The world is long since accustomed to the ugly voices of violence and hate emanating daily and nightly from Tehran. Incited mobs chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in city squares, while Iran’s leaders promise to destroy Tel Aviv and wipe Israel off the map.
It’s possible, of course, to ignore these voices or diminish their importance. The international community has done so for years, hoping the Iranians would moderate their rhetoric and perhaps even change their behavior. It has never happened. Quite the opposite; the Iranians expanded the scope of their subversive activities across the Middle East—from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza to the Persian Gulf and Yemen.
The Iranians were fortunate until Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. This unconventional president chose to respond to the Iranians in kind—not just with warnings but effective, painful action. His withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the economic sanctions he re-imposed on Iran pushed it into a corner, threatening to eliminate its oil exports and cripple its sputtering economy. More importantly, Trump’s initiatives have, for the first time, frightened the Iranians into thinking he could go further than any previous president and work to overthrow the ayatollah regime.
The Iranians responded (as usual) with a barrage of denigration and threats. The first to hurl threats was Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, widely considered the moderate voice in Iran. He warned that Iran would act to curb oil exports from neighboring Gulf States, chief among them Saudi Arabia, and even told Trump that war with Iran would be the “mother of all wars.” Trump, however, is not Barack Obama. Rouhani’s threats were swiftly met with a decisive response: “Never, ever threaten the United States again, or suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before. … Be cautious!”
Joining the chorus of intimidation was Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force, which implements Iran’s terrorist activity and subversion across the region. Soleimani told Trump: “We are a nation of martyrdom and we await you. 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.”
One can’t help be reminded of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who on the eve of his downfall vowed to unleash the “mother of all wars” on Washington if it attacked him. Or Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin, who before his assassination boasted that he and his people love death and desire it. Yassin died while trying to flee the missile speeding towards him. Saddam, meanwhile, along with his regime and military, vanished the moment the United States decided to go to war against him.
Iran purports to be a regional power but is ultimately a failed country that can neither provide employment nor, more recently, food and water to its people. The ayatollah regime is standing on the precipice of a trembling volcano at home, capable of erupting at a moment’s notice. It’s no surprise that Iran’s leaders are afraid, more than ever, of a conflict with the United States. As usual, they wagered that the world would cow in fear to their threats. Evidently, not only did these threats fail to deter Trump, they steeled his resolve to restore Iran to its natural size and place on the margins of Middle East influence.
It’s not difficult to find fair criticism of U.S. policy in the Middle East. The Americans lack a fundamental understanding of the region and tend to view what happens here through their uniquely American prism. They do all they can to avoid stepping in the Middle Eastern quicksand and haven’t formulated a comprehensive, long-term policy to deal with its problems.
But when the United States decides to act, it’s best not to stand in the way of the unparalleled resolve and might it can bring to bear. Saddam learned this the hard way, as will the Iranians.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.