It may be tempting to dismiss Donald Trump’s late-night tirade against Iran as just another Twitterstorm in a tea cup. “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE,” he blasted, committing the cardinal social media sin of employing capitals – we hear you, Mr President! – that not even his most violent threats against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had warranted. He was responding to a combative speech a few hours earlier by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and as the US gears up to impose sanctions on countries (including EU member states) that do not cut imports of Iranian oil by Nov. 4 following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear accord earlier this year. Rouhani warned the US not to provoke Iran or to halt Iranian oil exports. “Americans must understand well that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars,” he said, alluding to the country’s Mother of All Battles against Iraq in the 1980s.
There was nothing in Rouhani’s latest remarks that have not been said by him, and many other senior Iranian officials, a hundred times or more over the past few years. We should recall, too, that Trump himself had made similar bellicose threats against North Korea, but then went on to heap praise on the latter after a face-to-face meeting on nuclear disarmament in Singapore. Indeed, referencing his own travels to North Korea, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said over the weekend that, although he was decidedly pessimistic about the prospect, it is still possible for the Trump administration to build a relationship with Tehran. However, he insisted that Iran must first make a series of changes to become a “normal” country, while directly accusing senior ayatollahs of corruption. He also expressed his support for a popular uprising inside Iran, and lambasted reformist Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, for providing a fig leaf for the revolutionary extremism of the clerical establishment. In other words: if the Iranian people get rid of the regime, everything will be fine and dandy. The hubristic stance has ominous echoes of the build up to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Ironically, the context for Trump’s rhetorical escalation is to be found in the secret peace deal hatched by him, Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu in Helsinki last week. As I explain in the cover feature for this current issue of the Spectator, it leaves Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in charge, in return for a gradual withdrawal of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters from the Israeli border, and eventually from the war-torn the country as a whole. The goal is to further isolate Iran. The details of the Helsinki peace deal I provided have since been confirmed by the Washington Post. But the most remarkable reaction is that this brief follow-up is pretty much the only coverage Trump’s extraordinary diplomatic coup has received in the American media. Then again, the only time Trump has managed to get the media on his side were the two occasions he launched missile strikes on Syria as punishment for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
We should, of course, be refraining from inflaming the volatile situation inside Iran. If we have learned anything from the disastrous revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring, it is that the victors in that part of the world from social upheaval are never the pro-Western ones we had placed our bets on. A military attack on Iran will achieve nothing but unite the Iranian people behind their leaders. Trump instinctively understands all this better than anyone. The danger is that, as his bid for reelection gets under way and the Russian collusion story reaches ever more dizzying heights of complexity and absurdity, the president may take the easy option by giving in to the anti-Iran hawks who surround him by launching yet another reckless military adventure in the Middle East.