On Sunday night, the White House ratcheted up tensions with the Islamic republic. Trump issued a dramatic tweet, addressing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in all caps: "NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE."
The tweet received a bullish reply from Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, the following day.
Trump's ire was apparently sparked by comments Rouhani made on Sunday in a meeting with Iranian diplomats. "America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars," Rouhani said, delivering a pointed warning to the Trump administration not to engage in efforts to overthrow the Iranian regime.
“To our Iranian American and Iranian friends, tonight I tell you that the Trump administration dreams the same dreams for the people of Iran as you do," Pompeo said, "and through our labors and God’s providence, that day will come true.”
That's why numerous Iran analysts are wary of parallels between Trump's current tweets and the "fire and fury" declarations that preceded his historic summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un. "Unlike the case of North Korea, enmity with Iran is quite ideological in this administration," said Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group.
Meanwhile, Rouhani's position is growing weaker. Many Iranians now pin the country's slumping economy on the president, angry that the nuclear deal has not delivered the economic benefits he promised. The hard-line forces Rouhani once maneuvered against are ascendant.
The Trump administration "has strengthened the hand of hardline Iranian factions, in the clerical and judicial establishment as well as in the Revolutionary Guards, who always said it was a mistake to strike a deal with the U.S.," reported Najmeh Bozorgmehr of the Financial Times. "These groups, who believe their position has been vindicated, have been able to use the threats from Mr Trump and others to reassert their authority, adding to pressure on Mr Rouhani, whose credibility has been badly damaged by his failure to keep the deal and new economic curbs from Washington."
That could provoke a backlash from the regime, via its proxy forces in various corners of the Middle East. “Western countries should be aware that if they put too much pressure on Iran, it could unleash radical Shia forces and trigger a new wave of Islamic radicalism," added Hossein Marashi, a reformist politician in Tehran.
That may be exactly what Washington's own hard-liners want. On Sunday, Pompeo dismissed any prospect that there are real political differences in Tehran, arguing that Rouhani and Zarif are “merely polished frontmen for the ayatollah’s international con artistry. Their nuclear deal didn't make them moderates; it made them wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Trump's lieutenants are positioning themselves as champions of revolutionary change within Iran — or for armed conflict with an increasingly cornered adversary.
But the Trump administration's grandstanding on this front is unlikely to galvanize popular discontent within Iran. "The more the U.S. threatens Iran, and the more ordinary Iranians have to deal with economic hardships," argued Vaez, "the less motivation [Iranians] may have for pursuing any kind of radical change." Leadership in Tehran, Vaez told Today's WorldView, is skilled at survival and content to batten down the hatches and wait out the Trump administration.
My colleague Jason Rezaian, who endured a year and a half in Iranian prison, attended Pompeo's event. For all its zeal for change, he observed, the Trump administration is simply the wrong messenger.
"Most of what Pompeo said about the depravity of Iran’s rulers was true," wrote Rezaian, "but when coupled with U.S. moves that directly hurt Iranians — specifically, stiff economic sanctions and the recently upheld travel ban — it is difficult for the administration to support its own claims that the well-being and prosperity of Iranians matter."