Iran Crisis Pushes Foreign Policy to Top of 2020 Election Debate

Democrats would be wise to communicate a clear alternative to Trump’s ‘America First’ policy in the Middle East.

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Published 14 January 2020 Updated 4 November 2020 2 minute READ

Lindsay Newman

Former Senior Research Fellow, US and the Americas Programme

Donald Trump speaks to the media in front of the White House on Monday. Photo: Getty Images.

Donald Trump speaks to the media in front of the White House on Monday. Photo: Getty Images.

Conventional wisdom says that foreign policy takes a backseat role in US elections. But last autumn’s Democratic primary debates suggest a potential shift is taking place in the conventional view. While healthcare dominated the discussion (Democrats attribute their 2018 midterm gains to the issue), through November foreign policy followed closely behind in second place in terms of minutes devoted to the discussion.

This trend is consistent with President Donald Trump’s America First approach to foreign policy, in which an eye is always kept on how decisions abroad play for the domestic audience. One former Trump administration official has called this dynamic the ‘recoupling’ of foreign policy with domestic policy.

The US–China trade conflict, which commanded headlines throughout 2019, is perhaps the best example of this recoupling, tying trade imbalances less with the geopolitical than with domestic impact on farmers. Immigration is another policy area in which Trump has linked domestic implications and indeed domestic opinion with foreign policy. It’s in the title: America First.

Now, for better or worse, the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s response and the subsequent fallout may make US foreign policy towards Iran and the US role in the Middle East a central issue for the 2020 US elections. As it comes just ahead of the Democratic presidential primaries, voters will be looking to the candidates to differentiate their foreign policy experience and proposals for America’s Middle East policy.

To President Donald Trump, Soleimani’s assassination represents a campaign promise kept to confront Iran’s aggression.

The Trump administration initially justified the action by citing intelligence of an imminent threat to US personnel and targets, but after Defense Secretary Mark Esper called this into question, Trump tweeted that ‘it doesn’t really matter because of [Soleimani’s] horrible past’. Ultimately, Trump’s message, on the campaign trail and any general debate stage he agrees to be on, is that he has overseen a new national security strategy for Iran.

Soleimani’s removal from the Iranian calculus is just a part of this broader policy, which also includes neutralizing the Iranian government’s destabilizing influence in the Middle East, denying Iran and especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ access to funding for its malign activities, and rallying the international community against domestic human rights violations and unjust detentions.

To counter Trump, Democrats and democratic presidential candidates would be best-served by offering a simple argument that too links domestic interests and foreign policy: the killing of Soleimani and Trump’s national security strategy for Iran have not made the US or its interests safer.

Iran’s ballistic missile attack on US forces in Iraq, which Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called a ‘slap in the face’ for the US, makes the risks to US assets and personnel abundantly clear. Even if Iran reverts entirely to covert, proxy efforts to counter US interests, the current US–Iran tensions remain unresolved and will likely continue to persist through the 2020 elections in November.

As a matter of the first order, Soleimani was replaced by his deputy Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani within a day of the former’s death, with Khamenei saying that the Quds Force will be ‘unchanged’.

At the second order, Iraq’s parliament voted in favour of a nonbinding resolution to rescind the invitation to US forces, which led Trump to threaten sanctions and demands for reimbursement. Whether US troops will ultimately leave Iraq (following a ‘mistaken’ report that the US was preparing to depart) remains to be seen, but the destabilization of the US military presence in Iraq fulfils a key Iranian objective.

In the interim, the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria fighting ISIS announced that it would at least temporarily cease its counterterrorism efforts to instead fortify its outposts and prepare for Iranian retaliation, opening a wider door for the resurgence of the terror group.

By arguing that the US, its troops and interest have not been made safer by Trump’s Middle East policy – from withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal to the imposition of a ‘maximum pressure campaign’ to Soleimani’s killing – Democrats will be able to point to every post-Soleimani US injury, death, regional terrorism attack, asset compromise, cyberattack and shipping disruption as evidence.

Democratic presidential candidates also ought to be explicit about how they plan to manage tensions with Iran – strategic, diplomatic and military – particularly their position on the future of the nuclear deal.

Iran has made clear that the path to de-escalation is through sanctions relief. Asserting leverage need not always involve taking away all of your counterparty’s options (‘maximum pressure’). It also involves knowing what your adversary wants (sanctions relief) and showing a willingness to offer it (especially where it means less to you) in exchange for something of greater worth (avoiding war/a non-nuclear Iran).

Clarity around future policy of a potential Democratic president may bring de-escalation forward in a way that Trump’s statement of Iran standing down are unlikely to do.