When was the last time American presidents sounded much more refined, mature and sophisticated? The reality in 2018 seems to be further deteriorating.
On July 22, U.S. President Donald Trump explicitly warned Iran’s president, tweeting all in capital letters, that Tehran “should never, ever threaten the United States again.” He said Iran would “suffer consequences” that “few throughout history have ever suffered before,” and that the U.S. will not “stand for your demented words of violence & death. Be cautious!”
Many in Tokyo were appalled because we never expected the U.S. president would sound so coarse and undiplomatic.
Four days later, to our surprise, even Vice President Mike Pence publicly conveyed to the president of Turkey and his government a “message on behalf of the President of the United States of America,” dictating Ankara to “Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences.” You, too, Pence! What consequences do you have in mind?
Such narratives are considered so vulgar in Japan that only the members of organized crime would use them to intimidate ordinary citizens. No political leaders here would ever use such direct and unsophisticated language to persuade their political opponents.
U.S. presidents and vice presidents used to talk about universal values and American dreams. Trump and Pence’s remarks have led many in Tokyo to question their mental age. Maybe Pence just followed his boss’s instruction and Trump only naturally reacted to the remarks by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
The following is what Rouhani had reportedly said: “Mr. Trump, don’t play with the lion’s tail, this would only lead to regret,” “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars,” and “You are not in a position to incite the Iranian nation against Iran’s security and interests.”
Rouhani was also quoted as referring to a possible closure of the Strait of Hormuz. He said that “Anyone who understands the rudiments of politics doesn’t say ‘we will stop Iran’s oil exports’ … we have been the guarantor of the regional waterway’s security throughout history.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei echoed Rouhani’s suggestion that Iran may block gulf oil exports if its own exports are halted. Gen. Kioumars Heydari, commander of the Iranian ground forces, also stated that “The Strait of Hormuz region must either be safe for all or be insecure for everyone.”
The Iranian foreign minister, in response to Trump’s remarks, tweeted that “Iranians have heard them — albeit more civilized ones — for 40 yrs. We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, incl our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries. BE CAUTIOUS!”
This showdown, seen from Tokyo, looks like another game of chicken. The two proud nations, exchanging imbecilic remarks at the highest level, will not stop cursing each other for a while. However, I don’t predict a direct military confrontation in a foreseeable future between the U.S. and Iran for the following two reasons.
First, this is just about rhetoric without action. Although both leaders use strong expressions, neither believes that he can beat the other. The Iranians are precisely aware of the robust capability of the U.S. Central command, while Americans know that the Iranians can prevent the U.S. from winning in the gulf.
If somebody had won the verbal battle this time, I would call the Iranians a winner. Putting aside Trump’s poor vocabulary, I very much enjoyed Rouhani’s expression of “war with Iran is the mother of all wars.” This means the Americans would have to fight the largest, most extreme and painful kind of war, if they fought the Iranians.
Believe it or not, “The mother of all …” is an idiomatic expression in the Middle East that has been used to describe the biggest or most extreme of various things for more than 2,000 years. The expression became particularly familiar to Americans when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein talked about “The mother of all battles” in 1991.
This expression has Quranic roots and is widely used in the Middle East. In fact, even the Americans liked it and, when they dropped a huge new bomb in Afghanistan in 2017, they called it “the mother of all bombs.” Which one sounds more sophisticated, “you will face consequences” or you will fight “the mother of all wars”? I prefer the latter.
The second reason is Iranian leaders’ reference to the Strait of Hormuz. While some in Tokyo are concerned about a possible closure of the strait by Iran, I tell them that Tehran will not spontaneously block Hormuz, simply because the strait is the only route for Iran to export its oil and gas to the rest of the world.
Of course, the Iranian armed forces could block the strait with mines. However, they would probably not even try a mine blockade, because once Iran started doing it, the navies of the U.S. and its Arab allies in the gulf could easily conduct a counter-blockade operation so that only the passage of oil tankers to and from Iran would be discontinued.
Iranian threats of the Strait of Hormuz blockade are decades old. The Iran-Iraq War broke out in 1980, when I was studying Arabic in Egypt. Two years later, I was posted in Baghdad as a young second secretary at Japan’s Embassy in Iraq. At that time, Tokyo’s biggest concern was an Iranian blockade of the Strait of Hormuz. Since then the strait has been always open and probably will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Despite Iran’s recent robust naval buildup in the gulf and the Arabian Sea, Washington still outpowers Tehran. When the Iranians refer to the control of the Strait of Hormuz, they know Iran cannot do it all by itself.
There is no silver bullet to solve the U.S.-Iranian disputes. The bilateral stalemate will most likely continue, while we can expect no direct military confrontation between Iran on the one hand and the U.S. and Israel on the other. So, Mr. Trump and Ayatollah Khamenei, please let us enjoy more sensible verbal boxing in the next round.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.