On January 3rd, President Trump sent shockwaves around the political world when American troops assassinated the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force and a high-ranking officer of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the former of which has been deemed a terrorist organisation by states such as the United States, Canada or Saudi Arabia. In the days after the assassination, thousands of Iranian citizens took to the streets to mourn the loss of their commander and protest against the United States. Although Soleimani was not a friend of the United States or the United Kingdom, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently stating that he was a “threat to all our interests” and that “we will not lament his death”. Trump’s hawkish decision to skip diplomacy and use military intervention is troubling for any short-term stability in the region, as well as for securing any long term, meaningful dialogue and agreements with Iran.
Firstly, following the strikes, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would no longer be bound by any of its restrictions concerning the number or type of centrifuges that can be operated or the level of enrichment of uranium that it can pursue. A worrying prospect for the United States and the Trump administration who do not want Iran to develop nuclear weapon capabilities. On January 6th, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, when asked if President Trump could get Iran to renegotiate a new nuclear agreement, replied: “He said he’s open. If Iran wants to start behaving like a normal country (...) sure, absolutely”.
President Trump, by using a stick not a carrot in assassinating one of the key Iranian military leaders, should be wary of pushing Iran further away from the negotiating table. Although European leaders have stated they want to uphold the current nuclear agreement and have stable relations with Iran, with the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom issuing a joint statement stating their “continuing commitment to preserve the JCPOA”. There is no evidence that further belligerence from the United States will result in any peaceful resolution to the conflict, and will likely worsen the chances of the Iranian leadership sticking to the rules of the deal.
Furthermore, President Trump is well aware of the commonly held belief that acting like a strongman on the world stage is particularly useful in garnering support back home with the public, the so-called rallying ‘round the flag effect. This is no inference or speculation on my behalf either, as Trump himself in 2011 criticised President Obama for what he saw warmongering with Iran to boost his re-election chances, writing on his Twitter years before he began his own presidential campaign: “In order to get elected, Barack Obama will start a war with Iran”.
Moreover, the ‘Two Presidencies’ Thesis is a theory developed by the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, arguing that most presidents have more freedom abroad and tend to retreat to foreign affairs when unable to set the domestic agenda. This can be seen historically with George H. W. Bush who was constantly in conflict with Congress over domestic issues, but launched the first Gulf War and invasion of Panama. Similarly, Bill Clinton looked abroad to make an impact later in his presidency when the House and Senate were solidly Republican, with the Northern Ireland peace talks and the bombing of Serbia. This thesis can be applied to Trump as well. He lost control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term elections, and is currently awaiting an impeachment trial in the Senate, yet by intervening militarily in the Middle East he is trying to focus attention away from domestic politics in Washington. President Trump should be careful what he wishes for.
In the last week, the poll ratings for the Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders have increased, making him the new leader in Iowa polls. This is perhaps in part because he has been the most vocal critic of Trump’s decision to escalate with Iran, stating on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert: “I will do everything I can to stop a war with Iran that I think will be a disaster”. This suggests that voters in America will not unequivocally support Trump’s aggressive action against Iran, and hints that his decision to escalate will be more a hindrance than a help for his re-election fight.
Ultimately, for a president that prided himself on his pledge to “bring the troops home” and be less interventionist in his 2016 presidential run, the fact that a war with Iran looks more likely than ever will be worrying for the millions of Americans who supported him previously. And for many it will feel like a broken promise.