Donald Trump is about to get a tough test of his presidential leadership, with no true-or-false or multiple-choice questions. Every new president gets the test, usually administered by international creeps and bad guys. There’s no fudging the answers. Reality is the teacher, grading on a steep curve, and presidents pass or fail. There’s no soft grading.
Iran is determined to build the Islamic bomb, and the mullahs got Barack Obama’s number early on. Two days after a different kind of president took the oath of office, Iran welcomed him by firing a medium-range ballistic missile believed capable of carrying a nuclear weapon, in defiance of United Nations Resolution 2231 that endorsed Mr. Obama’s one-sided deal with Iran. The missile traveled 630 miles, well within range of inviting targets, before exploding. The Iranian government said the test was a success.
A series of tests last year, conducted by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, caused the usual international concern. Several of the missiles bore the favorite threat of the mullahs, in this case with the slogan painted on the missile in Hebrew, of “death to Israel.”
This, too, was considered by several of the signatories of the West’s deal with the mullahs to be in violation of Resolution 2231.
President Obama’s deal with Iran was meant to restrain the mullahs’ nuclear-weapons attempt to build the Islamic bomb, but in fact only delays it, if it does even that. The U.N. resolution “calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic-missile technology.”
The mullahs were once barred from developing ballistic missiles, but Mr. Obama softened the restrictive language during negotiations. These were some of the negotiations that President Trump, as a candidate, scorned as the work of “stupid” people who do not know how to negotiate. Mr. Trump wrote the book on “The Art of the Deal,” and promised if elected to hire negotiators who meet his standards.
Mr. Obama prefers talk, none of it tough unless he’s talking to Republicans and others of the conservative persuasion. Barack Obama was particularly good with words dispensed from a safe space somewhere behind the action. That’s where he said he likes to lead from.
Mark Twain observed that “action speaks louder than words, but not nearly as often,” and there’s a growing consensus in the U.S. Senate that Mark Twain’s observation is a perfect description of the Iran policy Mr. Obama bequeathed to his successor. Lots of talk, with lots of wiggle room, with a minimum of positive action.
The mullahs, eager to see how the Donald differs from his predecessor, were in a mocking mood Thursday. A top adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of everything in Iran, disdained the American president as “an inexperienced person.” The spokesman, Ali Akbar Velayati, said “this is not the first time an inexperienced person has threatened Iran. The American government will understand that threatening Iran is useless. Iran does not need permission from any country to defend itself.”
The mullahs are fluent in both bluff and bluster, and just because they say something does not make it so. Fake news and alternate facts are a staple, like honey and sheep’s eyes, of the Arab diet. In fact, the wise men in the foreign ministries, the think tanks, the academy and the pundits in the West think Iran is only one the places where a test of Trump resolve might be hatched.
By some educated guessing, China, stung by Mr. Trump’s invective during the campaign and afterward, might be plotting to draw the U.S. Navy into a confrontation in the South China Sea, where it has built and heavily fortified islands raised from the sea. Rex Tillerson, the new secretary of state, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that China’s island-building was illegal and “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea.”
He promises action. “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that island-building stops, and your access to those islands is not going to be allowed.” We’re beginning to see why Donald Trump likes him.
Or the real test of the new president might be from his “friend,” Vladimir Putin. This would be a test of Russian resolve and dark ambition vs. instinct and cunning of a tough guy who trusts the seat of his pants. Everyone knows that Mr. Putin is up to no good, eager to seduce Donald Trump and bind him to his agenda. But the Donald, despite what the critics and haters think and say, is nobody’s patsy. He built his empire in the toughest city in the world, contending with hostile unions and city officials to build a vast business empire. That’s why he’s so contemptuous of bureaucrats who get their way only because they’re backed by the punitive power of government.
The testing of Donald Trump will reveal a lot about the man.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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