WASHINGTON — Exactly a week ago, it looked as if the United States and Iran were about to embark on a direct military conflict. A stream of Iranian provocations, which peaked with the shooting down of a U.S. military drone last Thursday, led U.S. President Trump to approve military strikes against the Islamic Republic — something that has not happened in decades.
Trump aborted those strikes just minutes before they were supposed to take place, but the situation between the two countries remains tense. The Trump administration is continuing its “pressure campaign” against Tehran, using sanctions to hurt the Iranian economy.
It has been more than a year since Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The Iranians, meanwhile, have recently upped their production of enriched uranium and will soon pass the permitted threshold according to the deal, thereby officially violating it.
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This crisis is being affected by multiple actors in Washington, Tehran and around the world. Here are some of the most important American names involved in the ongoing escalation, which is far from over — and could lead either to new negotiations between Iran and the Trump administration, or to a new U.S. war in the Middle East.
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The U.S. president is caught between two different segments of his political base when it comes to Iran.
One section of Trump’s coalition is the Christian right, which is made up mostly of evangelical Christians who support a confrontational policy against Tehran. Evangelical leaders were urging then-President George W. Bush to start a war with Iran a decade ago and were some of the harshest critics of President Barack Obama’s attempts to reach an agreement with the Iranians. They applauded Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal in May 2018, and would undoubtedly get behind him if a new conflict broke out tomorrow.
But just like the evangelical vote is crucial for Trump’s reelection next year, so is the support of isolationist right-wingers who are tired of American involvement in the Middle East. They supported Trump in the 2016 election due to his criticism of the Iraq War and his pledges not to embark on any more “stupid wars.”
Trump is walking a thin line between these two constituencies, trying to please the evangelicals with tough rhetoric and sanctions on Iran, but also to keep the isolationists happy by not heading into an all-out military confrontation.
Mike Pompeo and John Bolton
Two of the president’s closest advisers have both advocated a tough line against Iran for a decade. Pompeo, the secretary of state who was previously Trump’s CIA director, laid out a list of 12 demands that Iran would have to accept in order to reach a new deal with the United States; these were rejected by Tehran.
Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, was advocating “regime change” in Tehran, by force, just months before he was recruited to the White House. Both of them advocated for the military strikes that Trump approved and then canceled last week.
Bolton and Pompeo also have the support of Vice President Mike Pence — Trump’s point man for the Christian right, of which he is himself a member. These three very senior advisers are influencing the president’s confrontational rhetoric toward Iran.
Earlier during the Trump presidency, these voices were countered by those of more moderate advisers such as then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster. Now there are no such moderates left inside the administration.
Netanyahu, MBS and MBZ
Three Middle Eastern leaders who enjoy a close personal relationship with Trump are loving his tough stance toward Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is very popular with Trump’s evangelical base, has made Iran the center of his political platform for more than a decade now — and he hasn’t missed an opportunity over the past year to thank the American president for withdrawing from the Iran deal and placing new sanctions on Tehran.
The two Gulf crown princes — Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and the United Arab Emirates’ Mohammed bin Zayed — are less vocal and public than Netanyahu (and nowhere near as popular as he is among Republicans). But they are also using their influence in Washington to encourage Trump’s current Iran policy.
MBS has compared modern-day Iran to Nazi Germany, and the Emiratis, who have one of the most efficient lobbying arms in D.C., are pushing for ever more pressure on the Iranians. So far, they are succeeding.
The missing defense secretary
Amid the never-ending stream of Trump scandals and outrages, it is easily overlooked that while the United States is on the verge of a confrontation with Iran, it has not had a full-time, Senate-approved secretary of defense for all of 2019. The last man to hold that title, Gen. Jim Mattis, resigned last December over Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. Ever since then, there have been two acting defense secretaries (basically, interim appointments not approved by the Senate).
This situation has given more power to the Bolton-Pompeo-Pence axis and weakened the influence of the Pentagon over the decision-making process.
Former acting secretary Patrick Shanahan stepped aside last week amid reports about a domestic violence incident within his family. He has just been replaced by Mark Esper, a former vice president of government relations at the weapons manufacturer Raytheon.
The Republican Party is split on Trump’s Iran policy. GOP voters in general have a negative view of Iran, but that doesn’t mean the party is united on the matter.
One prominent senator, Tom Cotton (Arkansas), was urging Trump to approve airstrikes against Iran even before the Iranians shot down the U.S. drone last week. He has described Iran’s attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf as an attack on American interests, stating that Trump does not need approval from Congress to respond with military force.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), another leading voice within the party on foreign policy and national security, has been supportive of Trump’s steps thus far. He was preparing the ground for support of a military strike last week by saying: “Here’s what Iran needs to get ready for: Severe pain inside their country. If they’re itching for a fight, they’re gonna get one.”
Graham, it should be noted, has been critical of one aspect of Trump’s foreign policy that isn’t directly related to Iran, but is close enough to influence the Iran issue: The president’s total and unquestioning support for Saudi Arabia. Graham joined a bipartisan effort in the Senate to stop weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and has been very critical of Crown Prince Mohammed over his use of torture and murder of political enemies.
But while the administration’s Iran hawks can count on the support of senators like Cotton and Graham, they are having a hard time with the most prominent isolationist voice within the party: Sen. Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator has a good relationship with Trump and has been urging him to stay true to his election promise of not starting new wars in the Middle East.
Paul, together with veteran Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), has also joined a group of Democratic senators in demanding that Trump not take any military action against Iran without first seeking congressional approval.
Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham
For Trump, everything ultimately boils down to one question: “How does this affect my reelection prospects?” If Trump loses the 2020 election, he could face significant legal troubles on several fronts. Winning next year is not only a political question for him, it’s also one of personal survival.
That is why Trump was reportedly very attentive to the blunt warnings issued by two popular Fox News hosts last week that a new war in the Middle East would hurt his chances of reelection.
Carlson, a rare isolationist voice in the hawkish Fox News universe, has been making this argument not only on his show but also in private conversations with Trump, according to recent press reports.
Ingraham, for her part, laid this argument out on her show last week when she said: “The only obstacles that I see to Trump’s winning in 2020 are, one, an economic collapse; and two, a new American war. Whatever response America is mulling, we must be wary of doing anything that will draw us into another long-term conflict in the region.”
Trump has many different voices in his ear when it comes to Iran. Bolton and Pompeo have had a great influence on his policy so far. But last week, when the military strike was about to happen, the voices that mattered most seemed to be those of Carlson and Ingraham.