Iran’s foreign minister hurled invective at the White House on this week, accusing President Trump of irrationally plotting to attack Iran during his final weeks in office and ratcheting up hostility just as President-elect Joseph R. Biden prepares to extend a diplomatic olive branch to Tehran.
The fiery rhetoric from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was a direct response to Mr. Trump’s threatening tweets a day earlier, extending a war of words between the two men. Both are well-versed in the art of theatrical battle on Twitter.
While the back-and-forth remained rhetorical on Christmas Eve, U.S. military and national security insiders have spent recent days warning about possible attacks by Iran-backed militias against American personnel in the Middle East.
It was a strike on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq on Sunday, which administration officials blamed on Iranian proxies, that sparked the latest verbal saber-rattling between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zarif.
The president late Wednesday evening tweeted a photo of three unexploded rockets that were purportedly used in the assault, which killed one civilian and damaged parts of the American diplomatic complex inside Baghdad’s Green Zone.
“Our embassy in Baghdad got hit Sunday by several rockets. Three rockets failed to launch. Guess where they were from: IRAN. Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq,” the president said in his Twitter message. “Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”
Mr. Trump suggested he is still mulling how the U.S. should respond. Although he did not directly reference Iran’s nuclear facilities, analysts generally agree they may be targets if the president orders airstrikes.
Mr. Zarif responded just hours later by tweeting a photo of President George W. Bush beneath the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.
The Iranian foreign minister suggested that should Mr. Trump target Iran, the president would be committing a foreign policy blunder of historical proportions that would carry long-term repercussions for Washington. “@realDonaldTrump uses a worthless photo to recklessly accuse Iran,” Mr. Zarif tweeted. “Last time, the US ruined our region over WMD fabrications, wasting $7 TRILLION & causing 58,976 American casualties. FAR WORSE this time. Trump will bear full responsibility for any adventurism on his way out.”
Friction with Iran has been high throughout Mr. Trump’s time in office. After a series of escalations by both sides, tensions reached the boiling point in January when the U.S. launched a missile strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was believed to have directed attacks by Iran-backed militias against American forces in the region.
Iran responded with a missile strike on a U.S. air base in Iraq, a move that brought the two countries to the brink of all-out war. Both sides ultimately stood down.
Jan. 3 will mark the one-year anniversary of the Soleimani killing, and military officials fear Iran could launch attacks to avenge his death.
Meanwhile, any new conflict could upend Mr. Biden’s Iran policy, which analysts say centers on rejoining an international nuclear pact with Tehran that Mr. Trump exited in 2018. That accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), offered Iran relief from economic sanctions in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.
Since the U.S. exited the deal, Iran has stopped abiding by all of its commitments and has started enriching uranium past the thresholds laid out in the agreement. Still, the remaining nations in the deal — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — signaled this week that they believe the nuclear agreement can be salvaged and that they support renewed U.S. involvement.
Mr. Biden also has strong support from Democrats in Congress on the issue.
“The Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the internationally negotiated and UN-endorsed JCPOA undermined global non-proliferation efforts, fractured U.S. relationships with key allies, diminished U.S. leadership and influence, and reduced U.S. leverage in addressing other national security issues with Iran,” a group of 150 lawmakers said in a letter to Mr. Biden on Thursday.
“Iran’s other destabilizing activities in the region, such as its support for terrorism, development of ballistic missiles, human rights violations against its own people, and holding of foreign political prisoners, including Americans, warrant strong and coordinated international diplomacy,” they wrote.
But Republican lawmakers this week sought to derail Mr. Biden’s efforts. They urged Mr. Trump to submit the Iran deal to the Senate as a formal treaty, thereby allowing the Republican-led body to formally reject it. That kind of parliamentary maneuver would make it more difficult for a Biden administration to formally resume American participation in the agreement.
Even as he pursues diplomacy, Mr. Biden will have to confront evidence that Tehran is working to destabilize the American electoral system.
Federal law enforcement on Wednesday blamed Iran for the creation of a website called “Enemies of the People,” which included death threats aimed at top American election officials. The website included the names, phone numbers and other personal information of election officials and private-sector companies involved in the Nov. 3 elections, the FBI said.
Mr. Trump has disputed the outcome of the presidential election, though his efforts to overturn the results in key battleground states have failed so far. The Electoral College formally affirmed Mr. Biden’s victory on Dec. 14.
The FBI statement makes clear that Iran is trying to attack the integrity of the U.S. voting system.
“The post-election creation of the Enemies of the People website demonstrates an ongoing Iranian intent to create divisions and mistrust in the United States and undermine public confidence in the U.S. electoral process,” the FBI and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said in a press release.