Rhetoric Matters: Trump and Iran

Trump's combination amateur hour/tough guy approach is not going to make the world a safer place, nor will it advance US national interest.

iran-us-flagIt is in the interests of the United States that reform-minded elements of the Iranian regime are empowered and that hardliners are weakened.  However, the rhetoric from President Trump and National Security Adviser Flynn have had the opposite effect in Tehran.

From The Economist:  Donald Trump is helping Iran’s radicals:

THE ritual chants of “Death to America” had grown fainter in recent years. The feverish crowds had thinned. Some demonstrators seemed to wave Uncle Sam banners less to jeer America than to cheer it. Yet thanks to Donald Trump this year’s annual rally to commemorate Islamic Revolution Day on February 10th in Tehran looks set to be one of Iran’s biggest. Mr Trump’s tweets have upset even the secular middle class (for example: “Iran is playing with fire—they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”). The new president has also imposed fresh sanctions and an executive order (currently suspended by the courts) blocking Iranians from travelling to America.

Hardliners who had warned that America was targeting Iran’s people, not just its regime, say they are vindicated, and that their government will not trust America again. “Thank you, Mr Trump, for showing the true face of America,” mocked Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, in an anniversary address. Even reformists, who had dismantled Iran’s nuclear programme and handed over enough fissile material to build ten nuclear bombs as part of the deal, feel betrayed. Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, who negotiated the deal with six world powers, has lost his smile. Iran has difficult days ahead, he growled. Even Muhammad Khatami, a former president who had tried to mend fences with the West, called on reformists to join hardliners in decrying America.

Emphasis mine.

One way to take a measure of the effects of the Trump administration on Iranian politics will be the presidential elections:

This anger seems likely to spill over into presidential polls in May. Hassan Rouhani, the president, had hoped that his chances would be bolstered by the nuclear deal. Relief from sanctions helped Iran’s economy grow by 4% in 2016, and the IMF had expected growth to reach 6% this year. But Mr Trump’s rhetoric has scared off potential investors, especially large corporations that had been enthusiastic about the opportunities. “The gold rush is over,” says one British official-turned-businessman. Mr Rouhani, his opponents say, has failed to deliver.

The hardliners have yet to select a presidential candidate. Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi, the Islamic Republic’s first female minister, had been mooted in the hope she might garner the women’s vote. Now the conservatives seem to be leaning towards running a military man. “If Qassim Sulemani stands, he will win,” says a confidante of Mr Khamenei’s, referring to the head of the Quds Force, the foreign legion of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which is fighting across the Middle East.

Keep in mind, that the president of Iran is not the most important political actor in the country, as power belongs to the clerics. Still, Iranian elections are relatively free and fair, although not fully democratic insofar as a) control of the state is not at stake, b) candidate selection is sometimes manipulated, and c) there have been elections in the past with question results (although this is usually not the case).  Certainly, from a US point of view, a reformers in that position is preferable to a hardliner.  Likewise, who is allowed to run, and under what conditions, is a good barometer of which faction of the Iranian ruling coalition is in ascendancy at a given moment.

It isn’t really all that hard to understand:  if the Iranian regimes feels threatened, it will respond in way to protect itself.  The hardliners in the regime, therefore, will seek to strengthen Iran’s defensive posture as well as further assert itself in the regime.  Reformers, on the other hand, will be more likely to engage in domestic policies that would be more pro-western, as well as to engage in more economic integration.  In simple terms:  if you want Iran to intensify its pursuit of nuclear weapons, to increase its sponsorship of terrorism, and to increase its attempts to exert influence in the region, threaten it.  This is International Relations 101.  (I am not saying, by the way, that the US should never threaten an adversary.  However, there is a time and place for such behavior.)

In other words:  the tough guy approach will actually have the opposite effect that the Trump administration claims to want.

Of course, the tough guy approach assumes, incorrectly, that it is possible to cow an adversary into obsequiousness and compliance.  This is, however, foolish, and the evidence is pretty clear.  US policy towards Iran since the revolution has been based, largely, on belligerence and  isolation and it has only served to incentivize Iranian behavior antithetical to US interest in the region.  The Bush administration’s approach, which was also rhetorically confrontational (see, e.g., “Axis of Evil”) as well a physically threatening (see, the fact that the US invaded countries to Iran’s east and west) accelerated Iran’s nuclear program.  It is also not a coincidence that during the Bush administration Iran elected one its most belligerent presidents, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Trump’s combination amateur hour/tough guy approach is not going to make the world a safer place, nor will it advance US national interests.  A more defensive, belligerent Iran coupled with policies that confirm the narrative of groups like ISIS, that the US is at war, writ large, with Islam, will inspire more violence and terrorism, not less.  It will inspire more arms build-ups, not less.  I will add:  withdrawal from trade integration also makes the world less safe.  Getting Iran plugged into world oil markets disincentivizes Iran from acting in ways that would disrupt the global economy. But if they are isolated, they have a lot less to lose.

I know a lot of people love the tough guy approach, and like to see the world as made of Good Guys and Bad Guys, but as I suspect I am going to be saying a lot over the next four year:  the world is far more complicated than that.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. CSK says:

    Trump, a weakling who delights in bullying the vulnerable and powerless–basically the only people he feels sure he can cow–thinks that every world leader is equivalent to that little old lady in Atlantic City whose house he wanted to seize under eminent domain in order to build a casino parking lot for limousines.

    He’ll find out differently in time, but at what cost to us.

    Or maybe he’ll never realize it. Regardless, the rest of us will pay the price.

  2. Pch101 says:

    Trump is going to be a terrific president…for China, Iran and Russia.

    Trump is a complete dolt. It’s no surprise that the idiots love him; they recognize like minds when they see ’em.

  3. CSK says:


    Trump thinks–to the extent he thinks–in bumper-sticker sayings, and so do the Trumpkins.

  4. Tyrell says:

    I think Trump should meet with the leaders of Iran and cool things off.
    A lot of people are edgy about comments the leaders of Iran have made: “Death to the US !” “Death to Israel”. Some of the people there burned the US flag, and hung an effigy of President Obama: not long after that treaty was signed.
    Iran will do what they think they can get by with.

  5. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    Look around…enjoy the relative peace and $2.35 gas…it’ll be gone soon.
    The incompetence is astounding.

  6. Pch101 says:

    Late night comedy shows abroad are now creating various “America First” videos mocking Trump’s inaugural speech.

    A Dutch show was the first to do this, which inspired others to do the same. Some are funnier than others. Personally, I like the Dutch original and the video from the Aussies.

  7. CSK says:


    Do you really think that someone who’s spent his entire adult life trying desperately to prove that he’s tough has the temperament or indeed the ability to cool things down?

    If you do, you deeply misunderstand Trump. He thinks being the president of the United States is like threatening a sub-contractor who wants to be paid for a job he did.

  8. Pch101 says:


    I’m pretty sure that Tyrell is a parody. He’s just a little too good at playing his character.

  9. Moosebreath says:

    And yet, there are times when strong rhetoric, without being able to back it up, makes one look weak. Like Trump has looked in the last couple of days on China, Iran and his Muslim ban.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    @Pch101: I don’t know. It’s hard to fake right wing. You’d think it would be like Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good as It Gets explaining how he writes women characters so well, “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” But it’s harder than that. It’s relatively easy for conservatives to fake liberal because reason is fairly consistent. Once you drop it, there are a hundred ways you could go, and unless you’re tapped into RW media, you don’t know what’s in fashion.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    One hears that this is all part of Mike Flynn’s ‘strategy’ to use Russia as leverage against China and Iran. The Economist does a good job of dismissing that idiocy – not hard, really, if you happen to own a map. And of course Flynn is a Putin employee. Er, former employee.

    Trump’s other brain, the drunken Nazi lout, wife-beater and full-time liar, Steve Bannon, has said he thinks war with China is imminent.

    And so far, on the ground, we’ve got the Man-Baby threatening to end the one China policy, (dutifully rationalized by Vichy Republicans,) and followed a few weeks later by Trump switching sides and supporting one China. For which the brilliant deal maker got what? Would it be squat? From zero to kow-tow in three short weeks.

    Then we had the Jerusalem embassy and settlements. Move the embassy, don’t move it, we love settlements, no we don’t. . . And NATO which is either useless or something we are committed to, depending on what the idiot’s tweeted this morning.

    And for extra points he’s smeared his orange goo all over poor old Malcolm Turnbull, actually caused Pena Nieto to grow a spine, and, as @Steven Taylor points out, strengthened the hand of every jihadi nut and Iranian ayatollah.

    Amazing. Who else could accomplish that much random, pointless, self-defeating stupidity in a mere three weeks? Before they even manage to hire anyone or find the light switches. Thank God we got us a businessman not another member of the elite.

  12. Pch101 says:


    I could pretend to be a sincere right-winger, and you would never know it.

    It’s not tough. Scan the headlines at the usual opinion websites, skim the occasional story, and just regurgitate the talking points. The material is soundbite-driven and formulaic, the political extremist equivalent of pop music.

    The stuff that you see here from “Bill”, “Jack” and the rest of them invariably leads back to those websites. Originality ain’t one of their strong suits.

  13. Senyordave says:

    Trump has spent his life rolling over his opponents. He rolled over his business opponents because they were smaller potatoes, stiffing small contractors by paring 50% of agreed upon fees and then saying “go ahead, sue me”. He assaulted women knowing that they wouldn’t be taken seriously if they complained. He managed to steamroll the GOP primary field because he correctly realized they wouldn’t attack him for a being a racist, sexist pig because that’s a significant part of the Republican base. And then became president on a perfect storm of events highlighted by the Comey letters.
    But now Trump has to deal with world leaders who act in their country’s best interests and are much smarter and better informed than he is. My guess is when he spoke with the Australian PM they were on the phone a couple of minutes and the PM realized that Trump really is an ignorant buffoon. Anytime Trump deviates from a script he is basically incoherent about policies. He is uninformed and he has no set of beliefs. He’s used to be the roller, now he’ll be the rollee. Unfortunately the US is along for the ride.

  14. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: “And so far, on the ground, we’ve got the Man-Baby threatening to end the one China policy, (dutifully rationalized by Vichy Republicans,) and followed a few weeks later by Trump switching sides and supporting one China. For which the brilliant deal maker got what? Would it be squat? From zero to kow-tow in three short weeks.”

    And what sparked this big turnaround in our policy towards China? President Xi gave Trump the silent treatment for two months, and Trump crumbled like a stale cookie. He’s a bully, sure, but at heart he’s a coward.

  15. Slugger says:

    Why are we at odds with Iran? If they totally surrendered to us, would each American get a big sack of pistachios? They want to be a power in their own region, and in furtherance of that goal they support the Assad regime and fight al-Qeada clones in Syria. This does not strike me as having a negative impact on America. They support the Shiite faction in Yemen who are opposed by a Sunni group, AQAP. We just sent a mission against this AQAP that got one guy killed. We are on the same side as Iran in these arenas.
    Nuclear weapons can be created by a fourth rate economy like N. Korea. Will hostility discourage the pursuit of weapons by the other guys? A nuclear exchange where we drop 500 bombs on Iran and they drop one on us would be horrific. Is there any strategy other than improving relations to keep their arsenal at zero?

  16. Tyrell says:

    @Slugger: Iran has repeatedly threatened to attack and destroy Israel. Its leaders have said more than once “Death to America”. I don’t think that the US is the antagonist here.

  17. @Tyrell: All true. Mean and threatening things have been said for approaching 40 years. It is also true that Iran has interests contrary to the US’s in the region.

    The question becomes: how best to address these problems. Belligerent, simplistic rhetoric and actions make the situation more dangerous, not less.

  18. Pch101 says:

    And now in the latest episode of The Dumb President, Trump wants to build a wall and make Americans pay for it.


    I would suggest that we demand that Trump pay for it out of his own pocket. Why should my money be used to finance his addiction to stupid?

  19. Slugger says:

    @Tyrell: In the last few days, Gen. Flynn told Iran that they were being “put on notice.” Based on past performance is this more or less of a threat than some unshaved Persians shouting “Death to America.” Before you answer, remember that the President said that America has killed people before. How would a neutral observer interpret these statements?
    Israel can take care of itself. It has a very powerful military and an estimated 200 nuclear weapons. The US has no obligation to Israel other than the respect owed to any nation anywhere.

  20. gVOR08 says:

    @Tyrell: We are a very good (very, very, very, and about only) ally of Israel. (And this remained true through the Obama administrations, Netanyahu and other Republicans’ BS notwithstanding.) They are a less good ally of ours. But if push comes to shove, Israel’s expansion, even their survival, is not a vital interest of the United States. They are essentially a client state with a really good political lobby in the U. S., but that is weakening. The world would be a better place if after 9/11 Bush had summoned the then PM, Sharon on the carpet and explained that we were getting tired of having targets on our backs because they couldn’t handle their affairs.

  21. CSK says:


    I notice that Trump Tweets today that he hasn’t gotten involved in the design or negotiations for the WALL yet.

    I could swear he promised to begin construction on Day One of his administration. Or is my memory faulty?

  22. george says:


    No, its pretty easy to fake any political view. Or religious view. Just like its easy to fake love, friendship, and all the other things con artists fake. You just have to be a narcissistic sociopath with some acting ability.

    Its only hard to fake those things if you have actual beliefs or feelings of your own (beyond the belief and feeling that you’re the only thing that’s important). I don’t think that applies to Trump.

    What Trump is saying about Iran is stupid and harmful. But I doubt he believes or cares about any of it. Just like his views on the One China Policy, he could well be saying the opposite tomorrow if that becomes personally advantageous.

  23. CSK says:



    I also think he repeats whatever the last thing anyone with any influence over him told him to say.

    I also think that he probably doesn’t remember what he says from one day to the next.

  24. michael reynolds says:


    You need to purge your mind of facts and memories of actual events, and replace them with ‘alternative facts.’ You must love Big Brother.

  25. Tyrell says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: That is agreeable. I remember some of the crazy things Nikita Khrushchev said and did, like pounding his fist and even his shoe. But he stayed cool behind the scenes. Castro was also like that.

  26. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Looking at Trump–which I assure you I do as little as possible–I think “Big Blubber” might be a more suitable appellation.

    As I’ve said before, he reminds me of nothing so much as a large, deliquescing yam. A stupid, malevolent, misogynistic, temperamental deliquescing yam with ADHD plus a positive festival of assorted psychoses.

  27. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Now I have to look up the word deliquescing.

    I’m guessing that it is a perfectly cromulent word.

  28. CSK says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    If by that you mean that it is the essence of perfection to describe Trump, who resembles nothing so much as a large, deliquescent yam in an ill-fitting suit and a strangely long tie, it is indeed cromulent.

  29. Mkhattib says:

    Iran has been and saying “Death To America” for decades. It didn’t just start because Trump is President. It is worthwhile to mention that the regime can ramp up attendance any time it needs to with help from the Basij paramilitaries to gather up supporters under threat of beatings. The argument that Trump only emboldens the “hardliners” is a self-fulfilling prophecy since the hardliners have been and always will be in control of Iran.

  30. michael reynolds says:


    a self-fulfilling prophecy since the hardliners have been and always will be in control of Iran.

    Can you pick lottery winners, too?

  31. Hal_10000 says:

    Our relationship with Iran is … tricky. I really think they are a regime change away from becoming a friend. While they officially chant “Death to America!” they had public vigils on 9/11 and have been friendly to visiting US athletes, etc. Almost everyone I talk to who’s actually been there says the people, especially the younger ones, want a better relationship with us. But the regime is committed to opposition and the recent missile tests are pushing back against Trump to see what he’ll do.

    Strategically, we need to thread a needle here. There is a growing Sunni-Shia conflict, with Saudi Arabia and Iran fighting a cold (and sometimes hot) war between them. We can’t take sides in that, especially as it will push Iran to side with the Russians.

    Dealing with Iran involves being tough with the regime but open to the future. Trump is … not the man for that, unfortunately. I fear he’ll undo what progress the nuclear deal made.

  32. Slugger says:

    I sometimes wonder what the people who run Iran think of the people who run the US. When they first wrestled the country away from the Shah, they became our enemy with the hostages and all.
    They get into a war with Iraq, and we publically support Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We start a program, Operation Staunch, during this war to keep anyone from selling them weapons. Less than two years later one of our officers sells them weapons on the hush hush. Ten years later we go to war with Iraq. Do these events make them think that we have a consistent moral stance, or do they think that we operate for short term gains without much moral compass?

  33. Grumpy Realist says:

    @CSK: I think the term is “hirsute yam”, courtesy of Charles Price.

    “Delapitated sh*tgibbon” does it for me.

  34. Gustopher says:

    @Slugger: I don’t know what the Iranian leadership thinks about it, but I think we operate for short term gains with no moral compass.

  35. @Mkhattib:

    Iran has been and saying “Death To America” for decades. It didn’t just start because Trump is President.

    Indeed, that is rather part of the point. They have been saying that for almost 4 decades, and yet it has not come to pass, nor has any real attempt been undertaken to make it come to pass.

    One might draw the conclusion that it is empty rhetoric that perhaps ought not guide US foreign policy.

  36. Matt says:

    @Tyrell: Meanwhile you ignore everything said and done by the USA. For example



    I can provide more as the Republicans in general have been wanting to “nuke” “glass over” “turn into a parking lot” and utterly destroy Iran for decades.

    My favorite part is how you ignore that not long ago the US OVERTHREW the Democratically elected government of Iran in order to install a brutal dictator so we could have better access to the state run oil reserves. The shah murdered several hundred thousand and tortured even more before being overthrown by the Islamic revolution.

    There are people in the USA who are still angry over the civil war. Just imagine how we’d behave if the roles had been reversed..

    The average Iranian in any of the major cities isn’t much different from you. Like the United States though there are some seriously uneducated reactionary idiots in the rural areas. They aren’t going to nuke Israel as they know it’ll invite certain destruction.

    What drives me nuts is that Iran is our natural ally in the area as our interests align a lot more than say Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia of course being the source of most of the modern terrorist issues…

  37. Matt says:

    @Mkhattib: Yeah the whole death to America thing started not long after we OVERTHREW their democratically elected government and installed a brutal dictator. Funny how that works…..

    None of the people I know in Tehran have ever been threatened with a beating or forced to attend a gathering. They tend to like America and our stuff.

    @Hal_10000: It’s almost funny how people forgot that Iranians held vigils across their country for 9/11.

    Probably because it wasn’t widely reported in the right wing echo chamber (fox etc).

  38. Dumb Brit says:


    Strategically, we need to thread a needle here.

    Surely a POTUS with the greatest negotiating skills, coupled with his smallest of hands, should be just dandy to thread that needle!