President Trump was at it again last night, going all-caps on Twitter to all but threaten nuclear war against Iran:
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
Trump was right to react forcefully to Iranian threats, and there is even an argument to be made for doing so in a way that borders on the unhinged. But his problem is that the weak deal he struck with North Korea has degraded the value of Trump’s threats, leaving Iran’s leadership less reason to think there is credible steel behind the bluster. Perhaps just as dangerously, they might be wrong about that.
Trump’s eruption did not come out of nowhere. In March, Defense Secretary Mattis criticized the Iranian regime for meddling in Iraq’s elections, but noted at the time that Iran had backed off its aggressive posture of naval provocations in the Persian Gulf. But the Gulf, and its chokepoint the Straits of Hormuz, could become a flashpoint again soon. The U.S. has been turning the screws on Iranian oil exports as part of its follow-up to withdrawing from the Obama-era Iran Deal in May, and announced in late June a November deadline for other countries to halt all imports of Iranian oil or face sanctions. A complete cessation of oil exports would, of course, be catastrophic for Iran’s economy and its regime.
At a news conference in Switzerland earlier this month, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani made comments widely interpreted as a thinly veiled threat to close the Straits of Hormuz to oil exports by other Gulf states if the U.S. imposed the sanctions:
“The Americans have claimed they want to completely stop Iran’s oil exports. They don’t understand the meaning of this statement, because it has no meaning for Iranian oil not to be exported, while the region’s oil is exported,” the website, president.ir, quoted him as saying.
When asked at a news conference in Bern later on Tuesday whether those comments constituted a threat to interfere with the shipping of neighboring countries, Rouhani said: “Assuming that Iran could become the only oil producer unable to export its oil is a wrong assumption … The United States will never be able to cut Iran’s oil revenues.”
How far the Trump administration is actually willing to go to throttle Iranian oil exports is debatable; the day before Rouhani’s comments, the State Department had already softened its threat to sanction major importers of Iranian oil such as China and India, as a senior official offered the reassurance that the Trump administration was “prepared to work with countries that are reducing their imports on a case-by-case basis.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke yesterday at the Reagan Library and hit the mullahs where it hurts them the most with their own people: their corruption. A sample of his litany, which named names of the fabulously wealthy Iranian regime elite:
Today, thanks to regime subsidies, the average Hizballah combatant makes two to three times what an Iranian firefighter makes on the streets of Iran…The Iranian economy is going great – but only if you’re a politically-connected member of the elite. Two years ago, Iranians rightfully erupted in anger when leaked paystubs showed massive amounts of money inexplicably flowing into the bank accounts of senior government officials.
And there are many more examples of the widespread corruption…The ayatollahs are in on the act, too. Judging by their vast wealth, they seem more concerned with riches than religion. These hypocritical holy men have devised all kinds of crooked schemes to become some of the wealthiest men on Earth while their people suffer…not many people know this, but the Ayatollah Khamenei has his own personal, off-the-books hedge fund called the Setad, worth $95 billion, with a B. That wealth is untaxed, it is ill-gotten, and it is used as a slush fund for the IRGC….Seizing land from religious minorities and political rivals is just another day at the office for this juggernaut that has interests in everything from real estate to telecoms to ostrich farming. All of it is done with the blessing of Ayatollah Khamenei.
This list goes on, but we’ve got places to go tonight. The level of corruption and wealth among Iranian leaders shows that Iran is run by something that resembles the mafia more than a government.
It is against this backdrop that Rouhani gave a speech yesterday to diplomats in Teheran dialing up the threats. According to various news accounts, Rouhani warned that “No one who really understands politics would say they will block Iran’s oil exports, and we have many straits, the Strait of Hormuz is just one of those,” that “We have always guaranteed the security of this strait . . . Do not play with the lion’s tail; you will regret it forever,” and that “Americans should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace . . . Likewise a war would be the mother of all wars.”
This type of threat should draw a response from the president of the United States, and it should be firm and credible. Trump, in his dealings with rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, has shown a preference for what Richard Nixon referred to as the “madman” theory: Convince the other guy through provocative and unpredictable words and deeds that he can’t really be sure how far you are willing to go. Prior to his meeting with the “Little Rocket Man,” Kim Jong-un, there was a school of thought that this was working: Trump had spooked Kim enough to bring him to the table. There were other theories as well, however, none of which are mutually exclusive: that Kim was shrewdly playing Trump; that he was willing to deal because his nuclear program was faltering anyway; or that Kim changed his approach due to factors internal to his own regime.
Here’s the thing about international relations: Other governments don’t care very much if American leaders tell the truth. They also don’t care very much if American leaders are polite or rude. But they care very, very much if our leaders are credible: if they keep their promises and back up their threats. Historically, the best way to do this with adversaries is to be clear about what our red lines are: what we won’t tolerate, and whose defense we will come to. Our diplomats may have contributed to the triggering of at least two wars in the past century (the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950 and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990) by inadvertently signaling that these were not states we would defend. (How much this actually influenced the invaders in each case remains a subject of historical dispute.) Concerns about which of our allies we will and won’t defend has been a recurring issue with Russia, as America stood by and watched the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, and Trump has been less than enthusiastic about defending the Baltic states.
The alternative to clarity is ambiguity: keep your adversaries guessing, so they keep their distance. Ambiguity has often failed (Germany was surprised in both World War I and World War II at Britain’s willingness to fight on the European continent), but to be effective it ideally requires cultivating a certain sense of menace. Trump, who has used ambiguity to great effect in his business and political career, deployed it in his campaign of threats against Kim.
Credibility is irretrievably lost, however, when promises are made to defend allies or retaliate against enemies — whether clearly or implied from ambiguous behavior — and not backed up. That was the essence of the conservative criticism of Barack Obama’s threat of a “red line” against Syria. Not only did Obama never enforce his threat of major retaliation against Syria for crossing the line by using chemical weapons, but it turned out — by the admission of his own foreign-policy adviser Ben Rhodes — that he never wanted to enforce it:
In August of 2013, Bashar al-Assad killed hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons, and the White House debated whether to punish the regime for crossing Obama’s stated “red line.” The President decided to leave the decision to Congress, which meant no military action. “It will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism,” he told his advisers. “Everyone will see they have no votes.” Obama regarded this decision as a clever tactical win, as if exposing Republican hypocrisy mattered more than trying to prevent another gas attack in Syria.
Now, Trump faces the same problem. After all that saber-rattling against Kim, he ended up doing a glad-handing summit that produced only a skeletal agreement that at best amounts to a replay of the same old failed agreements made by the North Koreans with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. And predictably, it’s going badly:
[I]n the days and weeks since then, U.S. negotiators have faced stiff resistance from a North Korean team practiced in the art of delay and obfuscation.
Diplomats say the North Koreans have canceled follow-up meetings, demanded more money and failed to maintain basic communications, even as the once-isolated regime’s engagements with China and South Korea flourish.
Meanwhile, a missile-engine testing facility that Trump said would be destroyed remains intact, and U.S. intelligence officials say Pyongyang is working to conceal key aspects of its nuclear program.
The Washington Post claims — though its sourcing for this is unstated — that “[t]he lack of immediate progress, though predicted by many analysts, has frustrated the president, who has fumed at his aides in private even as he publicly hails the success of the negotiations.”
Whether or not Trump has admitted it in private, the flimsy Kim deal exposed how little backbone was actually behind all the taunting “Little Rocket Man” tweets and threats of “fire and fury . . . and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” He also made the mistake of dealing one-on-one with Kim instead of engaging China and Japan in the talks, a necessary component of the strategic situation in Korea. He’s doing the same with Iran, rattling the mullahs’ cage while ignoring the role of their patron in Moscow. All of which means the Iranians are likely to judge Trump’s current threats as equally empty.
That could be even worse. Both Kim Il-sung in 1950 and Saddam Hussein in 1990 learned the hard way that America would defend its allies after all. In 1961-62, after seeing the weakness of John F. Kennedy in Cuba (where he undercut an Eisenhower-approved military plan at the Bay of Pigs), Laos (where he struck a deal with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to guarantee the “neutrality” of Laos rather than defending it from Communism, a deal immediately flouted by the Laotian Communists and their allies), and Berlin (specifically, Kennedy’s willingness at a Vienna summit to accept Soviet control of East Berlin), Khrushchev felt he had taken the measure of the man and escalated Soviet provocations in Berlin and Cuba. But Kennedy was not as weak once he had his footing: He eventually pushed back in Berlin (where American and Soviet tanks ended up facing off in a tense October 1961 standoff), and in Cuba he and Khrushchev pushed the two superpowers as close as they would ever come to nuclear war. In the long run, even the Laotian agreement led Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, not to retreat from Southeast Asia but to massively escalate the American defense of neighboring South Vietnam.
What happens if Rouhani makes the same mistake, and thinks he can push Trump around? Much more so than in North Korea, Trump has a lot of advisers who are long-time Iran hawks and a lot more and varied options for escalating our responses against Iran — especially in a blue-water naval confrontation in the Persian Gulf, where American conventional superiority is at its apex. Trump’s foolhardy waste of his own credibility in Korea could lead to a more intransigent stance by the Iranian regime. But neither we nor they actually know if Trump isn’t bluffing this time.