Trump rattles his saber at Iran before his top diplomats are even in place

Trump rattles his saber at Iran before his top diplomats are even in place
Michael Flynn, shown Feb. 1, resigned as national security advisor late Monday over pre-inaugural contacts with Russian officials. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

It is one thing for the Trump administration to take aim at Broadway shows, Hollywood actresses, Democrats and even the media. It is quite another for the administration — only 12 days after taking power — to direct aggressive, belligerent threats at other nations. Yet that's exactly what National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (long known for his hot-headed lack of judgment) did Wednesday in response to "recent Iranian actions."

In a brief statement citing Iran's ballistic missile launch over the weekend and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported militants, Flynn charged that the Obama administration had failed to respond adequately to Tehran's "malign" actions, called the Iran nuclear deal "weak and ineffective" and announced that as of today "we are officially putting Iran on notice."


"On notice"? What does that mean? A senior Trump administration official later said "a whole range of options" were being considered, and repeatedly refused to rule out military action.

Flynn's statement contained a clear threat, but is it just more Trumpian bravado? A lone-wolf warning by Flynn, a longtime anti-Islamist hawk, just because he was in the mood? Or was it part of a coordinated strategy designed to make the Iranians think twice about provoking the U.S. — but if so, could it backfire and pave the way to war?

It's impossible to know. We're accustomed to President Trump's bullying, shoot-from-the-lip attacks on anyone he thinks has slighted him. But an administration can't conduct foreign policy that way. If elections have consequences, so, too, do words, and when the president's top national security advisor issues such a hostile statement menacing another nation, it's not just another Twitterstorm.

The administration has already put its ineptness on display. (Exhibit one: rolling out a new immigration and refugee policy without consulting the people charged with enforcing it.) But it is beyond reckless to threaten other countries before you've even figured out where the White House bathroom is.

If elections have consequences, so, too, do words.

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Of course, policy change was inevitable under the new administration. Trump ran against Obama's foreign policy record, calling it  too weak and accommodating. He took particular umbrage at the  agreement under which Iran pledged to dismantle much of its nuclear infrastructure in return for an end to sanctions — a deal  Trump threatened to undo. But a new president and his top aides, most of them lacking foreign policy experience, should be extremely careful before they begin issuing threats to other sovereign nations.

Fortunately, it will be hard for Trump to kill the Iran nuclear deal too quickly or on his own: It was reached through negotiations that included the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China and Germany. And while far from perfect, the agreement has achieved its prime goal of throttling Iran's ability to create nuclear weapons for at least 10 years.

The U.N. Security Council embraced the agreement with a resolution that limits the kinds of missile testing Iran could undertake. Iran claims its test Sunday did not violate the resolution; Flynn says it did. Whether it was a violation is not for the Trump administration to determine, but for the Security Council, which discussed the matter Tuesday. And it's still unclear whether Iran was testing a missile or testing Trump. If the latter, Iran got its answer: The new president is easily, and perhaps dangerously, baited.

It's telling that Flynn's statement came just before the Senate approved former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of State. So having ousted top career diplomats at Foggy Bottom, Trump pushed toward a potential international crisis before he even had his own diplomatic team in place.

This irony appeared completely lost on the senior officials who briefed reporters after Flynn issued his statement. "We are in the second week," one of the officials said. "We do not want to be premature or rash or take any action that would foreclose options or unnecessarily contribute to a negative response." Too late for that.

For the sake of the nation, we hope Trump quickly readjusts his approach to international affairs from what seems to be a threaten-first framework to one that relies on diplomacy. He must remember that other  nations have their own interests, and an insult or ill-considered threat can lead to more than a headline-generating spat. For example, if Iran tests another missile, would Trump and Flynn feel their warning had been ignored and launch a military strike outside the framework of the United Nations? How would Russia respond, or the Iraqi government, which is relying on Iranian troops to combat the Islamic State?

This is a dangerous game. And it's unclear that Trump or Flynn even know how to play it.

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4:00 p.m.: This editorial was updated with additional details from the Trump administration and new commentary.