This is a very dangerous moment

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif (Credit: Washington Post)

Which one of these statements sends a clear message?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif:

“I’m making a very serious statement that we don’t want war; we don’t want to engage in a military confrontation,” Mr. Zarif told CNN in an interview. “But we won’t blink to defend our territory.

President Donald J. Trump:

“There are many options. There’s the ultimate option, and there are options a lot less than that,” the president told reporters in Los Angeles, while announcing a move to increase sanctions on Iran.

I feel pretty confident that the Iranians are not bluffing. But how confident can anyone be about American intentions?

You tell me how all this is going to play out.

Here’s why ‘Sharpiegate’ matters

The Abqaiq oil facility burns Saturday night. (Credit: Reuters)

Because when this administration claims it has evidence that Iran was responsible for a devastating attack on a Saudi oil production facility over the weekend, the world, and the American public, is right to be skeptical.

President Trump, enabled by craven and opportunistic aides and advisors, lies the way the rest of us breathe. As my friend and colleague Steve Saideman writes at his blog:

[W]e know that the Trump Administration has no credibility–it has lied about a great many things, so even if they come out with some evidence of either Iranian complicity (and Iran is almost certainly at least complicit) or Iran guilt, it will be easy for folks to dismiss these claims.

Let’s be honest. Can a president who would take a Sharpie to alter a weather forecast map in a childishly obvious attempt to cover for an inconsequential mistake, and then mobilize his Commerce Secretary to threaten to fire some of the nation’s top weather officials unless they also lied to support the president’s lie, be trusted to tell the truth on a matter of real consequence?

Even now, while the Trump administration claims photographic evidence proves the attacks came from Iranian territory, the Saudi government has so far declined to back that conclusion, according to Beirut-based reporter Dion Nissenbaum of the Wall Street Journal:

This all has real consequences, because Trump has again turned to Twitter threatening American military retaliation, raising the specter of triggering what virtually all observers realize would be an absolutely catastrophic war.

Of course this is not the first time that Trump has made a threat like this against Iran, as I’ve commented on here and here. Threats that this president, who seemingly believes tough talk is as good as tough action, has in every case failed to follow through on. I put it this way back in the good old days of “fire and fury”:

The problem is that Trump simply has no credibility. His words are not believable and therefore his threats likely carry no weight with North Korea or anyone else for that matter. Not even the American public believes what they hear coming out of the White House. So why should our adversaries?

Trump routinely lards his rhetoric with threats, violence, and aggression. Such language was part and parcel of his stump speeches as a candidate, reared its head in his inaugural address, and comes out when he talks to or about his political opponents and adversaries.

And he routinely fails to follow through on the threats he makes. He threatens to force Mexico to fund his border wall, but Congress is scrounging for the money. He threatened to withdraw from NAFTA but hasn’t. He threatened a trade war with China but was talked out of it. He threatened Germany over what he believes to be unfair terms of trade. He threatened to lock Hillary Clinton up and sue James Comey. Neither seems to be sweating over it.

Couple all of this with Trump’s penchant for lying and his administrations overall lack of credibility when it comes to the threats it so easily tosses off, and the danger is clear.

The key to successful application of coercive diplomacy – in short using threats of force to either deter an opponent from action, or to compel him to act – relies on more than the capability to inflict an unacceptable level of punishment if your opponent fails to comply. It also requires credibility. The opponent must believe that you will follow through on the threats you’ve made. Without that belief, coercion fails.

And then you’re stuck.

Fail to follow through and you create an impression of weakness, the perception that you are either unable or unwilling to deliver on your threats, a blowhard whose blustering can be safely ignored in the future. Or use the force you’ve threatened and risk dragging yourself into a military conflict no one wanted and which could easily spiral out of control.

The perception of weakness has dire consequences in international politics, which is why most responsible foreign policymakers are very cautious when it comes to the threats they make. Sadly, responsible policymakers are in short supply in this White House.

We’re going to have to wait to find out what the fallout from this particular episode is going to be. I’m not optimistic.

At least someone was listening

You_Suck_Comment

Sometimes when I do a radio segment, like the one on the Trump administration’s Iran policy this morning on the local drive-time news/talk station, I wonder what the audience is thinking about my comments.

Now I know, at least in one instance.

Below is the text of the email I received about an hour after my segment was over. I am reprinting it in its entirety (minus the emoji). My motivation comes from a comment by a former student who listened to the segment from the Republic of Georgia where he now lives and works, who suggested that maybe my blunt assessment might get some of the station’s conservative listeners to rethink their position.

images-9Fat chance.

The email is not particularly scathing, nor is it in any way offensive. But it is a window into the way that I suspect a lot of Trump supporters view his policies, how they see the world, and what they believe motivates his critics. (For the record, I support neither socialism in America nor the establishment of a one-world order communistic government.)

Anyway, here’s how this listener reacted:

I heard you on the radio this morning sir. I just want to say you couldn’t of been more wrong except for one thing. President Trump decided not to retaliate. You agreed with that, and so did I. But probably for different reasons. The Democrats set him up and tried to get him to strike, Which would appear reckless under the conditions. You said the president backed himself into a corner. I don’t think so. So far what he is doing is right on the money. You said it was wrong to get rid of the deal that Obama and John Kerry made. I disagree. Our Intel told us that they never stoped producing enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. Our Intel told us that they were still supplying money and weapons to terrorist groups around the world. Till this day Kerry and Obama continue to work against the United States committing tyranny with regards to Iran. It would be best for the world if that regime was dismantled and replaced with a democracy. My guess is you want socialism for America or a one world order communistic type system for the United States. We the people are not going to let that happen. We are going to hold the deep state accountable for all the crimes they have committed. MAGA TRUMP 2020

Here’s a quick recap of the points I made that this listener took issue with:

  • The Iran nuclear agreement that the US walked out on in May 2018 was actually working and Iran was abiding by its restrictions.
  • The best course forward would be for the US to return to that agreement rather than continuing to pursue a policy of saber-rattling and sanctions that has failed to deliver for the last 40 years.
  • The additional sanctions against Iran announced yesterday by the White House will have no meaningful impact on Iranian policy.
  • Trump was right to cancel the military strike that he had previously ordered.
  • But, by taking such an aggressive line with Iran, Trump has backed himself into a corner.
  • If another US drone is shot down, which is entirely possible, Trump, given his tough talk, will find it very difficult if not impossible to avoid retaliatory military action.
  • This kind of escalation runs very real risks of getting out of hand, dragging both countries and the region down a path that no-one whose name isn’t John Bolton wants to tread.

If you’re hanging around a radio or a livestream tomorrow morning, you can catch me talking about Iran again on Detroit’s public radio station, WDET 101.9FM. I’ll be a guest on the Detroit Today show with Stephen Henderson. The show starts at 9 am with rebroadcast at 7 pm.

Pay attention to this unhinged threat

(Image: Daily Star)
(Image: Daily Star)

 

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:

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.