Trump’s Iran threat raises eyebrows — and questions

President Trump’s apparent threat of military action against Iran has left members of the foreign policy establishment looking for clues as to whether it signals a change in the U.S. approach toward Tehran.

The president raised eyebrows late Sunday when he issued a tweet, written in all capital letters, directed at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.


The tweet sparked concerns in the U.S. as well as abroad, but Trump administration officials appeared reluctant to clarify it.

The Pentagon, for its part, kept quiet on what amounted to another Trump-induced headache, not holding its semiregular off-camera Monday briefing and releasing a generic statement on the activities of the U.S. military in the region.

“Forces continue to work with our partners to provide freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce and to promote security and stability in the region,” Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich said.

Rebarich would not say whether the military would be adjusting its forces in the region to deal with any fallout, including stepping up protections.

She added, however, that U.S. forces “are more than capable at defending themselves should the need arise.”

Asked Monday what prompted the tweet, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was in response to statements out of Iran.

“The president’s been, I think, pretty strong since Day One in his language towards Iran,” she said at a press briefing. “He was responding to comments made from them, and he’s going to continue to focus on the safety and security of the American people.”

She added that she did not have any announcements about moving military resources to the region.

Trump’s tweet appeared to be in response to a statement from Rouhani, who earlier on Sunday warned that Americans “should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.”

Rouhani made the comments during an address to diplomats in Tehran while talking about Iran’s right to the Strait of Hormuz, according to state-run news agency IRNA.

Iran has long threatened to close the strait, through which about a third of all oil traded by sea passes. Recently, it has stepped up its threats in response to the Trump administration’s plans to reimpose oil sanctions on the country lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal.

In May, Trump announced he was withdrawing from the Obama-era accord between the U.S., Iran, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China, which lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. A first wave of U.S. sanctions are set to be reimposed Aug. 6, while the rest are set to come back into force Nov. 4.

Despite Tehran’s escalating rhetoric, the U.S. Navy has reported zero instances this year of Iranian harassment of U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, down from 14 reports last year.

And as recently as Friday, a top Pentagon official said Iran’s threats don’t merit a change in U.S. military posture.

“One of our missions for the United States military is, if called upon, to continue the free flow of commerce in that strategic waterway, whether that be vital oil shipments, whether that be other commercial goods, but to allow for the free and open navigation in the Gulf,” John Rood, undersecretary of Defense for policy, told the Aspen Security Forum.

“Therefore, I’d really discourage the Iranian government from thinking about trying to interrupt that free flow of commerce. That would not be in their interest.”

Still, pressed by moderator Barbara Starr of CNN if that means an increase in U.S. military presence in the Gulf, Rood replied: “We haven’t adjusted our force posture in response to any of those statements, and I don’t think that’s warranted. I wouldn’t recommend that.”

On Monday, national security adviser John Bolton reinforced Trump’s tweet.

“I spoke to the president over the last several days, and President Trump told me that if Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid before,” Bolton said in a statement.

Iran’s foreign minister responded to Trump’s tweet later in the day, dismissing it as “bluster.”

“COLOR US UNIMPRESSED,” wrote Mohammad Javad Zarif in a tweet mocking Trump’s. “The world heard even harsher bluster a few months ago. And 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!”

The exchange between the two countries was the latest escalation following Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Trump’s tweet also came on the heels of an address from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo billed as “Supporting Iranian Voices.”

In the Sunday speech, Pompeo accused Iranian leadership of being “something that resembles the mafia more than a government.”

Critics panned Pompeo’s speech as stoking the fires of regime change rather than expressing a real interest in supporting the Iranian people.

“Instead of providing reassurance, however, his speech only underscores the counterproductive nature of this administration’s Iran strategy and parallels efforts by the G. W. Bush administration to prepare for war in Iraq by exploiting the voices of exiled Iraqis to validate their destabilizing plan,” Diplomacy Works, a group founded by former Obama administration officials, said in a statement.

But Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, said she did not see the speech, coupled with Trump and Bolton’s statements, as a sign of a march toward war.

Rather, she said, the tweet appears to be an effort to change the conversation from other issues in the Trump administration, including Trump’s much criticized summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s impending trial and reports of faltering denuclearization efforts with North Korea.

“This is classic,” Slavin said. “The administration is putting enormous economic pressure on Iran. It’s an economic war; it’s not a war-war, and I don’t think these tweets imply that. It’s obviously worrisome, but we’ve seen tweets like this from Trump before and they haven’t exactly added up to anything.”

Still, she added, this does appear to be another gap between Trump and the Pentagon, as well as a contradiction of the president’s own previous statement that Iran “is a different country now” than a few months ago.

“The last thing that Jim Mattis wants is a war with Iran,” she said, referring to the Defense secretary. “And this is so contradictory because the president himself has claimed the Iran has improved its behavior.”

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued that Trump’s tweet was not necessarily a military threat, but could also refer to the threat of harsh economic sanctions. He said it could also simply be political posturing.

“I am all for more creatively using the bully pulpit against U.S. adversaries,” Taleblu said while en route back to D.C. from Pompeo’s California speech. “The tweet was a vague threat. Whether we want to read the politics or the military angle or the economic angle into it, I think it was vague by design. It puts the ball back in your adversary’s court and makes them keep guessing.”

Taleblu also stressed that Trump was responding to Rouhani, not the other way around. He said he expects the rhetorical tit-for-tat to continue as the November deadline on sanctions reimposition approaches.

“You would also, I think, likely see Iran try to find creative ways to stay within the deal but look for other areas with which they can escalate,” he said. “The Iranians don’t want to lose the Europeans, at least not yet, so they’re going to look for areas outside of the deal to escalate. The region may be one, ballistic missiles may be one, rhetoric may be one, inside the country may be one, cyber may be another. These are all areas that I’m sure U.S. officials are looking at actively and hopefully red-taping to offset what Iran may be looking to do.”

Tags Donald Trump Mike Pompeo Paul Manafort
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