Hooman Majd’s explanation of the Iranian concept of nafs (self) from last week seems even more relevant after the president’s late night threats. Here he describes how it informed Iran’s nuclear negotiations:
Zarif made it abundantly clear that Persian pride would not permit him to continue negotiating with foreign diplomats if the circumstances seemed to suggest a lack of respect for Iran as an equal interlocutor. In July 2015, during the final round of talks at the Palais Coburg in Vienna, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, threatened to walk out if Iran did not show more flexibility, which to some Iranians implied a demand for subjugation. (Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had pointedly instructed his negotiating team to show only “heroic flexibility,” in a classic display of keeping ezat intact, even while making concessions.Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had pointedly instructed his negotiating team to show only “heroic flexibility,” in a classic display of keeping ezat intact, even while making concessions.) Zarif responded to Mogherini by shouting, “Never threaten an Iranian!” — an example of ezat-e nafs if ever there were one [bold mine-DL].
Zarif was responding to much less provocative and insulting behavior than Trump’s threat, so it seems certain that Iranian leaders will react even more harshly this time. After all, Trump was threatening not just one Iranian, but everyone in Iran all at once. Trump’s threat has already drowned out Pompeo’s speech. As bad as the speech was, it wasn’t likely to escalate tensions with Iran. A massive overreaction to Rouhani’s generic warning does exactly that.
The threat reinforces the impression that the preposterous demands that the U.S. has made are aimed at forcing Iran to surrender. That will only make the regime more intransigent at the same time that it causes more Iranians to rally behind their government. The Trump administration has been clumsily trying to drive a wedge between the regime and the population, but threats against the entire country like this will have the opposite effect. As Majd explains, demanding changes to Iranian behavior and threatening them if they don’t make those changes just makes them more determined to continue doing what they were doing. That is the normal reaction of any self-respecting nation.
This morning, John Bolton added to the president’s threat with this statement:
I spoke to the President over the last several days, and President Trump told me that if Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid before.
Doing “anything at all to the negative” is an absurdly low standard for making such dire threats against any other country. The president’s outburst was already very dangerous and irresponsible, and Bolton’s comments make it even worse. Iran’s leaders had already made it clear that they see no point in negotiating with the U.S. about anything. Reneging on the nuclear deal, making ridiculous demands, imposing sanctions, and trying to strangle Iran’s economy have demonstrated that the administration isn’t interested in making a deal that would ever be acceptable to Tehran. Threatening them with devastating attack will just confirm for them that there is nothing to talk about with Washington, and that will make it much harder to de-escalate in the months and years to come.
There is a temptation to dismiss this as more empty bluster from Trump, but that is a mistake in this case. While regional allies and Cabinet members opposed Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric about North Korea, the Saudis and Israelis will be pleased by Trump’s unhinged belligerence, and an administration full of Iran hawks won’t have serious objections to the president’s recklessness. Bolton’s enthusiasm for regime change, his ties to the MEK, and the support of regional clients for attacking Iran make it much more likely that the U.S. could start a war with Iran in the near future.