Trump’s Twitter battle with Iran will lead to neither war nor diplomacy

War is unlikely because the Pentagon is not prepared for a war against a country of 80 million people.
Sunday 29/07/2018
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stands as army staff salute at the start of a meeting in Tehran, last February. (AP)
Safety in numbers. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stands as army staff salute at the start of a meeting in Tehran, last February. (AP)

There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned Twitter fight to get the blood flowing and the rumours started.

Take US President Donald Trump’s tweeted war-of-words with Iranian officials: Pundits and television talking heads are falling over each other to explain how this verbal sparring will lead to either a devastating Middle East war or, as a similar school-yard exchange with North Korea did, a diplomatic breakthrough.

Neither outcome is likely.

The social media battle began when Iranian President Hassan Rohani declared in a speech that US military action against Iran would lead to “the mother of all wars” (if Saddam Hussein were still alive, he could sue Rohani for a copyright violation).

Trump responded by tweeting in all caps — itself a provocative internet escalation — that if Iran threatens the United States again, it “WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.” It was not clear whether Trump was referring to nuclear holocaust or a plague of locusts.

Not to be outdone, Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force, was quoted by the Tasnim news agency as saying: “Come. We are ready. If you [Trump] begin the war, we end the war.” It was not clear whether “end it” meant defeating the United States or surrendering.

Accompanying these juvenile exchanges have been more serious threats: Iranian leaders suggested on several occasions that if US sanctions block its oil exports, they will ensure that other countries in the region are unable to export oil. Presumably, this refers to blocking the Strait of Hormuz to tanker traffic. Although Iran’s naval capabilities are limited, it would only need to bring about enough disruption to cause oil prices and insurance rates to soar.

Credible US leaders — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton and members of Congress — have openly declared that their goal is regime change in Iran. Bolton has a long history of advocating for military strikes on Iran.

Adding further confusion to this flurry of threats and counter-threats are comments by Trump suggesting that his goal is to negotiate with Tehran. After his June meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Singapore, Trump said: “I hope that, after the sanctions kick in… [Iran] is going to come back and negotiate a real deal because I’d love to be able to do that.”

So what will it be, war or diplomacy? The short answer: Neither.

War is unlikely because the Trump administration does not want and the Pentagon is not prepared for a war against a country of 80 million people. Iran does not want and is not prepared for a war against a nation of 325 million people.

Actions short of full-scale war are possible: The United States could stage a surgical strike, perhaps in conjunction with Israel, against Iranian nuclear sites if Tehran is foolish enough to aggressively accelerate its nuclear programme. Iran could take actions that put Gulf shipping at peril. Either of these steps risk a dangerous and unpredictable escalation, something neither side wants.

More likely is that the United States will bolster Israel’s actions against Iranian targets in Syria. Israel already has killed Iranian troops, so that line has been crossed. If US forces were to kill Iranian troops, the escalatory process would start.

Iran will try to strengthen its ties with Moscow and Beijing so it has options for exporting its oil and does not find itself with its back against the wall — in which case disrupting the Strait of Hormuz would be its only option. Iran’s leaders are probably hoping they can wait out Trump and that the Great Satan elects a new leader in 2020.

The odds of a diplomatic breakthrough between Washington and Tehran are even lower than the odds of war. The North Korea analogy — in which a nasty, name-calling Twitter spat ended with a bromance in Singapore — is shaky. Policymakers in Washington viewed North Korea as a pest that was becoming dangerous; Iran is seen by many if not most in Washington as a serious threat to US interests and allies in the Middle East.

US allies in Asia favoured a US-North Korea dialogue to cool regional tensions but US allies in the Middle East generally share Bolton’s perspective on Iran.

And it is hard to imagine any scenario in which Iran’s government sits down with Trump administration officials.

The current Twitter battle is politically convenient for both leaders: Rohani looks tough in the face of criticism from hardliners and Trump looks tough in the face of the widespread criticism over his fawning behaviour towards Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. For the foreseeable future, however, neither war nor diplomacy is in the offing.