Once again, the scene in our neighbourhood is reminiscent of pre-Iraq war days that had led to the toppling of the Saddam Hussain regime 15 years ago. The blistering speeches by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, warning the United States and American President Donald Trump’s riposte in unvarnished tweets have raised the temperature.
Not only that, the neo-conservative cabal that had led the Iraq war is back in Washington, pushing for a hardline approach against Iran — even “regime change” is back in vogue for the first time since former US president George W. Bush’s famous axis-of-evil take 17 years ago.
Reports that the Trump administration has launched an offensive of speeches and online communications meant to foment unrest and help pressure Iran to end its nuclear programme and its support of militant groups does not bode well for the Middle East. There is no doubt senior Trump administration officials want a regime change. Since Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, tension between the US and Iran has escalated into sanctions, sabre-rattling and bellicose statements, fiery speeches and bullying tweets. The latest salvo was fired a few days ago when Rouhani, while addressing the Iranian diplomatic corps and heads of mission, said: “Mr Trump, don’t play with the lion’s tail, this would only lead to regret ... America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars ... You are not in a position to incite the Iranian nation against Iran’s security and interests.” Rouhani’s comments were an apparent reference to reported efforts by Washington to push for regime change.
Rouhani seems to be amplifying Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s line, dismissing negotiations with the US as a “waste of time”. It is clearly to push back the Trump administration’s strategy of turning the heat on Iran through isolation and crippling sanctions to force Tehran into negotiating a new nuclear deal. But Iran has been through this for four decades.
What would change things this time around, and at what cost? And what are the consequences of this showdown between the Trump administration and Iran?
First, there this a valid argument that too much pressure on Iran risks emboldening and strengthening the hardliners and weakening the moderates who have been marginalised within Iran. The moderates are under pressure since the Rouhani government has not delivered the dividends of the nuclear deal to the hapless and angry masses, who have been taking to the streets since early this year, protesting the economic hardship.
Second, as Simon Tisdale of the Financial Times put it, the resumption of sanctions is unlikely to destroy the regime or change its policies in the region and it will make an Iranian bomb more likely. This also means that the US is creating a wedge with its European allies who still back the nuclear deal, and whose companies will be sanctioned by the Trump administration for doing business with Iran, on top of slapping European Union with tariffs.
Third, the situation is dire in Iran and ostracisation will push it to take drastic measures to retaliate through its proxies in the wider Middle East, driving the region into more chaos and instability.
Trump looked weaker coming out of the Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the storm he caused by doubting the conclusion of his own intelligence community of Russian interference in the last US presidential election. So he turned to Iran to score some points to please his base and to look tough.
In responding to Rouhani’s warning, Trump tweeted an all-capitals warning to the Iranian president: “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!”
An undeterred Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took a swipe at Trump, and tweeted: “COLOR US UNIMPRESSED: The world heard harsher bluster a few months ago. And Iranians have heard them — albeit more civilised ones — for 40 yrs. We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires incl. ours own, which lasted more than the life of some countries. BE CAUTIOUS.”
The Trump administration’s campaign against Iran shifted to a higher gear with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech to Iranian-Americans at Ronald Reagan Library in California, where the largest concentration of Iranian-Americans live. “The theocratic regime and Iran’s political leadership is a corrupt kleptocracy and a mafia ... To our Iranian-Americans and Iranian friends, tonight I tell you that the Trump administration dreams the same dreams for the people of Iran as you do, and through our labours and God’s providence, that day will come true.”
Once again, we in the Middle East are witness to the war of words. Once again we find ourselves caught in the crossfire of heightened tension and escalating rhetoric between the US and Iran, two rivals with more than 40 years of animosity and hostilities.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is a professor of Political Science and the former chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. Twitter: @docshayji.