It used to be that we had to wait for the latest official statement from North Korea to experience the kind of unhinged threats that President Donald Trump vented toward Iran last night:
To Iranian President Rouhani: 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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2018
If you think I’m exaggerating the comparison, take a look at this handy collection of North Korean gems compiled last year by the Evening Standard:
- “The four islands of the [Japanese] archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb of Juche … Japan is no longer needed to exist near us.
- The US should be “beaten to death like a rabid dog.”
- “Let’s reduce the US mainland into ashes and darkness. Let’s vent our spite with mobilisation of all retaliation means which have been prepared till now.”
- Pyongyang is ”ready to use a form of ultimate means” to punish the United States.
- “The forthcoming measures by DPRK [the Democratic Republic of Korea] will make the US suffer the greatest pain it has ever experienced in its history.”
- “If the US is stupid enough to shove its stinky face on this land again and keep brandishing its nuclear club despite our repeated warnings, the DPRK will teach the US some manners with the strategic nuclear force that it had so far shown to the world. Any form of military threat or blackmail by the US can never scare the DPRK. On the contrary, it will only redouble the resolve of the Korean army and people to annihilate the enemy.”
Honestly, compared to Kim Jong Un’s government, Trump’s efforts lack real flair or creativity. And generally speaking, Trump’s threats are just as believable.
That said, there are good, and worrying, reasons why we shouldn’t just brush this off, as former National Security Council official Jeffrey Prescott has outlined. The risks here come more from the very real dangers of misstep, blunder, and accidental escalation than they do from a carefully calculated policy of coercion.
Since walking out on the international agreement which had very successfully put a brake on Iran’s nuclear arms program, the United States has failed to offer a viable diplomatic alternative to getting greater cooperation from Tehran. Instead we’ve reverted to the kinds of threats and economic pressure that were proven failures in terms of reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
This led to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warning Trump in a speech Sunday not to raise tensions further. Trump’s bedtime all-cap threat-tweet was his carefully considered reply.
While the United States has unilaterally reimposed sanctions on Iran, our partners in the original agreement have not followed suit. As a consequence, the Trump administration is trying to put pressure on other countries to stop buying Iranian oil. The Iranians have responded by reminding us, and the rest of the world, that they can easily choke off the flow of Middle East oil and natural gas by closing the Strait of Hormuz through which those supplies must pass to reach international markets.
Unsurprisingly then, this increased pressure from the United States has increased tension with Iran, raising the possibilities of further escalation, deliberate or otherwise. To this mix, add the fact that Trump has surrounded himself with advisors – specifically National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – who have long pressed for regime change in Iran.
At the same time, Trump probably believes that his “maximum pressure” approach to North Korea brought that country to the Singapore summit, which, while producing great optics for Trump, delivered nothing in terms of a North Korean commitment to denuclearize. This is something the president himself has apparently come to realize even as he refuses to say so in public.
So keep an eye on this one. Because war with Iran would be catastrophic, for everyone.