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Threatening Iran

By any measure, it’s been a rough week or so for President Donald Trump, from his widely panned performance in Helsinki to ominous signs of more indictments to come in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. And then, of course, there’s the president’s off-on-off-on views on Russian interference in the last election, having explained how his denial of interference in front of Vladimir Putin was all a slip of the tongue before he fired off a Sunday tweet concerning President Barack Obama’s failure to do something about “Russia Before the Election” and calling it a “big hoax” — although his spokeswoman gamely insisted Monday that “collusion” was his point, not Russia’s actions.

So what does Mr. Trump do when media coverage goes badly for him? That’s right: He threatens someone to distract his political base. And this time he picked a familiar villain — Iran and its president, Hassan Rouhani. Apparently reacting to Mr. Rouhani’s domestic speech earlier in the day during which he warned that “peace with Iran would be the mother of all peace and war with Iran would be the mother of all wars,” President Trump felt compelled to out-bluster using his favored platform, Twitter, and the shouting mode of all-caps.

“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!” Mr. Trump wrote.

If the president wanted to guarantee more hyperbole and threats out of Tehran, he could scarcely have done a better job. Among that country’s religious leaders, threatening the United States as the “Great Satan” or something similar is the equivalent of inserting a humorous aside to warm up the crowd. It’s such a standard practice that one wonders if average Iranians even notice it. But when the leader of the free world feels compelled to match every huff-and-puff with equal bluster of his own? You can bet Mr. Rouhani was delighted. Portraying the U.S. as tyrannical and anti-Muslim is exactly what every Iranian leader seeks to do. How much easier the job when a president actually fills the role.

Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t note there’s something genuinely worrisome here. These kinds of reckless threats can escalate quickly, particularly with a volatile and isolated opponent and an erratic U.S. president; suddenly, you can have real military intervention on your hands. That was the fear when President Trump was spewing similar intimidation at North Korea and “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un. That proved to be posturing, a set-up for Mr. Trump’s diplomatic outreach that has so far yielded little in return. Does he expect Iran to recognize the script and play the part of an isolated dictator willing to talk to an unconventional U.S. president?

Or maybe verbally attacking Iran has no point other than to rile up his supporters. Certainly, Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal suggests he has little respect for diplomacy or coordinating Iran policy with U.S. allies. Nor does the president seem to have an end game. Remember, Iran didn’t violate the terms of the 2015 deal, the U.S. simply backed out without any alternative in mind. It was the politically easy thing to do for President Trump. And if Mr. Trump has demonstrated anything, it’s an incautious and self-serving approach to foreign policy — witness the surprise last week on the face of Dan Coats, the national intelligence director, when he found out Mr. Putin would be visiting D.C. in the fall.

Make no mistake, Iran is no friend to the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech in California on Sunday, during which he compared Iran’s leadership to the mafia and described them as corrupt and their regime as oppressive, didn’t exactly break new ground. Of course, the Iranian government is hypocritical and intolerant and seeks to destabilize the Middle East. That’s never really been in doubt. The bigger question is how the U.S. and other civilized countries can hold Iran in check and encourage moderation and reform within. Is it through empty threats? Or might peace be achieved by coordinating with Iran’s major trading partners a firm and engaged response that deters bad behavior and both increases sanctions when Iran fails to abide by international norms and reduces them when the country does? Like Russian election meddling, there’s really not much doubt about the correct answer.

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