When President Donald Trump goes after other nations with harsh tweets or statements blistering with bravado, there is often a sense that he's just showing off his favorite diplomatic dance moves. Trump lambastes China and its leader, then praises them. He threatens that a deal will never be done and huge tariffs will be imposed, then relents and suggests another meeting. He brandishes a carrot in one hand and a stick in the other, and if it hasn't always worked perfectly, it no longer inspires frantic fear in most Americans.
The same is true when Trump hurls bombast at Mexico over immigration and trade, or threatens Canada over timber imports, or belittles NATO allies over defense and trade and environmental issues. The tactics usually aren't terrifying, partly because on these issues Trump surrounds himself with cooler heads to smooth the feathers he ruffles.
But Iran is different.
The most powerful voice counseling Trump, National Security Adviser John Bolton, has recently proclaimed that bombing is the only way to contain Iran's desire to accumulate nuclear weapons, which is nothing new. To Bolton, the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons is always imminent, and can only be addressed via war. Whether writing "The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel's 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required," in The New York Times in 2015, or arguing on Fox News in 2007 that we ought to bomb Iran because it "is interfering in Iraq and is posing a direct threat to our troops," Bolton's stance has been consistent, and consistently wrong, just as he was wrong about the need to invade Iraq in 2003.
Now Bolton is once again claiming that Iran has ratcheted up its threats to American troops and interests, even as well-versed and trusted American and allied leaders say that is not the case. The New York Times has reported the Trump administration is drawing up a battle plan that includes 120,000 troops but the British general who is the deputy commander of the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State says "there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria." Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, no stranger to saber-rattling, is speaking less aggressively than Bolton.
The waters are further muddied by our two closest allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, who constantly pressure Trump to hammer Iran to further their own designs. The only voices saying Iran is an imminent threat now are ones, like Bolton and Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi royal family, who say that no matter what the circumstances, and no matter how often later events prove them incorrect.
Sunday, Trump tweeted, "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.
Never threaten the United States again!" But Iran threatens the United States constantly and the last tweet by its foreign minister was no different. He wrote "Goaded by #B_Team" as he boasted that Iran defeated Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.
Trump, a master of such bluster, must see Iran's puffed-up chest for what it is, and see Bolton's unrelenting beating of the drums of war for what it is, too.