Since President Donald Trump tweeted a stern warning to his Iranian counterpart on Sunday regarding the potential consequences for threatening the United States, various outlets have pointed out that his foreign policy principals are invoking the same hardline stance toward the Islamic Republic. This is certainly true of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who attended an event that same day titled “Supporting Iranian Voices,” in which he spoke to Iranian expatriates in order to describe the clerical regime as being headed by “hypocritical holy men” and being more akin to a mafia than a government.
The confrontational language has generated predictable responses from Iranian officials. As CBS News pointed out, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif issued the first direct response to Trump’s tweet on Monday, also via Twitter. It declared the regime to be “unimpressed” with American “bluster,” intimating that the long-term survival of Iranian culture is indicative of the nation’s resilience in the face of foreign threats, even from the most powerful enemies. Meanwhile, other officials utilized Iranian state media to boast about their readiness to retaliate against any actual measures the US government takes to follow through on its warnings.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi, for instance, declared that Tehran would take “equal countermeasures” if the US blocked Iranian oil exports. Most such exports are expected to be obstructed by US sanctions after they take effect over the next few months, following President Trump’s withdrawal in May from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Qassemi’s remarks were reminiscent of a number of earlier statements, including one by President Hassan Rouhani, regarding Iran’s supposed readiness to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, the important maritime passage through which roughly one-third of the world’s oil passes.
Al Jazeera reported on Tuesday that Naghavi Hosseini, a senior Iranian national security official, had specifically affirmed the regime’s commitment to a strategy that includes the potential closure of the strait. Meanwhile, CBS noted that Iranian military officials such as Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri have been simultaneously less specific and more rhetorical in their boastful comments regarding possible conflict with the US. Bagheri warned of a “strong, unimaginable, and regrettable” response to any American threats.
The initial volley of public statements from the White House and the various responses emerging from Tehran have naturally prompted an outpouring of commentary and speculation regarding the prospects of actual conflict between the two countries and about how the assertive language of the Trump administration fits into its larger strategy. One article by CNN highlighted two competing interpretations of the administration’s intentions. In the first place, some have suggested that it foreshadows direct measures that could even include an attack on the Islamic Republic. But others have looked to the history of Trump’s foreign policy, especially toward North Korea, and suggested that he may be striving to present an image of strength before pivoting to diplomatic engagement.
In previous statements, Trump has personally predicted that after experiencing newfound pressure from re-imposed sanctions, the Iranian leadership would call his office to offer a better deal than the JCPOA, which he had criticized before taking office, partly on the basis of its failure to address Iran’s regional role and support of terrorism. Tehran has, of course, rejected that notion, even suggesting that it is far more likely the US president will be the first to call and offer a deal. But Trump’s unusually ideological commentary on Iranian affairs can easily be viewed as a unique rejection of negotiations with that regime, in contrast to his willingness to speak openly with adversaries like North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un.
This interpretation of the White House’s stance was seemingly bolstered on Sunday by Pompeo’s remarks before the “Supporting Iranian Voices” event. As the State Department transcript of that speech shows, the Secretary of State directed some of his most pointed criticisms at Iran’s President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, whom he called “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” in reference to their dubious reputations as moderates according to the standards of the clerical regime.
Pompeo further claimed that the Rouhani administration had effectively served as a mouthpiece for hardliners associated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, presenting a friendlier image to the international community but endorsing the same interventionist foreign policies and anti-Western perspectives. Trump’s tweet arguably highlighted this same belief, insofar as it was issued in response to a statement by President Rouhani in which he told the US that war with Iran would be “the mother of all wars.”
But if the White House does indeed reject the notion that Rouhani is comparatively moderate and worthy of diplomatic engagement, then this is sure to fuel more concerns about the possibility of the administration seeing war as the only viable alternative. Statements from White House officials may further fuel this speculation, with one example being National Security Advisor John Bolton’s elaboration on Trump’s tweet.
According to Axios, Bolton “doubled down” on the president’s warning after saying that the two men had spoken and had mutually affirmed that Iran would face consequences for “anything at all to the negative.” However, Bolton was not specific about what these consequences would be, and it is entirely possible that he was referring not to military actions or the threat thereof, but rather to economic sanctions and other forms of non-military pressure.
Bolton has long maintained that regime change in Iran should be a declared objective of Iranian foreign policy. But he has expressed this view, for instance, in the context of rallies organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which advocates specifically for regime change at the hands of the Iranian people, without recourse to foreign intervention. The Trump administration has long been characterized as envisioning a change of government in Iran, but there has been comparatively little speculation about the means by which it might strive to achieve it.
Yet Mike Pompeo’s meeting with Iranian expatriates on Sunday may point to the emergence of a strategy that is more in line with that of the NCRI. The Los Angeles Times touched upon this possibility in its assessment of the diverse reactions that attendees of that event had to Pompeo’s remarks. Some determined that the Secretary of State was expressing opinions without elaborating upon an actual strategy. However, his speech outlining the administration’s Iran strategy in May referred to the imposition of the “strongest sanctions in history” while eschewing military threats.
The LA Times noted that many of the expatriates in Sunday’s meeting expressed support for such sanctions and for the administration’s strong stance on Iran in general. Although some accepted that sanctions could have a negative impact on their families in Iran, they placed the ultimate blame for this on the clerical regime and affirmed that the trade-off was worthwhile in order to further destabilize that regime and encourage the continuation of anti-government protests that have continually highlighted the potential for domestic regime change ever since Iran was rocked by a nationwide uprising at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018.