Iran has broken an American president before. In 1979, Iranians under the aegis of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stormed the US embassy in Tehran, taking 52 diplomats hostage.
All of president Jimmy Carter’s efforts to free the hostages failed, including a rescue mission in April 1980, when some of the aircrew were killed and the desert aircraft wreckage was a stain on the US military. The US's humiliation in Iran was a major factor in Carter’s defeat that November.
Iran deliberately waited until Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the new president on January 20, 1981, with Carter truly gone, to free the hostages after 444 days in captivity.
Last week, after an Iranian-supported attack on the US embassy in Baghdad that threatened hundreds of Americans, Trump ordered the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, the second most revered leader in Iran after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The killing was brutally executed, and it rocked the world.
The mirror of such a kill operation against the US would be if Iran had successfully eliminated the secretary of defence and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What would any president, not just Trump, do if faced with such a provocation, which many view as an act of war?
The scale and scope of Iran’s revenge and how the US absorbs and responds to it will shape to some degree the outcome of the presidential election.
Trump’s foreign policy, from his inaugural address, is “America First”: an aggressive assertion of national self-interest, of nativism and protectionism, of America’s retreat from the commitments and alliances built after World War II, of unilateralism to advance America’s (and Trump’s) priorities above all others. And with respect to the Middle East, to end the “endless wars” that have consumed American troops and treasure for 18 years and counting.
Trump’s order to kill Soleimani together with the operation in October that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are bookends of a new assertiveness after Trump waffled on Iran’s attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, the shooting down of a US drone, and attacks on oil fields of Saudi Arabia, a major US ally.
Trump’s most ambitious foreign policy initiatives have involved Iran and North Korea. Trump tore up Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, and imposed punishing sanctions designed to force Iran into accepting a more comprehensive deal. With North Korea, Trump started his love affair with Kim Jong-un, again imposing the most punitive sanctions to bring Kim’s nuclear ambitions to an end.
Both of these initiatives have failed. In the wake of the US attack, Iran has announced its breakout from any restraints on its nuclear development. And Kim has signalled the unveiling of a new nuclear strategic capability that can reach US territory.
For all the military strikes and the televised diplomacy that Trump has engineered, the trend towards regional war in the Middle East and a nuclear confrontation with North Korea comes at a moment of vulnerability for Trump at home.
The Iran crisis erupted within days of a Senate trial over his impeachment. Whether Trump likes it or not, everything he does now is taken in the context of impeachment. Indeed, Trump’s contempt for the Democrats bringing on impeachment clearly blocked the customary briefing of their leadership at moments of national peril. The partisanship in Washington is beyond poisonous.
Impeachment represents weakness and ridicule for the President, especially in foreign policy. Up and down Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC, ambassadors are sending cables back to their capitals handicapping Trump’s prospects. Those cables alone mean that Trump is weaker today than he was in August. And behind every cable is ridicule over the indignity to the Commander-in-Chief.
So, in a time of weakness, show strength and leadership: In 1998, Bill Clinton bombed Iraq as the House prepared to impeach. In 1974, Richard Nixon went on a triumphant tour of Egypt to champion Middle East peace two months before resigning. It is the same playbook for Trump: Take out Soleimani. Sign the US-China trade agreement in the White House as the Senate sits in judgment of Trump. Respond in kind to any threats from Kim. We will see more of this.
The President acted against Iran one month before the first Democratic presidential primary in Iowa. The Democrats, from Bernie Sanders on the left to Joe Biden on the right, want to capitalise on fears among many of a president who acts recklessly, impulsively and with no ability to execute a strategic foreign policy.
Their strong sense is of an American people who do not want to go to war with Iran, and that Trump’s bringing American closer to war with Iran is both wrong and decidedly unpopular. Their message: restore sanity, defeat Trump.
Iran’s retaliation, when it comes – and it will, and it will be designed in part to destroy Trump at home – will be priced into this mix of impeachment and the ultimate emergence of the Democratic candidate.
We will know only on November 3, when the American people render their verdict on Trump, whether Iran has again worked to end the career of another American president.