Did Trump bet 2020 on Iran?
The controversial Soleimani strike has created a war within the GOP that could cost Trump the election
For a man who owned casinos — with a famously rocky track record on them — President Trump doesn't evince much interest in safe bets. Most presidents with a booming economy look to consolidate their winnings ahead of a re-election campaign and dial down risks that could upend their electoral standing. But with the strike on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Trump has rolled the dice in his biggest foreign-policy gamble yet — and might end up paying the price for it in November.
What makes this gamble particularly remarkable is that Trump won over the right-leaning populists in the GOP by explicitly rejecting the interventionist "neo-conservatism" of the Bush administrations. He ran against the liberal-democracy interventionism of the Clinton and Obama administrations. Trump not only promised to stop starting new wars, especially in the Middle East, he pledged to end the wars in which we found ourselves.
Why take this risk at the start of an election year? With near-unanimous backing in the GOP, Trump had kept both foreign-policy wings of the party in the same tent. His need was not to consolidate Republicans but to attract new voters without losing old ones.
In this sense, the drone strike has already taken its toll. The more popular leaders of the GOP's non-interventionist wing have joined Democrats in publicly scolding Trump for overstepping his authority by killing an official of a foreign government, and without any consultation with Congress. Those include usual allies, like Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), as well as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), normally an enthusiastic supporter of Trump. They are not alone in their unhappiness; as many as 10 Senate Republicans may vote for a Democrat-initiated resolution rebuking Trump for overstepping his authority, limiting him to 30 days of action against Iran regardless of imminence without congressional approval. That's not enough to survive a veto, but it's enough to demonstrate the serious split the Soleimani strike has created within the GOP.
So why do this now, when the electoral risk is highest? Trump may not have had much choice. Past administrations had also gamed out Soleimani as a target for any reprisal strike, but Trump's predecessors thought the risks of outright war with Iran as a result outweighed any long- or short-term gains. So did Trump, at least for several months; he approved the idea as a potential option in June but refused to order it after other Iranian actions, such as the downing of an American drone over international waters and the attack on Saudi Arabian oilfields. The siege on the embassy in Baghdad and the death of an American contractor crossed the line, however, and Trump chose the harshest response still on the table, short of full war.
Without Soleimani, Iranian ambitions are significantly hobbled if not mortally weakened. No one got the post-Ottoman layout in the Middle East like Soleimani, wrote Hassan Hassan for Politico, and no one could have cobbled together the disparate non-state interests into such a potent political force. But that's not the Iranians' biggest problem at the moment. Soleimani engineered the wholesale violence unleashed by the regime against its dissidents in earlier protests as the economy soured, effectively keeping a lid on potential revolution. As Iranians now pour into the streets to demand change after the downing of a passenger jet — for which the Iranians first denied being responsible — the mullahs no doubt miss Soleimani's leadership.
If the Iranians decide to provoke a wider war with Trump, which is still a very significant risk even after the mild pinprick missile retaliation last week, the U.S. as its Great Satan would suffice as a rallying cry. Tehran has insisted its thirst for vengeance has not yet been slaked, although clearly it has other problems at hand at the moment. An outright war in the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf would not play to Trump's benefit, even if the Iranians were to explicitly launch it now.
It's also possible that the street protests might convince the Iranians to negotiate a face-saving way out of U.S. sanctions. The European partners to the Iran deal moved on Tuesday to start the dispute resolution process in claiming that Iran had stopped complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated with the Obama administration. That would eventually free the U.K., Germany, and France to apply their own sanctions on Iran and further destabilize the regime. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on Trump to lead a new round of negotiations.
This kind of foreign-policy success could succeed in improving Trump's electoral chances in November, especially if such an agreement could pave the way to an end of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, this would require dominoes to fall in a very specific pattern, and in a significantly short period of time. Otherwise, Iran and the U.S. are more likely to exchange retaliatory actions, at perhaps a lower level, leading to more worries of extending the American quagmire in the region, especially among Trump's non-interventionist base.
It's another wild card in a presidency that already has a surfeit of them as the election approaches. It's possible that Iran, more than Russia or Ukraine, will be the biggest influence on the 2020 contest. The safest way for Trump to cover that bet would be to take Iran off the table as an issue as quickly as possible.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.