BERLIN – U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest tweet telling Iran it would suffer “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before” is an almost-verbatim rehash of his August 2017 threat to North Korea; then, Trump promised “fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” It’s about as serious this time around, but there’s more bad blood behind Trump’s deployment of all caps against Iran.
Trump’s tweet is a response to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s speech on Sunday, in which Rouhani warned the U.S. president not to “twist the lion’s tail.” “The Americans,” Rouhani said, “need to realize that making peace with Iran is the mother of all peaces and waging war against Iran is the mother of all wars.”
Rouhani, of course, wasn’t threatening to attack the U.S. but warning it against attacking Iran. The rhetoric is not particularly different from North Korea’s, if more hollow: Iran, unlike North Korea, has no nuclear weapons and there’s no way it can hold off the United States’ conventional military might. But the Iranians make Trump madder than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — not because they are more dangerous but because they refuse to play along with him.
Kim agreed to meet with Trump, and it made for a great TV show. That, apparently, has been more important to Trump than the substance of his country’s problem with North Korea: Though there’s been little follow-through on the nebulous agreements reached in Singapore, Trump has stopped insulting and threatening Kim on and off Twitter.
The Iranian leaders, for their part, have been adamant about not wanting to talk to Trump. The Mehr news agency, one of the Iranian regime’s international voices, reported recently, citing Rouhani’s chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi, that Trump asked “eight times” to meet with Rouhani while the latter attended the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year but was rebuffed. The “eight times” could be a bit of poetic license, but The Washington Post, too, reported last year that Trump had been interested in a meeting and asked French President Emmanuel Macron to broker it; that didn’t work either.
Quite likely, Trump wanted to renegotiate the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump has long held was too weak to be in U.S. interests. So the Iranian snub had consequences: In May, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has skillfully stoked Trump’s anger by keeping his attention on Iran’s presence in Syria, where the Islamic Republic has provided boots on the ground to President Bashar Assad and his ally President Vladimir Putin of Russia. And Saudi Arabia, whose leaders have worked to build a cozy relationship with Trump, has been after Trump to curb Iran’s influence in the region.
It’s probably too late now for a Singapore-style photo opportunity. Trump’s anger at Iran will continue to have consequences, perhaps not the threatened cataclysm, but unpleasant ones nonetheless.
They likely won’t be in Syria. Netanyahu is working with Putin to keep Iranian forces from the Syrian-Israeli border in the Golan Heights as the Assad troops are taking over the region. They apparently have struck an informal deal under which, if Putin fails to keep the Iranians in check, Russia will not object to Israeli strikes against Iranian military infrastructure in Syria.
Trump apparently endorsed the Russian-Israeli deal at his meeting with Putin in Helsinki. “President Putin is very much involved now with us in a discussion with Bibi Netanyahu on working something out with surrounding Syria and — Syria, and specifically with regards to the security and long-term security of Israel,” Trump said last week.
With Putin and Netanyahu handling the situation on the ground to Trump’s satisfaction, the U.S. needn’t get involved militarily in Syria. The threat, however, exists elsewhere. The Iranian leaders — both Rouhani and Ayatollah Khamenei — have recently said that if Iran is not allowed to export oil, other Persian Gulf nations won’t be able to do that, either. This could be interpreted as a veiled threat to block the Hormuz Strait, through which some 30 percent of global oil exports go; some lower-ranking Iranian officials have said openly that such a plan exists.
It’s dubious that Iran will go that far and risk a military confrontation with the U.S. — especially since its naval forces in the area largely consist of ships dating back to the 1960s and ’70s. This is not a battle Iran can win. So even if the U.S. tries to block Iranian tankers from sailing through Hormuz, Iran likely will concentrate on alternative, land-based export routes and count on the EU, Russia and China to help it fight U.S. sanctions. EU nations are looking at keeping financial channels open for Iran when the U.S. sanctions hit full force in November.
It might have been wise for the Iranian leaders to talk with Trump as Kim and Putin have done, if only to establish contact and ensure some U.S. flexibility. Their approach, however, is not transactional: On Saturday, Khamenei stressed that the country wouldn’t “separate diplomacy from ideology.”
Barring major domestic disturbances, Iran is preparing for a head-on confrontation, if only an economic one. It’s betting it won’t be a catastrophe. Before the nuclear deal, the U.S. was punishing Iran with the help of allies and even some adversaries. Thanks to Trump, that’s not the case today.
Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti..