It Needed a Trump to Call Rouhani’s Bluff

“Death to America” and slogans in a similar vein are the hallmark of the Iranian landscape. The flag-waving processionists walking down Tehran’s boulevards shout them, and political mercenaries, ministers, mullahs and ayatollahs use them to boost the morale of their populace and spice up their speeches. Since the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran nearly 39 years ago, the slogan has become such a worn coin – as worthless as the toman in the wake of Trump’s abrogation of the nuclear deal – that there are few takers for it with an honest intent.

In a situation like this, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s warning to America as he addressed Iranian diplomats in Tehran, that US President Trump must not “play with the lion’s tail” and that “war with Iran is the mother of all wars” should have been ignored as the geriatric ayatollah’s slip of the tongue in a moment of bravado on his home turf. Maybe Obama or Clinton would have ignored it. But Trump is made of different clay as evidenced by the hawkish manner [some would call him maverick but being a man with a tough business acumen he knows better than the doves] in which he has reacted to, dealt with and routed the European Union, China and Pakistan on tariffs, nuclear deal and IMF loans.

Iranian state news agency IRNA quoted Rouhani as saying: “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars … . Iran can defend itself.” He also hinted Iran could make it difficult for the Gulf states’ oil tankers to pass through the Strait of Hormuz on the way out of the Gulf if it were to come under attack.

Prompt came President Trump’s midnight tweet – and in capital letters to emphasise he was giving the Iranian president a dressing down. The jolt to the ayatollahs was: “Never ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence & death. Be cautious!”

Jimmy Carter, who had the closest and most frustrating brush with Iran for any American president, would have thought hard before reacting even half as toughly though he had 444 reasons to do that. Trump, for once, has put Rouhani in his place.

It is routine for Iranians – high-ranking or low-ranking – to throw spiteful and challenging statements at America every now and then when the wind is not blowing their way. But America and the world know Washington’s strengths and they know the hollowness and weaknesses of Tehran and its rulers as well. But it needed a Trump to throw it back at them.

Iran knows well that it hardly has any strength or wherewithal to match the firepower of America and therefore it tends to fall back on the time-worn tactics of threats and blackmail. It’s conventional weaponry, the air force saddled with ancient warplanes, a navy with little semblance of a fleet and lack of nuclear power can hardly suffice if Trump really comes down to seriously “playing with the lion’s tail.”

And it has little capacity – even willingness given that its close allies Iraq and Qatar too have to use the same route to export their oil – to carry out its threat to block the Strait of Hormuz for oil tankers. Especially that two large and state-of-the-art naval bases [of the US and the UK] are located in Bahrain to swiftly tackle any Iranian misadventure in the Gulf.

Let us accept that Rouhani was merely giving vent to his frustration with the failure of his attempts to ensure the European powers put pressure on Trump to lift sanctions and rejig the nuclear deal.

Brij Sharma
Brij Sharma is an Indian journalist and editor based in Bahrain. Brij tells us the interesting stories we don't usually hear from the middle east country.