhagaryan, issued a warning to Washington, saying “Work with Iranians can only be done through persuasion, and pressure on Iran will get you the opposite result”.
Russia has no interest in seeing war south of its extensive border with Iran. It has a long legacy of diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic and knows that any conflict in the Gulf will detract rather than contribute to its own power in the region. On the Korean Peninsula, South Korea is the intermediary manoeuvring between the two sides, while in the negotiations with Iran, Russia takes on that role – a vastly more powerful and engaged actor with military presence and hard-bitten alliances, and its own increasingly successful agenda of containing American actions and influence everywhere in the Middle East outside the southern Gulf and Israel.
What’s more, Helsinki revealed how dependent Trump is on Russia as he shifts strategy in Syria from containing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group to containing Iran. Unable to himself fulfil a key Israeli request, Trump petitioned Putin to ensure the Iranians would pull back from the south and away from the Golan Heights, so they could not establish an uninterrupted land bridge between Hezbollah’s Lebanon and Iran. Showing off his unfettered control over the Syria situation, Putin did so within 24 hours of the summit, confirming him as a reliable statesman concerned for the security of all players in the Syrian theatre, including Israel. Indeed, by hearkening to Israel’s cause, he has compromised Washington’s dominance in Israel and defanged its position vis-a-vis Iran. He is also the one calling the shots on Syria’s reconstruction, placing the American role on a par with the Europeans’.
This does not mean the war of words between Washington and Tehran can’t escalate, despite the offer of a meeting without preconditions. Trump’s new flock of advisers are long-term anti-Iran hawks, and his regional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel have themselves intensified threats to destabilise Iran from within, so as to hasten regime change.
Yet Trump’s own interest is in deal-making and self-promotional media marketing. His possible goal of a Nobel Prize would disappear if a war of words turned into war. He’s skilled in pivoting towards engagement after volleys of name-calling. He’s shown several times how he can turn dangerous noise into successful summits with tricky interlocutors such as Kim Jong Il and, most recently, the EU’s Jean-Claude Junker, emerging with agreements and smiles. There is every reason to think Trump feels he can pull off the same miracle with Iran.
The danger here is that the legacy of toxicity runs too deep. Iran too has preconditions. And the opportunities for conflict are multiple. Iran’s own rhetorical prowess and ability to withstand American economic and political pressure over the years makes it a different kind of adversary altogether than the others Trump has, however superficially, done his deals with. What’s more the region’s razor-edge politics are as mercurial as Trump’s own. One has only to look at the recent Houthi attack on Saudi tankers in the Straits of Bab al Mandab, which has raised the possibility of outside intervention, to recognise how easily war could erupt through Yemen’s back door. Though Trump may perceive himself as leading the charge against Iran, he would be wise to take his own advice: BE CAUTIOUS!
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mistakenly named the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group as the Islamic Republic of Iraq and the Levant. This mistake has now been corrected.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.