Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – I suppose it was foreseeable that at some point it would happen, but we’re finally here. President Donald J. Trump and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran are in a tweet war.
The two leaders have many things in common. Trump’s cabinet members such as Rick Perry have said that Trump is “the chosen one” and “sent by God to do great things,” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concurs.
The leader of Iran is not styled in Persian “Supreme Leader” but rather “august leader” (rahbar-e mo’azzam rather than a`zam). Nevertheless, the Iranian Establishment holds that Khamenei stands in the place of the Prophet Muhammad and his twelve successors, the Imams, until the Twelfth Imam should return (rather as Pompeo believes Jesus is on the verge of returning to exalt Trump at his right hand). Both Iran and the United States are led by men who believe God ordained them, and this belief is shared by their cronies.
The two divinely chosen ones are in a tug of war over Iran.
The great scholar Ali Mazrui used to say that in his native Kenya there was a saying that “When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.” He archly added the second part of this bit of folk wisdom: “And when elephants make love, it is the grass that gets trampled.”
Trump blamed Iran for the attempted invasion of the US Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, and also blamed Iran for having ordered Iraqi militia attacks on bases where US personnel were stationed, leading to the death of a US contractor. It was these attacks that led to the US air strikes on five bases of the Kata’ib Hizbullah (Brigades of the Party of God).
Iran does back some of Iraq’s Shiite militias, having provided them training and perhaps money (though Iraq is much richer than Iran in oil receipts at this point). It is not clear, however, that any particular action of any of these Iraqi militias is necessarily ordered by Iran. The two have more of a loose alliance than a line of command. The attempted embassy invasion on Tuesday strikes me as having been fairly spontaneous rather than a well-planned out operation, and it was the Iraqi government that told the militiamen and supporters to stand down and withdraw from the embassy area, which they did.
But this is what Trump said:
Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2019
So then whoever runs clerical leader Ali Khamenei’s twitter account came back with this:
If the Islamic Republic decides to challenge & fight, it will do so unequivocally. We’re not after wars, but we strongly defend the Iranian nation’s interests, dignity, & glory.
If anyone threatens that, we will unhesitatingly confront & strike them.
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) January 1, 2020
Khamenei doesn’t write English, and Twitter is banned for ordinary Iranians inside Iran, so this tweet was purely for outside consumption.
I’d say that Khamenei, got the better of Trump in the exchange, just because Iran has a fifth the population of the US, a tiny fraction of its GDP, and a small, ramshackle military with no air force to speak of, and any time it can tweet as an equal, the US loses.
Moreover, Khamenei’s statement will be read in Arabic in Iraq, where he is competing for influence with Trump, and where he will look like the adult, inasmuch as he said he isn’t looking for a fight but will stand up to Great Power intimidation. An American audience doesn’t usually know that for the past 150 years or so the Middle East has been trying to become independent of Great Power dominance, and invoking that struggle is extremely popular with the people. I once gave a talk in DC to some USG security officials, explaining this, and one woman’s mouth hung open in shock. “You mean,” she asked indignantly, “that they blame us for French and British colonialism?”
Yes, they do.
Khamenei made further remarks that were splashed across Iranian and Iraqi news sites. According to Mehr, Khamenei said that the current wave of hatred against the US in the region had come in reaction against US crimes (referring to Trump blaming Iran for the Iraq events).
It is widely believed among hard line Shiites in Iraq and Iran that the United States had created ISIL (ISIL) to sow chaos in the Middle East. The US did inadvertently create ISIL, but that isn’t what even the Bush administration was going for. And, the US did let ISIL grow powerful in eastern Syria after 2012, in an attempt to weaken the al-Assad regime in Damascus, according to then-Secretary of State John Kerry. But the way Khamenei puts it is just a conspiracy theory, and it was the US, after all, that orchestrated the defeat of that terrorist organization (though Iran also played a major role in all that).
Khamenei played on this conspiracy theory, saying, “America’s attack on the Popular Mobilization Units is in reality an act of vengeance on behalf of ISIL, given that it was the Iraqi popular militias that defeated and eradicated ISIL.”
As for the Kata’ib Hizbullah, it doubles as a political faction, part of the Fath coalition in Parliament, which has 48 seats. Fath, and caretaker prime minister Adil Abdulmahdi, convinced the Kata’ib Hizbullah to withdraw from the US embassy on Wednesday. The deputy head of Fath, Sa`d al-Husaini, said that the bloc preferred to expel the US from Iran through parliamentary means, and pledged that his coalition would attempt to convince parliament to demand a US withdrawal.
Clausewitz said that war is politics by other means. Of course, the converse is also true, that war aims can often better be achieved through politics. If we have any luck in 2020, that is how Trump and Khamenei will go forward. Along with, perhaps, some colorful tweets.