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, in which Rouhani warned the US 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 US 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 US conventional military might. But the Iranians make Trump madder than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un does — 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.
Quite likely, Trump wanted to renegotiate the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump has long held was too weak to be in US interests. So the Iranian snub had consequences: In May, Trump pulled the US 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 Tehran has provided boots on the ground to President Bashar al-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 US needn’t get involved militarily in Syria. The threat, however, exists elsewhere. The Iranian leaders — both Rouhani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — have recently said that if Iran is not allowed to export oil, other Gulf nations won’t be able to do that, either. This could be interpreted as a veiled threat to block the Strait of Hormuz, 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 US — 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.
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 US flexibility. Their approach, however, is not transactional: Khamenei has 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 US was punishing Iran with the help of allies and even some adversaries. Thanks to Trump, that’s not the case today.
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