Donald Trump threatened to wipe Iran off the map in a moment of yet-to-be-explained Twitter-rage Sunday night. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” he wrote. After a few days of apparent de-escalation between the US and Iran, Trump managed to once again fuel fears of an impending war. Yet, Trump’s tweet is likely more a reflection of his frustration over the failure of his pressure and coercion strategy than a carefully thought-through plan for war.
Trump is not the first U.S. official to threaten Iran with genocide. Back in 2008, then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton threatened to “obliterate” Iran. John McCain liked to sing songs about bombing Iran. George W. Bush never missed an opportunity to remind Iran that “all options are on the table.” In fact, this is not even Trump’s own first transgression into genocidal territory. Last July, he warned — in an all-caps tweet — that Iran “WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
But Trump’s Sunday night tweet came as a surprise because it had been preceded by a few days of apparent de-escalation from both sides. Trump had insisted that he “hopes” there won’t be a war with Iran. The Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a statement insisting it doesn’t want war but will be ready to defend itself against Iran if Tehran attacks it. A senior Iranian commander had issued a similar statement, insisting Iran wasn’t “looking for war.”
So, was Trump’s Twitter meltdown a reaction to an Iranian threat or was it, as some have suggested, a reaction to a Fox News story on the showdown with Iran? Based on Trump’s other tweets Sunday afternoon, much indicates that he was watching TV that day and reacted to a threat-inflated segment on Fox that presented Iranian warnings of retaliation as Iranian threats against the US.
But if, on the other hand, there is a logic behind Trump’s erratic oscillation between escalation and de-escalation, then the most plausible explanation is as follows.
This is what we know: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who recently took credit for convincing Trump to leave the Iran nuclear deal — the Saudi Crown Prince, John Bolton and the other proponents of war with Iran have convinced Trump that Barack Obama’s big mistake with Iran was that he opted for diplomacy too quickly, arguing that Iran would have caved and capitulated had he only continued with his sanctions for another six months.
Convinced of this logic, Trump opted for a “maximum pressure” strategy, thinking that once Iran’s economy was close to collapse, Tehran would crawl to the negotiating table and beg for mercy. “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon,” he said recently, hinting that Iran simply won’t be able to withstand the pressure.
Bolton, Netanyahu and the Saudis, however, know that Iran will not negotiate under these circumstances. In fact, the absurd 12 preconditions that Secretary of State Pompeo has put forward virtually guarantee that Tehran will see negotiations with Trump not as a mere capitulation, but suicide. Instead, Iran will fight back, which Bolton and his cohorts can use to corner Trump and push him to take military action — lest he is willing to see his credibility, ego, and manhood crushed by Iranian defiance.
Here’s also what we can be quite certain of: Trump recognizes that the anger against the Iraq War was an important factor that propelled him into the White House. Bolton knows this and likely recognized that given Trump’s political instincts against further military adventures in the Middle East, the former reality TV star would push back. (The United States has spent “$7 trillion over the past 17 years in the Middle East,” Trump bemoaned in April 2018. “We get nothing out of it. Nothing.”)
So Bolton, Netanyahu and the Saudis probably sought to convince Trump that Iran is all talk and no walk. The U.S. can degrade Iran’s military through air power and the Iranians will have no choice but to take it. They won’t respond. Airstrikes simply will not lead to a war, they’ve probably argued to Trump. (This is an argument many neoconservatives have made repeatedly in the past two decades). Just last week, a state-aligned Saudi newspaper called on Trump to launch “surgical” strikes on Iran in response to sabotage of two Saudi oil tankers that Riyadh blames on Iran. (Incidentally, the U.S. has no defense agreement with the Saudi kingdom.)
This is where Bolton’s plan probably fell apart. As the national security advisor issued threats of war and sent U.S. warships to the Persian Gulf, U.S. intelligence noticed that Iran began to transfer some of its missiles. According to press reports, Bolton desperately tried to twist this as Iranian aggression: Tehran was planning to strike U.S. troops in the region. In reality, the intelligence suggested that Iran was acting defensively. Either Iran was expecting the U.S. to attack and wanted to protect its retaliatory capabilities, or it was preparing to counter-strike the U.S. Either way, Iran was responding to Bolton’s aggression and escalation.
At this point, it appears Trump realized he was being fed lies by Bolton. This was only days after Trump expressed frustration with Bolton’s failed strategy in Venezuela, which Trump felt had boxed him into a corner and left him with no good options. Now Bolton was doing the same on Iran — promising him that Iran was an easy pushover and that sanctions and military strikes wouldn’t lead to Iranian retaliation, whereas in reality, Iran was preparing to strike the U.S. and defend itself if the U.S. attacked. Bolton had promised Trump no war, but was, in reality, leading him straight into one.
Determined not to have a repeat of the Venezuela debacle, Trump presumably began signaling his disinterest in war while repeating his desire for direct talks with Tehran. But as he started to dial things back, sounding almost desperate for talks, the very logic of his pressure strategy began to fall apart.
Trump had escalated tensions with Iran, calculating that once the pressure was too much to bear, Iran would have no choice but to throw in the towel. Ultimately, Trump was looking for capitulation, not war. But as Iran signaled its readiness to defend itself, it was Trump — and not Iran — that had to back down. Tehran had called his bluff. A bluff Trump only was lured into because of Netanyahu, Bolton and the Saudis.
An angry, genocidal tweet may restore the image — however questionable — that Trump holds all the cards in this standoff. But it won’t change the reality that as long as Trump continues to let Bolton, Netanyahu and the Saudis drive his Iran policy, he will be boxed into corners that will leave him and the US with no good options.