Communication Currents

Current Commentary

Iran Affords President Trump a Rhetorical Off Ramp

January 13, 2020
Current Commentary, Political Communication

By Rick Cherwitz, Ph.D.

As I have argued on these pages before, a rhetorical analysis of crises and other major events provides unique insights that may be less possible via historical, political scientific, or journalistic accounts. Current turmoil in the Middle East offers an archetypal example of this claim.

Iran's January 7, 2020 ballistic missile strike against bases housing U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq was carefully calibrated, clearly owned, highly symbolic, proportional, limited, and carried out with what appears to be no resulting American casualties. Some have even speculated that Iran intentionally chose not to attack places that would cause massive destruction and civilian fatalities.

As a scholar of political communication for more than 40 years who has studied the intent revealed by a close textual analysis, it is clear from a rhetorical perspective that the verbal message issued by Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was strategically crafted, making it easier for President Donald Trump to do nothing in response and, hence, to escape a political or even worse disaster.

In a tweet shortly following the missile strike, Zarif succinctly proclaimed: “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched. We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.” His use of the phrase “concluded proportionate measures in self-defense” seems deliberate and communicates something about what Iran may have intended, viz., that the country is not planning, at least for the moment, additional retaliation.

What is noteworthy is that President Donald Trump’s subsequent decision not to deliver a speech to the American people after consulting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and members of the national security team, as well as to take no additional action, was in essence a move toward de-escalation. Instead, his optimistic though chest thumping discourse following Zarif’s message suggests this may indeed be the case.

In a late-night tweet, Trump bragged that “All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.” Among other things, Trump’s message implies that, despite our overpowering military capability to respond, the United States has chosen not to immediately retaliate against Iran’s missile attack.

If, in fact, this was a deliberate effort by the Commander-in-Chief to scale back his rhetoric, as Trump’s tweet implies, we should be thankful.

Sadly, however, Iraq is the battle field, being caught in the middle between the United States and Iran. Iraq now will increasingly turn against the United States, which, of course, is what Iran wants and which will create ongoing instability.

In short, it must be admitted that Iran behaved in a more calculated and rational manner than Trump did, and certainly in a more deliberative manner than many would have predicted. Iran provided the United States with a rhetorical off ramp from a crisis Trump created and perpetuated as a result of the President’s saber rattling, as well as his hasty and less than careful decision making—both of which caused a crisis that for days spiraled and over which the President rhetorically had lost control.

Hopefully, Trump will not take a victory lap in the days and weeks to come. Assuming Trump avoids this irresistible tendency and his usual rhetorical habit, a cataclysmic event may temporarily be averted.

The turmoil, however, is far from over. Proxy groups undoubtedly will respond, and the region will remain unstable until Iran and the United States can come to the negotiating table, something that thus far has not been possible.

To accomplish this will require Trump to tone down his rhetoric and repair America’s damaged relationships with our allies. This will be an onerous challenge for Trump, given his continued negative rhetoric about N.A.T.O. and our closest friends. Put simply, it will necessitate him behaving in an uncharacteristic manner: speaking like a President who acts primarily on behalf of the American people rather than his own selfish interests. I wish I were optimistic that he will do so. Unfortunately, Trump’s discourse in the last few days, as well as his usual rhetorical tendencies, paint a less than sanguine picture.


Cherwitz, Richard, “The Power of Language-in-Use,” Current Commentary, June 26, 2018.

Cherwitz, Richard and Zagacki, Kenneth. "Consummatory Versus Justificatory Crisis Rhetoric." Western Journal of Speech Communication, 50 (1986), 307-24.

Cherwitz, Richard. "Masking Inconsistency: The Gulf of Tonkin Crisis." Communication Quarterly, 28 (1980), 27-38.

Cherwitz, Richard. "The Contributory Effect of Rhetorical Discourse: A Study of Language-in-Use." Quarterly Journal of Speech, 66 (1980), 33-50.

About the author (s)

Rick Cherwitz

The University of Texas at Austin

Rick Cherwitz, Ph.D., is the Ernest S. Sharpe Centennial Professor Emeritus in the Moody College of Communication and founding director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium (IE), the University of Texas at Austin.

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