President Trump, who may be the only thing standing between the Trump administration and an elective war with Iran, threatened to “end” the country in a tweet on Sunday. The statement, which is Trump’s first threat to destroy Iran since July of last year, follows weeks of escalating tensions between the two governments — in large part thanks to ongoing efforts by Iran hawks like National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to escalate tensions between the two governments. There have also been fears, echoed by the president himself, that Bolton has been trying to manipulate Trump into starting a war.
Trump’s tweet could have been a response to some new briefing he got, or the rocket of unknown origin that was fired at the Green Zone in Baghdad on Sunday, or a belated response to what may be overhyped intelligence that administration officials presented to Congress on Friday — but it seems much more likely that the president’s return to bluster was prompted, as most of his weekend tweets typically are, by a Fox News segment he was watching (about the escalating tensions).
“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” Trump responded. “Never threaten the United States again!”
It is not precisely clear what Trump meant by an “official” end to the more than 2,500-year-old country, which is now home to more than 81 million people, or what specific threat, if any, Iran had made. It was also a quieter threat than what Trump sent in July (“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.”)
Last week, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration was reviewing plans for a confrontation with Iran in case the country attacked the U.S. or its interests, and Pompeo ordered a partial evacuation of the American Embassy in Baghdad, citing intel about threatening “Iranian activity.” By the end of the week, however, confusion and skepticism reigned both in Congress and the foreign-policy community.
Then on Sunday, a rocket was fired into Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone for the first time since late last year, landing less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy. No one was injured by the rocket, which according to the Washington Post may have been a warning shot from Iran-backed Shiite militias, who have used rockets to protest U.S. policy in the past. The harmless rocket was also precisely the kind of thing that Bolton and Pompeo have threatened to retaliate for, as they have said Iran will be held responsible for any attacks on U.S. forces or interests by its allies and affiliates throughout the Middle East. The rocket has thus fueled dread among Iraqi officials that the U.S. and Iran will act out some kind of conflict inside Iraq and destabilize the country.
In the meantime, there doesn’t seem to be much of a productive point to Trump’s new threat against Iran on Sunday, and it drew criticism from analysts like the RAND Corporation’s Ariane Tabatabai, who wrote on Twitter that Trump’s aggressive message was a step backward when the two countries need to be moving toward some kind of dialogue.
“More concerning yet, this undermines the Trump administration’s efforts to reach the Iranian people,” she continued. “Threatening not just war but ‘the official end of Iran’ taps into deeply and historically rooted anxieties in Iran. Far from leading Iranians to oppose their leaders, it’ll rally them around the flag and cement distrust of the U.S.”
The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison, a consistent critic of Iran hawks like Bolton and Pompeo, came to a parallel conclusion:
Trump’s rhetoric is aimed at appealing to his domestic supporters, so he doesn’t think about or care how it sounds to the targeted regime, but my guess is that the Iranian government will take this as additional proof that there is no point in talking to the U.S. while Trump is in charge. Over-the-top threats of destroying the entire country give the Iranian government another incentive to reject all U.S. demands, and they obviously do nothing to deescalate tensions between our governments when they are already very high. As usual, Trump’s public displays of “toughness” only make him seem like an overcompensating bully and give hard-liners in both countries another boost.
That would be a good outcome for the members of the Trump administration who seem to be hoping Iran will make some kind of first offensive move in order to allow the U.S. to retaliate.
If all of this seems like a poor strategy to avoid another war in the Middle East, that’s probably because it isn’t a strategy for that.