Trump's big risk on Iran showdown

Analysis: If the president is lucky, he'll avoid major casualties while fusing hawks and evangelicals in his own party. If he isn't, he risks consequences of blood and politics.

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has insisted that he seeks peace — not war — with Iran. His decision to kill Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran's Quds Forces, may have taken that choice out of his hands and given it to Tehran.

It has, at the very least, allowed Iran to pick the next time and target for an attack, leaving the U.S. and its allies holding their collective breath. The president further provoked Tehran by threatening 52 Iranian targets, including those of cultural significance, which would be in violation of international law.

"It may be that there's a little noise here in the interim, that the Iranians make a choice to respond," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in playing down possible retaliation Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I hope that they don't. President Trump has made clear what we will do in response if they do, that our response will be decisive and vigorous, just as it has been so far."

Pompeo, a soldier turned politician with ambitions for higher office, has been pushing Trump hard to escalate U.S. hostilities with Iran, which could invigorate both secular and religious wings of the party in advance of November's elections.

If Trump plays the high-stakes confrontation with Iran capably, he may fuse together the Republican Party's old-guard Iran hawks and its Israel-backing evangelical Christian elites while putting Democrats in the politically risky position of opposing a president's military decisions. But if he miscalculates — and that may have already happened — he runs the risk of exposing the U.S. and its allies to Iranian attacks, alienating voters who are wary and weary of war in the Middle East, further isolating the U.S. from important allies and lending credibility to Democrats who say he is a menace to American interests.

"If the president can rhetorically tie what’s happening with Iran to support for Israel, that will be important to getting overall support for his policies in the Middle East from his evangelical base," said Stephanie A. Martin, a professor of political communication at Southern Methodist University. "What Donald Trump can’t actually have is these voters deciding enough is enough [in the Middle East]. That’s the trigger he can’t actually have pulled. That’s not a really big risk, but it’s a risk."

Much of that will depend on the outcome of the showdown with Iran. And it all plays out as the Senate decides whether Trump should be removed from office and as he ramps up a re-election campaign that will rely on enthusiasm from his evangelical base and the support of swing voters who have been told by Democrats that his foreign policy creates more problems than it solves.

Franklin Raddish, a pastor from South Carolina and founder of Capitol Hill Independent Baptist Ministries, told NBC News he believes that the president has been patient and that the country does not want war but that "appeasement" won't work as a policy for countering Iran.

Trump and his lieutenants "cannot stand by while our nation is attacked, our people are killed and Iran just keeps getting emboldened to do these things," he said.

Raddish, like some evangelicals, sees "signs" in recent global turmoil that the apocalypse could be coming. "Nobody can predict when that will occur — certainly these things happening in the Middle East are some telltale signs of what may take place in the future," he said. "Only God knows that."

Pompeo told the Christian Broadcast Network last year that Trump might have been sent by God to help the Jewish people defeat Iran.

"As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible," he said then.

But Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who attended West Point together in the 1980s, are also members of a generation of U.S. veterans who came of age at a time when Iran was viewed, second to Russia, as a leading threat to the United States. Aside from selling arms to Iran to fund Nicaraguan contras, the Reagan administration provided massive aid to Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war in that decade, which followed the fall of the shah and the taking of American hostages in Iran during the Carter administration.

Pompeo and Esper are both part of the GOP's traditional pro-defense faction, which has seen some erosion in the form of elites parting ways with Trump over a series of behaviors and policies that have challenged longstanding bipartisan and international policy alliances.

Last April, Pompeo raised eyebrows in Congress when he told a House committee that he believed there were deep ties between Iran and al Qaeda, the group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist assault on the U.S. — a remark many viewed at the time as laying the predicate for Trump to launch a war against Iran without seeking a new authorization from Congress.

In a tweet Friday, Vice President Mike Pence, like Pompeo an evangelical Christian and a defense hawk, tried to link Soleimani to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., but provided no evidence to support his claim beyond the fact that some of the hijackers had traveled through Iran.

The furor over that line of thinking renewed over the weekend, as Democrats in the House prepared to introduce a resolution aimed at prohibiting a new war without an express endorsement from Capitol Hill. Republicans in the Senate said it would go nowhere.

John R. Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California, said the advisers around Trump may have complex rationales for teeing up decisions like the Soleimani assassination but the president himself may not be taking it all into account.

"I’m not sure that Trump’s calculations are super-sophisticated — I think his actions are driven by a desire to look tough, and that gives leverage to people like Pompeo who apparently has convinced him that this is a great way to look tough," Pitney said, noting that the tragic consequences of failure could be devastating for Trump politically, too.

"If this situation sours, the people who are going to be bleeding are the sons and daughters of Trump country," he said.