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.