Foreign Policy

Advice for the President on Iran: 'Be Cautious!'

This week saw the latest in a long line of seemingly intemperate Twitter blasts by the president.

National Security Desk · Jul. 24, 2018

This week saw the latest in a long line of seemingly intemperate Twitter blasts by the president. Responding to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s public remarks that war with Iran would be “the mother of all wars,” President Donald Trump released this reply shortly before midnight on Sunday (caps lock key stuck in the original):

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!

For better or worse, Twitter is part of the modern media and political landscape. Millions of people around the world use it as a source of information on breaking news, emergency warnings, celebrity gossip, sports updates, and numerous other topics. Trump often uses it to wonderful effect in talking over the media and directly to the American people. The White House and the Office of the President should have a Twitter account for legitimate public release of information. But that is a very different matter from the president sitting alone in the White House residence early in the morning or late at night, stewing over grievances and firing off whatever retort comes to mind. That may not be what’s actually happening, but it’s often how his tweets come across.

In one sense, Trump’s tweet is part of a detailed strategy to increase pressure on the Iranian regime just two months after Trump nuked Barack Obama’s nuclear deal. Indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also making relevant declarations Sunday, all but urging the Iranian people to revolt: “I have a message for the people of Iran: The United States hears you. The United States supports you. The United States is with you.”

Yet as we have said before, Twitter is not a medium that lends itself to thoughtful, well-considered public statements. Quite the opposite — it lends itself most readily to juvenile, petty insults hurled in a moment of anger, which fits perfectly with President Trump’s style and temperament. Such statements from ordinary citizens may lead to nothing more than public embarrassment. But coming from the president of the United States they can lead to far worse consequences.

One such consequence now looms as a result of the president going all-in with his tweet. “Never, ever threaten the Unites States again” draws a line in the sand, as does the threat of “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.” Obama once set a “red line” that he had little intention of enforcing and it yielded catastrophic results.

What happens when an Iranian official sends back an equally fiery reply threatening to sink the entire Fifth Fleet if the United States dares to impose more sanctions? What happens if Rouhani claims that any action blocking Iranian oil exports will be considered an act of war? The president has boxed himself into a situation in which the only options are: backing down; continuing to belittle both himself and the position of president of the United States by engaging in a contest of schoolyard insults; or following through and unleashing said consequences “the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered.” None of these options are appealing. His tweet may play well to his loyal base (some of whom in our experience are rather fond of the caps lock key), but it might just make a deadly serious situation even more fraught with real danger.

The Washington Examiner’s editorial board gets it right:

Trump’s Iran strategy is rightly focused on a new nuclear arrangement that ends Iran’s long-term access to nuclear weapons, constricts Iran’s ballistic missile program, reduces Iranian terrorist activities, and empowers Iran’s young, impoverished population. That strategy is well-defined and eminently achievable. We also celebrate Trump’s departure from his predecessor’s delusions over what the Islamic revolutionary republic of Iran is. After his appeasement of President Vladimir Putin, Obama’s gravest foreign policy mistake took root in his assumption that Iran’s leaders are moderates waiting to be unveiled. Where Obama wrote letters to [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei seeking friendship, Trump treats the Ayatollah with the disdain his policies have earned.

Yet a policy of focused strength is poorly served by the presentation of tough-sounding yet vague threats.

And as Rich Lowry observes, “The last time Trump theatrically threatened a regime with destruction, he quickly turned around and had warm talks with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Since then, his Twitter account has lost some of its deterrent force.”

The president would be well served to stick to a strategy of specific carrots and sticks with Iran that serve legitimate U.S. interests. Significantly, Trump has successfully increased economic pressure on the Iranian regime. As with other things, his policies are working; the same can’t always be said for his rhetoric.

Be cautious, indeed. The president should heed his own advice.

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