Donald Trump has a full foreign policy plate these days—for starters, trade tensions with India and much of the world, the on-again and now off-again nuclear negotiations with North Korea, and his paradoxical relationship with Russia.
But keep an eye on Iran—more specifically, for President Trump to ramp up high profile pressure on the Islamic Republic, and even stumble into a war with it. Trump could trigger a confrontation and possible conflagration as part of desperate attempt to save his presidency.
Why the desperation? Three forces are increasingly threatening to undo the president.
First, there are the U.S. congressional elections on November 6. Polls show that the opposition Democrats will likely win control of the House of Representatives. That victory could in turn lead to his impeachment—resulting in a Senate trial to remove him from office— and numerous other politically damaging investigations of possibly corrupt and sordid administration activities.
Second, there’s Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 Trump presidential campaign’s possible collusion with Russia. That inquiry has picked up momentum over the past month, with the conviction of former campaign manager Paul Manafort for financial fraud. Equally important, Trump attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to numerous charges stemming from such activities as paying off a porn star to keep her affair with Trump secret before the 2016 election.
These developments could lead to these one-time Trump allies providing evidence against him in order to secure better treatment from Mueller, increasing the chances of impeachment by the House and— though at the moment it seems unlikely—even conviction by the Senate.
Finally, there is Trump himself as his own worst enemy alienating those around him, as indicated by rather amazing revelations aired by America’s two leading newspapers this week. Tuesday brought word of legendary Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward’s scalding, upcoming book on the Trump presidency, complete with quotations of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly calling him “unhinged” and Secretary of Defense James Mattis likening him to “a fifth- or sixth-grader.”
Then, an unprecedented New York Times opinion piece by an anonymous “senior official in the Trump administration” revealed that many of Trump’s top aides disdain his “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective” leadership style and work to protect the country from his “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions.”
Early in the administration, some such officials even contemplated invoking the U.S. Constitution’s 25th Amendment, which provides for removal of a president unable to carry out his duties.
What does all this have to do with Iran?
If Donald Trump is good at anything, it is altering the focus of public attention through a tweet, an announcement or a policy move. The threat of impeachment or a 25th Amendment removal from office would find him desperate to change the subject.
There is no better way to do that than the threat or even reality of war, so that it dominates the news and rallies Americans around the flag—and around the president. Taking on Iran presents an ideal confluence of that political imperative and a Trump foreign policy priority.
As for the foreign policy, Trump and his more hawkish advisors seem eager to confront Iran. An August article in Foreign Affairs bewails “Trump’s Dangerous Obsession With Iran.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted the country’s leaders in a July 22 speech. National Security Advisor John Bolton was not only a pivotal influence in the U.S. withdrawing from its 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in May; for years he has called for regime change there and has even suggested it should happen this year.
This is where dangerous obsessions, mercurial decision-making and domestic political necessity could come together for Trump: Iran fits the bill as a distracting menace in a number of ways. Of course, there’s the historical enmity between the two countries, dating back to the 1979 seizure of U.S. embassy personnel as hostages in Tehran. Today, Iran is butting heads across the Middle East with the United States and its allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s political value to Trump extends much further, however. As an adversarial, Muslim nation, it appeals to his ability to expand and exploit many Americans’ nativist impulses and fears of terrorism. Trump has already manipulated those impulses repeatedly, by imposing a travel ban on visitors from certain Islamic nations and by falsely claiming that on September 11, 2001 thousands of Muslims near New York City celebrated the World Trade Center attacks.
In other words, Iran fits perfectly into his narrative about why America needs him to guard against dangerous foreigners who would do it harm.
None of this is to suggest that Trump would order a full-scale attack on Iran out of the blue, or perhaps even any attack at all. More likely, he would ramp up tensions to gain popular backing in any number of ways: accusing Iran of re-starting its nuclear programme for instance, and taking headline-grabbing counter-measures. There might then be increased U.S. naval patrols in the Persian Gulf or other escalating pressure.
We could simultaneously see increased animosity from the other side, as hardliners gain greater ascendancy in Tehran—ironically, partly because Trump undercut President Hassan Rouhani’s relatively moderate regime there by scuttling the nuclear deal.
Regardless, the upshot would be a situation in which miscalculation, miscommunication or misunderstanding could spark a confrontation. And once shots are fired, the momentum of battle or the influence of Pompeo and Bolton could escalate matters quickly.
Trump’s and the Republican Party’s argument would be that we must be united against Iran, so we must not be divided at home. Drop impeachment. Rally around the flag.
Even if hostilities end or public support fades after a few weeks, months or years, for Trump there’s always the next conflict, the next distraction.
And what if America then remains stuck with an “unhinged” president presiding over a confrontation that triggers massive strategic and economic shock waves?
For Trump, that would precisely be the point.
Stephen J. Golub
(Stephen J. Golub is a widely recognized international development scholar and consultant with more than 25 years of experience in over 40 countries spanning the globe. Mr. Golub has: led major multi-country studies and otherwise worked with numerous multilateral and bilateral agencies, foundations, policy institutes and nongovernmental organizations; taught at several leading universities; and contributed commentary to various media outlets concerning U.S. and international affairs.)