Lion’s tails and ‘demented words’: Sunday night’s intense U.S-Iran exchange

That tweet. That speech.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani makes a speech during a meeting with foreign embassies and diplomatic mission representatives of Iran, with the attendance of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif  in Tehran, Iran on July 22, 2018. CREDIT: Iranian Presidency Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani makes a speech during a meeting with foreign embassies and diplomatic mission representatives of Iran, with the attendance of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Tehran, Iran on July 22, 2018. CREDIT: Iranian Presidency Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Late Sunday night, President Donald Trump took to Twitter with an all-caps tirade against the government of Iran.

It was classic Trump:

The message was reminiscent of the tweets the president directed at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a few months ago (before he came around to calling Kim a “talented” young leader at the June summit in Singapore), though he stopped short of calling Iranian President Hassan Rouhani nicknames, as he had previously done with Kim.


The president’s tweet was in response to a Sunday night speech made by Rouhani at a gathering of Iranian diplomats. He responded to various threats leveled by the Trump administration, which will next month re-impose sanctions lifted under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), which Trump violated in May.

Rouhani warned the U.S. not to “play with the lion’s tail” and start a war with Iran. “You are not in a position to incite the Iranian nation against Iran’s security and interests,” said Rouhani.

President Trump’s response can be seen in two ways.

First: Maybe this is a strategy that repeats his tough-talk tactic with North Korea. This, though, might not work, said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor of political science at Syracuse University.


“Frankly, knowing something about the psychology of Iranian leadership, they are going to harden their discourse … because they won’t believe that at this time, they can appear as a set of divided elites,” Boroujerdi told ThinkProgress.

Second: The tweet is is just “typical Trump,” hoping to create a distraction from “his other multiple policy disasters,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, who is not inclined to give President Trump any credit for strategy.

“It’s the United States that has declared economic war on Iran. It’s not the other way around. It’s the U.S. that has left the Iran nuclear deal,” she added.

‘Desperate’ like Obama?

While Trump’s response was predictable, it was also the same “desperate” move he figured President Barack Obama might make back in 2012 and 2013:

Indeed, the Trump administration is using pages directly from Obama’s playbook: Applying more sanctions pressure to bring Iran to the table. But Trump has also used the same tool to push Iran away, in line with his campaign promise to either tear up the JCPOA or renegotiate the agreement.

But given that Iran is not North Korea, “some kind of grand bargain,” said Slavin, is probably not the plan.

“This is just more ineptness and bellicosity without point on behalf of the Trump administration,” she said.

It’s unclear what President Trump’s hyperbolic tweet will accomplish in the long-term (meaning, a week), but in the short-term (meaning today), it managed to bump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s much anticipated Sunday night speech to the Iranian people off the headlines.


In his address, titled “Supporting Iranian Voices,” Pompeo delivered few surprises. As with his speech in May — his first policy speech as secretary of state — Pompeo outlined the many issues the Trump administration has against the Iranian regime, accusing Iran of funding terrorist groups, of mismanaging its economy, and of trampling on the rights of minorities.

He went further, naming names (or at least, he tried to: It seems the secretary has had little practice in pronouncing the names of the men he was accusing of various crimes). He went after Sadeq Larijani, head of Iran’s judiciary, for “embezzling public funds”; Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fortune, which he called “untaxed and ill-gotten”; and questioned the lucrative oil deals that made Sadeq Mahsouli, the country’s former interior minister, a wealthy man.

Pompeo also condemned Iran’s human rights records, which international rights groups agree is poor — especially on the issue of freedom of expression.

But, Slavin said, “this administration has no consistent policy of advocating for human rights anywhere, and in particular, not even in countries that have far worse or equally bad human rights records.”

For instance, on Monday, the State Department issued a statement congratulating Egypt, a country with 60,000 political prisoners, on its National Day.

“President Trump called Kim Jong-un ‘honorable.’ Kim Jong-un is a murderer — he murdered is own half brother, and uncle, and there are tens of thousands of people in concentration camps in his country,” Slavin added. (Pompeo has also visited Pyongyang three times to negotiate North Korea’s denuclearization — a process that has yet to move forward.)

Slavin also pointed out that Trump flattered Russian President Vladimir Putin, who not only kills his opponents in Russia and abroad, but, she said, “also runs a ‘mafia state‘ — probably more so than Iran’s.”

“This is complete hypocrisy,” she added.

Speaking into the expat echo chamber

Pompeo’s speech might have landed well with a certain segment of the Iranian expatriate community, but is unlikely to have the intended effect of regime change within Iran.

“It wasn’t the type of speech that will really resonate inside Iran,” said Boroujerdi, who pointed out that Iranians are well aware of corruption that is endemic in the country. Pompeo’s speech told the people of Iran nothing they didn’t already know.

Iranians realize that they have problems and, said Boroujerdi, aren’t about to “embrace their corrupt leaders,” but that does not mean they will throw them under the bus in service of the regime change the U.S. wants.

If anything, Pompeo’s speech and Trump’s tweets, combined, will only serve to unify Iran against what they perceive as military threats and attempts to interfere with their domestic politics.

Of course, Iranians are also aware that corruption is an issue in the United States, as well. They understand that while Iranian firefighters (whose low salaries Pompeo fret about in his speech) are underpaid, many American school teachers are in the same boat; and that while Khamenei’s income should be transparent and taxable, the American people have yet to see President Trump’s tax returns.

None of this means that Iranians are not trying to hold their own leaders accountable on various issues, said Boroujerdi, adding that pressure is mounting on the Rouhani administration to replace a number of ministers handling economic and financial issues.

The Trump administration wants to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero by November 4, and that will be a tough pill for Iran — a nation of 80 million or so — to swallow. Depending on if or how Europe can intervene and how the U.S. midterm elections go, Iran might want to negotiate some kind of deal again by early 2019.

“But, right now, we are in the stage where this heightened rhetoric and finger-pointing will go on,” said Boroujerdi.

As will the threats. Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council (an advisory body to Ayatollah Khamenei) and a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) responded to Trump’s tweets with one of his own, threatening the roughly 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in the region:

The troops are “under Iran’s blade,” Rezaei said, and President Trump should stop his “crazy threats.”