Just hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered an address billed as a show of friendship to the Iranian people, President Donald Trump offered up a late-night chaser: an all-caps tweet warning that any Iranian threats would precipitate “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
Tehran’s response came hours later, in the form of a tweet written by Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister and its most effective purveyor of diplomatic blandishments aimed at Western audiences. “COLOR US UNIMPRESSED,” Zarif observed archly. After asserting Iran’s national longevity and superiority, he echoed Trump’s closing words: “BE CAREFUL.” Senior national-security officials in Tehran fired back more pointedly, emphasizing Iran’s retaliatory capabilities while also appearing to deride Trump’s disruptive approach to foreign policy. Still, for a leadership that has trademarked the art of anti-American invective, the reaction seems oddly subdued.
That’s no accident. The Islamic Republic is facing an intersecting set of internal and external crises, and the regime’s options for extricating itself are both risky and unlikely to offer a quick fix. After weathering a number of past existential crises, ranging from Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion to the massive protests that erupted in 2009, Iranian leaders understand how to play the long game. Tehran’s response to Trump’s tweet is consistent with how its leaders have dealt with his previous confrontational gambits over the past 18 months, including his decision in May to pull the United States out of the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran’s leaders sense that the Trump administration is trying to goad them into self-immolation, and for once they are taking pains to avoid taking the bait. Unfortunately, that probably won’t last.
Since taking office, Trump has articulated a tough stance on Iran, repeatedly criticizing the “horrible” nuclear deal and depicting the country as the wellspring of the radicalism and violence that has wracked the Middle East and precipitated American interventions. And although Trump’s national-security staff has experienced unprecedented turnover, senior administration officials have shared at least one common trait: a determination to turn up the heat on Iran.
The White House’s fixation on Iran culminated with Trump’s announcement two months ago about walking away from the nuclear agreement and beginning to reimpose the severe financial and trade sanctions that had been suspended in accordance with the deal. Despite vehement opposition from much of the world, including the other parties of the nuclear deal, the U.S. measures are already casting a dark shadow by effectively forcing firms and banks around the world to choose between the Iranian and the American markets. U.S. officials have already announced that they will try to cut off all Iranian oil exports by November.
All of this is playing out at a particularly precarious moment in Iran, brought about largely by its sluggish recovery from a generation of economic mismanagement and the devastating toll of the sanctions that helped bring about the nuclear deal. Public expressions of dissatisfaction with the ruling system have grown increasingly bold and volatile, and given the age of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, jockeying for a crucial leadership-succession process has already begun in earnest.
From the vantage of Iran’s theocrats, the Trump administration’s efforts to squeeze its economy has little to do with any legitimate concern about its nuclear ambitions, its interventions across the Arab world, or its mistreatment of its own people. Rather, the campaign represents a predictable new iteration of the perennial American effort to destabilize the postrevolutionary state and oust its leadership. Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Major General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri warned that the economic offensive is only a prelude to the real goal of the White House: a military attack.
This ingrained paranoia has shaped the way that the Islamic Republic is managing the fallout from the intense American pushback. In the remarks that apparently prompted Trump’s late-night tweet, Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, argued that Washington’s strategy has lured Iran into precipitating its own destruction, boasting that its restraint has enabled its empowerment.
So far, in forging a strategy for handling this uncertain moment, Rouhani’s characteristic prudence seems to have won out. Even as economic pressure from America hits home, Tehran has held up its end of the nuclear deal, with perfunctory appeals for Europe to offset American sanctions with measures to protect and increase trade and investment that all sides tacitly recognize will not be forthcoming. Iran’s leaders have issued a barrage of thinly veiled threats aimed at Persian Gulf transit routes, but as Trump himself boasted, even here there is evidence of newfound restraint by the IRGC naval forces.
All of this might suggest that Trump’s pressure has created an unexpected equilibrium, forcing Tehran into an increasingly perilous impasse, lacking effective recourse and restrained by its own fears of a further deterioration. Unfortunately, that balance is unlikely to hold. The Islamic Republic is in the fight of its life, and steeped in a strategic culture that rejects weakness as an invitation to further attack, neither its leadership nor its military command is likely to go down quietly. “Be careful,” both Trump and Zarif have tweeted. Unfortunately, neither Washington, D.C., nor Tehran is heeding those warnings.
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