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How to read between the lines of Iran’s war on words with Trump

Tension between the United States and Iran has reached an unprecedented level.

It is important to trace the origins of this heightened tension, which emanated from the Iranian regime’s bellicose and incendiary rhetoric as well as destabilizing behavior.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is shifting towards the hardliners, such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and senior generals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He declared that the US should know that “peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars” and attacked US President Donald Trump directly by adding: “Mr Trump, don’t play with the lion’s tail, this would only lead to regret.”

It is worth noting that Iran’s leaders did not expect that the US would respond to Rouhani’s threats. The Iranian regime based its analysis and rationale on the history and policies of former US administrations towards Tehran.

Previously, several US presidents reacted in one of the following ways: they either ignored Iran’s threats, tried to change the regime’s behavior through negotiations and diplomacy, or attempted to appease the Iranian regime and give it unprecedented concessions, as president Barack Obama and his administration famously did.

However, to the surprise of the Iranian leaders, President Trump responded to Tehran’s threat in an all-caps tweet that sent a strong message to Iran. “To Iranian President Rouhani,” he wrote, “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 and death. Be cautious!”

Instead of de-escalating the tension or apologizing for initiating the heated exchange, Tehran resorted to its modus operandi: utilizing more bellicose and threatening language.  

As always, Iran’s military generals are using their position to warn the US and other countries in the region. In a shocking provocation, Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, the IRGC’s special unit which conducts operations in foreign countries, warned the US, according to Tasnim news agency: “We are near you, where you can’t even imagine ... Come. We are ready ... If you begin the war, we will end the war… You know that this war will destroy all that you possess.”

The Iranian leaders’ threats are nothing more than a collection of words, which the theocratic regime has been pronouncing for almost four decades. There are several reasons why it makes such provocations.

First of all, the Iranian regime is an extremist revolutionary state, whose principle leaders are accustomed to intimidating, bullying, blackmailing or terrorizing other nations rather than resorting to civilized and modern international norms such as diplomacy and respect for the rule of law.

Second, the Iranian leaders are attempting to appease their base of extremist supporters by lashing out at the US and the West. Their base includes state and non-state actors such as terrorist and militia groups across the region, as well as domestic hardline groups such as the Basij militia, which operates under the IRGC as one of its five major forces.

Third, such threats are pure political posturing. The aim is to boast about Tehran’s influence in the region and its military capabilities, as well as to project it to be more powerful than it actually is. Such threats brings the regime several advantages. By bragging about its power to “destroy everything that you own,” Iran is hoping to recruit more fundamentalist and extremist fighters in the region.

Iran’s leaders have always stopped short of getting into a war with the US because they are cognizant of the fact that any direct military conflict with the US would be political suicide for the ruling mullahs.

But since Tehran believes that the US has historically turned a blind eye to its warnings and provocations, it assumes that it is a safe bet  to threaten the US. In other words, its leaders can boast to their proxies and extremist supporters that the US feared responding to their threats because Iran is extremely powerful.

Fifth, by threatening the US, the regime is attempting to distract attention away from the widespread corruption within its political and financial systems, the ongoing protests, the catastrophic economic mismanagement by the authorities and the disaffection of the population with the regime.

Iran’s leaders have long used the US as a scapegoat not only to divert attention from the underlying issues, but also to blame for all its deficiencies, mistakes and wrongdoings. Finally, through shocking provocations and escalating tension, the regime is trying to suppress domestic opposition.  

Although Iran’s threats are empty, they should not be ignored because it will further empower and embolden the regime.

This article was originally published by Arab News. Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh