How Iran could still go to war with Trump — but not America
An Iranian official suggested Trump's international properties could be targets for retaliation. What if it followed through now?
President Trump's appetite for conflict with Iran is not widely shared by the American people. Gallup's most recent poll on the subject finds eight in 10 want U.S.-Iran relations to rely on diplomatic and economic tools, with just 18 percent backing military action. A pair of September surveys by the University of Maryland returned nearly identical results — and, perhaps most remarkably, all three show strong anti-war majorities among both Democrats and Republicans. Whatever bellicose support Trump has found from Fox News hosts and hawkish Republican senators since assassinating Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, he will not find the same among most voters, his own base included.
Trump's comments Wednesday — "Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned" — suggest he may be realizing the public's opposition to war. Tehran already knew. And to let us know they know, top Iranian presidential adviser Hesameddin Ashena issued two tweets Sunday.
First, without comment, he shared a Forbes article listing Trump's real estate holdings. Then, about an hour and a half later, he wrote: "We have ZERO problems with the American people. We even achieved deals with previous U.S. administrations. Our sole problem is Trump. In the event of war, it is he who will bear full responsibility." Since then, Iran fired around a dozen ballistic missiles targeting Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. troops, but the retaliatory strike had no casualties and was widely interpreted as a possible off-ramp, more a face-saving gesture than an actual Iranian step toward war. Tehran seems to have little interest in a shooting war with the U.S. military, though other, smaller provocations may well come in response to Trump's Wednesday announcement of even harsher sanctions.
But suppose all Iran wanted was to pursue vengeance against Trump personally — by, say, targeting his property? "Name me an emperor who was ever struck by a cannonball," Charles V asked half a millennium ago — but what if the emperor was the only man struck?
Opponents of war have long complained that most of its victims are fighting for a cause not truly their own. Rulers start wars, and their subjects die in them. In the earliest years of human history, Thomas Paine averred in Common Sense, "there were no kings; the consequence of which was, there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throws mankind into confusion." Indeed, "all war must be ... the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity," wrote Mark Twain, "strangers whom, in other circumstances, you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it." Or, as Muhammad Ali (perhaps) declared, he had "no quarrel with them Viet Cong."
This objection is no less applicable now. I have no quarrel with the Iranian people, nor do any but an infinitesimal minority of my compatriots. Why should we fight for the pride of our kings? Why should Americans fight because Trump was foolish enough to leave an imperfect but perfectly useable nuclear deal, to apply a demonstrably cruel and counterproductive "maximum pressure" to Iran, to escalate and escalate until open conflict seems nigh unavoidable? Why should Iranians fight because their regime — an oppressive government they realistically cannot control — sponsors terrorism and runs afoul of Washington's imperial ambition?
Ashena's tweets create an interesting thought experiment, at the very least. What if Iran's future provocations exclusively, personally targeted Trump? What if they never included any American military targets? What if they never included any American targets at all? (Trump has a number of international properties, like that Irish golf resort of recent controversy, so an attack on a Trump property need not be on U.S. soil.) A war against Trump personally could look like property destruction at his resorts, but also hacking of his websites and social media accounts, exposing personal information (tax returns, real net worth, private communications) he has sought to conceal, or interfering with production of Trump-branded products. This would actually be in line with Iran's Tuesday night airstrike, which satellite images suggest was targeted to inflict property damage without casualties.
It is difficult to imagine popular support for sending U.S. soldiers into battle to avenge the president's Twitter account or luxury hotel. Even the most salivating executive bootlickers in Congress might find that has a bitter taste. It could be defensible in another time, when kings ruled by divine right, when l'état, c'est moi, when of course you have to go to war because your princeling's summer palace was destroyed. But now? A war of Iran vs. Trump would present a crisis of presidential war-making well beyond that in which we are habitually embroiled.
Even if Iran never strikes any of Trump's properties — and for the sake of peace, I pray they won't — the threat alone may have strategic effect. Would you visit a Trump property right now? Whatever your other inclinations for or against Trumpian hospitality, after that tweet, it must seem a little risky. There are plenty of other resorts whose owners who haven't ordered the assassination of famous Iranian officials, and it's nice to go on vacation without wondering whether you'll live through the night.
Aside from potential loss of business, a perceived threat to Trump-branded properties could also lead to fewer Trump-branded properties. Much of the real estate under the Trump name is not owned by Trump himself; it is simply licensed to use his brand. These licenses are costly and, if building owners deem them a net disadvantage, unlikely to be maintained. The resultant damage would hit Trump's pride as much as his bottom line, perhaps personally irking him more than traditional warfare. (Incidentally, complying with the presidential tradition of divestiture would have preemptively sidestepped this and other risks.)
War is always evil, but war launched by a single man's daft ego has an extra layer of depravity. Tehran's narrow focus on Trump is propaganda, of course — Ashena's post itself, to say nothing of Tuesday's missile strike, evinces some willingness to engage in a broader fight — but for the Iranian and American publics, it is perfectly true. We have zero problems with one another. We would, in other circumstances, help if we found the other in trouble. We should not kill each other because our kings have quarreled.
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