The United States killed a top-level Iranian military leader in Iraq early Friday local time, and the questions on everyone’s mind are: Are we now at war? What happens next? And what is President Trump prepared to do?
The decision to take out the powerful military commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, was a huge one. Reporting suggests he is indispensable to Iran-backed forces across the Middle East, and the move will be seen as a remarkable escalation of tensions between Iran and the United States — even after supporters of an Iranian-backed militia stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad this week. Iran has responded to the Trump administration’s pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and implementing heavy sanctions with increasing provocations, and Trump has now lodged a major response.
We can say two things about Trump in this moment:
- He has shown a real reluctance as president to remain bogged down in the Middle East, and that has even been the case with regard to Iran. In June, for example, after Iran shot down a U.S. drone, he canceled a planned military strike on Iran at the last minute.
- He has otherwise telegraphed a very hawkish approach to Iran over the past four decades — and on many occasions, conspicuously suggested war there might help his predecessor get elected. That tough rhetoric increasingly looms over what he may feel is necessary now.
I ran through Trump’s past commentary on Iran in the summer of 2018, which was one of the many times when he used very threatening language with Iran.
His earliest recorded comments about Iran were in 1980, when he said the United States should have gone in militarily to free those held in the Iranian hostage crisis and maybe even go further.
“I absolutely feel that [the U.S. should have sent troops], yes,” Trump told gossip columnist Rona Barrett. “I don’t think there’s any question, and there is no question in my mind. I think right now we’d be an oil-rich nation, and I believe that we should have done it, and I’m very disappointed that we didn’t do it, and I don’t think anybody would have held us in abeyance.”
Trump added: “That would have been the easiest victory we would have ever won, in my opinion.”
In 2011, Trump reinforced that military action should always be an option when it came to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — but emphasized that it should be a last resort.
“I would never take the military card off the table, and it’s possible that it will have to be used, because Iran cannot have nuclear weapons,” Trump said in a November 2011 video from his office. “But you’ve got to exhaust other possibilities.”
In 2012, he said Iran would be easy to negotiate with because they know “we could blow them away to the Stone Age.” But he added, in comments that perhaps resonate today, that “they just don’t believe we would.”
In 2013, he suggested attacking Iran instead of getting involved in Syria, saying, “maybe we should knock the hell out of Iran and their nuclear capabilities?”
It was in this same window that Trump began trafficking in his theory that President Barack Obama would go to war with Iran for the purposes of rallying public opinion and getting reelected — comments that will lead to plenty of theorizing about Trump’s own motivations now that he’s in a reelection year. Trump said it repeatedly and even held on to the idea that Obama would go to war after Obama was reelected.
“Our president will start a war with Iran because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate,” Trump said in a 2011 video blog. “He’s weak, and he’s ineffective. So the only way he figures that he’s going to get reelected — as sure as you’re sitting there — is to start a war with Iran."
More examples from before the 2012 election:
It continued after the election, with Trump adjusting Obama’s supposed motivation:
Since becoming president, Trump has repeatedly used tough rhetoric about Iran, putting it “ON NOTICE,” saying he wouldn’t be as “kind” as Obama was. In perhaps his most hawkish comments, Trump sent an ALL CAPS tweet in June 2018 warning Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
At the same time, it’s not clear how familiar Trump is with what has happened in the country. In a 2015 interview with Hugh Hewitt, for example, Trump didn’t appear to be familiar with the Quds Force, Iran’s special foreign operations unit that Soleimani led, mixing it up with the Kurds. Trump also asked for more information on Soleimani.
“Are you familiar with Gen. Soleimani?” Hewitt asked.
“Yes, but go ahead, give me a little — go ahead, tell me,” Trump said. “The Kurds, by the way, have been horribly mistreated by …”
Hewitt corrected Trump that he was talking about the Quds Force. “Not the Kurds, the Quds Forces, the Iranian revolutionary Quds Forces,” Hewitt said. “The bad guys.”
Hewitt went on to describe Soleimani, to which Trump responded: “Is he the gentleman going back and forth with Russia, meeting with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin? I read something, and that seems to be also where he’s at.”
However much Trump knows about Iran now that he’s president, though, the fact remains that he’s in the driver’s seat. And, given his past comments, it’s evident that he views tough talk as necessary to keep Iran in line: If they don’t fear you, they won’t respect you, and you won’t have the upper hand. The flip side of that is if they try to call your bluff. Through provocations, Iran has apparently pushed Trump toward feeling as though he has to make good on his threats — or at least send a strong signal that he’s willing to go there.
That doesn’t mean Trump is eager for war — and his recent withdrawal announcements about Syria suggest he is indeed trying to get out of the Middle East, even over strenuous objections from those around him. But in the end, what we have is a president who has repeatedly written a check with his mouth, and the bill appears to be coming due.