Other Voices: A pointless war of words

Published 10:31 pm Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The exchange of rhetorical fire between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and U.S. President Donald Trump was aimed mainly at their respective domestic audiences. Both leaders are under political pressure, and hope to relieve it by a show of verbal force against a familiar enemy. Both will probably find that the tactic backfires.

Rouhani kicked things off on Sunday, saying: “Mr. Trump, don’t play with the lion’s tail, this would only lead to regret.” Trump responded with an all-caps blitz on Twitter: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”

It’s revealing that Trump chose to rise to Rouhani’s bait, given the daily barrage of taunts from Tehran (including some from the more powerful and much more conservative supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). Rouhani happened to catch the U.S. president at an especially vulnerable moment: Trump is fighting the perception that he came off the loser in his Helsinki summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Rouhani has problems of his own. When the U.S. abrogated the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal – his signature achievement – he was forced to tack to the right. Egged on by hardliners in Tehran, he has threatened to prevent other countries from exporting oil if Iran’s own exports are halted by U.S. sanctions.

The escalation in threatening language is dangerous: A single Iranian speedboat captain, overreacting to his president’s tough talk, could spark a crisis on the Strait of Hormuz. But even if things don’t go that far, neither leader is likely to profit from these outbursts. Rouhani’s use of Saddam Husseinesque language – “War with Iran is the mother of all wars” – won’t earn him the political capital to restart his long-stalled reform agenda. And Trump’s upper-case thundering will serve to unite Iran’s moderates and hardliners, undermining efforts by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to foment greater dissent.

Trump should stand back and let the sanctions do their work – choking the Iranian economy, deepening ordinary Iranians’ dissatisfaction with their government, and pressuring the regime to sue for terms. His energies are better spent on persuading allies, still smarting from his unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, that constraining Iran will get results. Thundering tweets won’t help: Germany’s government admonished the U.S. that threats of war are “never helpful.”

Much the same goes for Rouhani. He should stop playing the tough guy. It doesn’t suit him, and it will earn him no respect from the hardliners who regard him with open contempt. He’d be wise to use what little room for maneuver he has to push for reforms that would relieve Iranians’ economic and political frustrations. And if he can’t do that, it would be better to say nothing.

— Bloomberg Opinion