What Must Iran's Reaction to Trump Be, Chicken Game or Bullfighting?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


Ali Omidi
Associate Professor of International Relations & Professor of International Law;
University of Isfahan, Iran

Following the latest ballistic missile test by Iran in which the country test-fired its Khorramshahr missile at a location near the central city of Semnan in late January 2017, and also following an attack on a Saudi Arabian warship off the coast of Yemen by Houthis Ansarullah fighters, the new president of the United States, Donald Trump, announced that Iran has been officially “put on notice.” Taking to Twitter, Trump posted a message, which read as such: “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile. Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!” In a similar move and in continuation of his sharp anti-Iran positions, Trump once again wrote on his Twitter account on February 3, 2017 that “Iran is playing with fire - they don't appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!

Furthermore, on Sunday, February 5, 2017, Trump took part in an interview with Fox News network in which he described Iran's nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of world powers as Iran's agreement with the administration of former US President Barack Obama. Describing the nuclear deal as “shameful,” he noted that there had been no reason for signing such an agreement with Iran.

The new US president also touched upon the occasional faceoff between the speedboats operated by Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and the US Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, saying that Iranians “like to taunt us because they don’t have respect for our leaders.” He added that Iranian forces “circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn't be allowed to make,” because “they didn’t think anyone would be stupid as to make a deal like that.

Meanwhile, Trump's vice president, Mike Pence, has been quoted as warning Iran by saying, “Iran would do well to look at the calendar and realize there's a new president in the Oval Office…. And Iran would do well not to test the resolve of this new president." Responding to a question on what measures on the part of Iran would be considered as testing Trump's resolve, Pence clearly mentioned the Islamic Republic’s missile tests and its support for Houthi fighters in Yemen. Asked how the United States might respond to such so-called provocative measures by Iran, Pence said as the new president had noted, all options with regard to Iran were on the table, including the military option.

Before warnings were issued by the aforesaid American officials, Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, issued a statement on February 1, 2017, in which he announced that the United States was officially putting Iran on notice for its missile test. Flynn, of course, did not explain what he meant by official notice, or what would be Trump administration’s reaction following that notice.

In answer to the question that whether Iran’s missile program violates the nuclear deal, which is also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, it must be noted that the JCPOA is silent as to missile tests, but Paragraph 3 of Annex B of the aforesaid resolution, which can be found on page 99 of the 104-page document, says, “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.

There is no clear technical definition as to the difference between a missile designed to be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead and those designed to deliver conventional warheads. According to comments by the former secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, missile tests would be against the spirit of the JCPOA, but do not amount to violation of its contents. Therefore, American officials, like the White House spokesman, had to withdraw from their earlier positions later, and while admitting to the fact that Iran’s missile tests do not constitute direct violation of the contents of the JCPOA, alleged that such tests would violate the “spirit” of the agreement.

On the other hand, despite their election rhetoric when they described the JCPOA as the worst deal possible and had promised to rip it up, now Trump, Pence, Flynn and others are saying that they are going over that decision. During his early election campaign, Trump said if he were elected as president, he would do away with the nuclear deal and would also increase sanctions against Iran in order to launch negotiations over a new agreement, which would not be as ridiculous as the first one. However, after entering the White House, he has adopted a softer tone and his cabinet members have also noted that they would keep the nuclear deal with Iran despite their criticism of the agreement. Perhaps, the most evident of such a change in positions adopted by American officials was displayed by Paul Ryan, an extremely anti-Iranian member of the Republican Party and the current speaker of the House of Representatives, who said on February 3, 2017 that it was too late to cancel the nuclear deal. He added that the United States should now focus on imposing sanctions on Iran over issues other than the nuclear issue.

What can be deduced from the war of words launched by American officials is that they will spare no effort to stoke tensions and crisis with Iran due to various reasons, which include the necessity of maintaining internal solidarity in the United States against a presumed external enemy, to boots arms sales to the Persian Gulf sheikhs and getting their money, to put up an appearance of unity with Israel and a host of other reasons. Under present circumstances, Iran can be the best scapegoat for them to achieve those goals. This is true because, especially inside the United States, civil institutions, media platforms and the strict division of powers have left the president practically stranded and the sole way is for him to engage in foreign adventurism. According to the theory of games, there are two types of games imaginable to explain the tension between Iran and the United States in view of their power positions and mentalities of the two sides that are involved in the game: the chicken game and bullfighting.

In the chicken game, there are many things at stake in terms of the two sides’ prestige and the game will end in lose-lose result both when it stops and continues. Many examples have been used to explain this game one of which is the example of the bridge. Assume that two cars traveling at high speed reach a bridge from different directions. Now assume that the bridge can only accommodate one car at a time. If there is some kind of grudge between these two drivers and their friends (Israel, Saudi Arabia …) are lining up on the two sides of the bridge encouraging their favorite driver to move on without any consideration while the opposite driver is doing the same, there is no doubt that both of them will badly crash in the middle of the bridge. Now, in view of the prestige of the two drivers, which is at stake here, if one of those cars steps aside to allow the opposite car to cross the bridge, he would be known as chicken by his friends and spectators and will be humiliated. On the other hand, if both drivers are hell-bent on crossing the bridge, their death or at least paralysis as a result of the accident is beyond doubt. The result of both situations is fatal: either in terms of physical fatality or losing one’s prestige.

The war of words waged by Trump against Iran can be turned into a chicken game and inflict irreparable damage on the country by playing in their playground and under conditions determined by them. It must be especially taken into account that in this case, in view of recklessness, newness and strength of the opponent’s car, our country will probably suffer more losses. However, another type of game is also imaginable in the competition between Iran and the United States, which is the bullfighting. Assume that a matador is expected to face a raging bull with lethal horns while the stadium teems with spectators, who are crying out and shouting. If this matador faces the raging bull without the deceiving colored cape, he may look like a hero from the viewpoint of spectators, but he would be also taking a high risk of death and severe injury. Therefore, it would be rational for him to use thought and foresight (the red cape in this example) to first lure the angry bull into attacking. Then with every attack of the bull, the matador will dodge and make the bull more and more tired until it gives up. If we believe that the behavior of Trump and his team is dangerous and provocative, the best move for the Islamic Republic is not to play at a playground determined by them. It rather must use dodges based on the country’s expediencies in order to earn the final win.


More By Ali Omidi:

* Is the Complaint Filed with UN against Iran by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia Valid?:

*What Options Tehran Has in the Face of US Seizure of $2bn of Iranian Bonds?:

*What if Obama Fails to Veto Congress Rejection of JCPOA?:

*Photo Credit: Al-Monitor

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.