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After Trump slams Iran’s president, Iranian officials accuse him of ‘psychological warfare’

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a meeting with a group of Foreign Ministry officials in Tehran on July 22, 2018. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a meeting with a group of Foreign Ministry officials in Tehran on July 22, 2018. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
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ISTANBUL — Iranian officials accused the White House of waging “psychological warfare” and vowed Monday to resist any U.S. efforts to destabilize their government, after stark warnings by President Trump against perceived Iranian threats.

The backlash from Tehran contributed to one of the harshest exchanges between Iran’s leadership and Washington since the Trump administration exited the 2015 nuclear deal in May and moved to reimpose sanctions on Iran.

That accord, signed by the United States and other world powers, eased international economic pressures on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. It was the signature achievement of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who championed dialogue with the West as a path toward ending Iran’s isolation.

Trump’s threat on Twitter appeared to be a response to remarks by Rouhani in which he said any war with Iran would be “the mother of all wars.” Rouhani had also said that the United States “must realize that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace,” Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported.

President Trump warned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on July 23 against threatening the United States, after Rouhani threatened "the mother of all wars." (Video: Reuters)

Trump fired back in a tweet in capital letters, saying that if Rouhani ever threatened the United States again, Iran “WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”



In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who negotiated the nuclear deal, posted a tweet using capital letters and similar warnings.

“COLOR US UNIMPRESSED: The world heard even harsher bluster a few months ago,” Zarif wrote, in an apparent reference to the speech Trump made when he announced the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. “. . . We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, incl our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries. BE CAUTIOUS!” he wrote.

The bellicose rhetoric, coming just weeks before the United States is to impose the first round of renewed trade and financial sanctions, has prompted Iran’s government and political factions to close ranks. Hard-liners, who otherwise despise Rouhani, have eased some of their criticism in recent weeks. They saw his diplomatic approach to the West as naive and had pushed for his resignation.

As recently as June, a military adviser to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former chief of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps said the country might be better managed if there was no administration at all — an ominous dig at Rouhani.

But in recent weeks, the president’s willingness to depart from his diplomatic tone and instead push back against U.S. pressure has won him praise from those same hard-liners.

Rouhani’s sharpest remarks came earlier this month when he suggested in a speech in Switzerland that Iran could disrupt oil trade in the Persian Gulf. Many saw this as a veiled threat to block the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial sea lane for oil shipments.

“Existential external pressures close the gap between all factions and force activists from all walks of life to unite under the same flag,” said Reza Akbari, who researches Iranian politics at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Washington.

According to Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the political-risk firm Eurasia Group, “Rouhani has moved significantly to the right since the U.S. left the JCPOA” — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal is formally known. That, Kupchan said, has created “a more unified elite.”

On Monday, the head of Iran’s paramilitary Basij force, Brig. Gen. Gholam Hossein Gheibparvar, dismissed Trump’s salvos as “psychological warfare.”

“We will never abandon our revolutionary beliefs. We will resist pressure from the enemies,” the Reuters news agency quoted him as saying. The comments were carried by the Iranian Students’ News Agency. “Trump cannot do a damn thing against Iran,” he said.

Amid the saber-rattling, the Iranian rial plunged Monday to a record low against the dollar. The currency has lost much of its value in recent months, causing chaos in the black market and foreign-exchange bureaus in Tehran.

Last month, shop owners in the city’s famed bazaar went on strike to protest the ailing currency and rising prices. The demonstrations were among many that have taken place across Iran this year over a range of issues, including unpaid salaries, water cuts and mass layoffs.

In a speech to a crowd of Iranian Americans in California on Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a longtime Iran hawk, hailed the demonstrations as a “response to myriad government failures, corruption and disrespect of rights.” He outlined the administration’s new strategy against Iran, including targeted messaging on social media and broadcast channels. He said the United States was stepping up efforts to help Iranians bypass Internet restrictions.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Qassemi, said that Pompeo’s speech “was hypocritical and absurd.”

“These remarks are a clear example of [U.S.] interference in Iran’s internal affairs,” Tasnim quoted Qassemi as saying.

Iran’s government is “buying time,” according to Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “They are openly hoping that Trump will be a one-term president,” he said. “For this Iranian regime, Trump is simply too unpredictable and therefore best avoided.”

Vatanka said he believes that members of Rouhani’s team “are arguing for preparing the ground to talk to the next American president.”

But Iran can dodge the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign for only so long. And recent military skirmishes between the Revolutionary Guard and Israeli forces in Syria have raised the specter of escalating conflict.

“Risk is on the rise. Neither side wants war,” Kupchan wrote in a briefing note Monday. But, when threatened, Iran normally doesn’t hesitate to respond, he said. And tensions could rise in the Persian Gulf and around the Strait of Hormuz, where U.S. naval vessels patrol.

“A deadly encounter would be escalatory, to put it mildly,” he wrote.

John Wagner and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.

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