‘If Trump is re-elected there will be war’: How Iran’s response to US is shaped by American domestic politics

Analysis: Senior Iranian leaders know Trump is in political trouble, and have been keenly listening as Democrats seeking to replace him vow to restore the nuclear deal he rubbished, writes Borzou Daragahi

Iran’s calibrated early Wednesday morning response to the killing of a leading general in a United States airstrike suggests it is keenly aware of the domestic unpopularity and weaknesses of its primary adversary, Donald Trump, and is seeking to exploit American divisions to weaken Washington and help deliver a loss to the president in November.

In a rare direct attack on the US, Iran’s armed forces launched 22 cruise missile strikes against two bases that house American troops in Iraq.

But Trump said there were no US casualties, and Iranian officials have not warned of further attacks to avenge the killing of Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, instead reiterating calls for American troops to leave the Middle East.

The lack of US casualties offered Trump a path to slow down a snowballing descent towards armed conflict with Iran. It also prevents Americans generally hostile to the administration from rallying around the flag, as they do they at times of war.

Speaking from the White House on Wednesday, Trump said Iran appeared to be “standing down”.

“If Iran didn’t want to separate the American people from vicious [Donald Trump] it would have carried out a more deadly attack on US military bases,” writes Diako Hosseini, an adviser to the Tehran government and director of the World Studies Programme at the Centre for Strategic Studies, an Iranian think tank affiliated with the foreign ministry, following the Iranian missile attack.

“Iran’s controlled retaliation intended to avoid major casualties. He should appreciate Iran’s ultimate restraint.”

Strongly shaping the Iranian response, say experts, is a keen awareness of Trump’s domestic troubles as well as the extremist circle of Washington insiders who have his ear. Iranian officials are well aware of widespread concerns among the American public, lawmakers and foreign policy professionals about Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, which was conceived by a handful of Washington ideologues.

An Ipsos/Reuters poll this week showed 54 per cent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s Iran policy, with only 37 per cent approving it.

President Rouhani, in a speech hours after the Iranian airstrikes, suggested Trump killed Soleimani to divert attention from his domestic woes, voicing solidarity with those Americans opposed to the president.

“It is possible that this action was because of the internal issues and complications in the US and the White House, which will yield opposite results with the awareness of the American people and the public opinions of the world,” he said.

Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of the Iranian-aligned Lebanese armed group Hezbollah, cautioned supporters and loyalists in the aftermath of Soleimani’s 3 January killing that US civilians in the region “should not be touched” because this would serve Trump’s agenda.

Mohsen Rezaei, former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, also emphasised the target was the American government, not its people.

“They are trying to regularly message the various constituencies and political groups in the United States for their own purposes,” Sanam Vakil, an Iran specialist at Chatham House, tells The Independent.

“They’re messaging not just to the current administration but obviously to the Democratic candidates. They’re trying to assess US politics as they plan their next steps and look at the year.”

Iranians officials frequently alienate American citizens with ritualistic antics that include chanting “Death to America” or setting fire to US flags at rallies and even on the floor of parliament. Iran may still be planning covert attacks against US interests and allies that hurt America on the whole, giving Tehran a measure of plausible deniability.

But such provocative moves are not for a lack of understanding of America, where many senior members of Hassan Rouhani’s administration spent years studying and working.

Americans have no idea who the leaders of Iran’s various political factions are. But Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell – while not exactly household names – are regularly featured and quoted in the Iranian print and broadcast media as well as the ubiquitous online messaging channels that have become the staple of the Iranian media diet.

Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders’ strong anti-war messages have been featured in the Iranian media, as have reports of protests against Trump in the US.

Iranians know that Trump has been impeached by the US congress, and that world-famous celebrities regularly trash him on social media. How many Americans know that Iranian lawmakers are seeking to impeach Rouhani’s ministers of oil, interior and education?

When Misha Collins, a Hollywood television actor, tweeted in Persian to disavow Trump’s threats against Iranian cultural sites, his comments were widely reported in the Persian-language media, including conservative outlets.

Trump’s polling numbers and surveys indicating public disapproval of his Iran policy are regularly reported on state media outlets. Senior Iranian leaders know Trump is in political trouble, and have been keenly listening as Democrats seeking to replace him vow to restore the nuclear deal he rubbished and resume some semblance of diplomatic ties with Iran.

“There’s a perception in Iran that the Democrats and perhaps other western countries are working to make sure Trump is not re-elected,” says Mahdi Khalil, a political analyst in Tehran. “If he’s re-elected there will definitely be a war.”

Though Iran and the US don’t have embassies in each others’ nations, Iran’s foreign ministry and embassies regularly follow events in the US through media, and other channels.

Footage purports to show Iranian missiles being fired at US bases in Iraq

Iran’s US-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, became such an effective communicator during meetings with lawmakers, presidential candidates and policy specialists during his visits to the US that the Trump administration designated him as a terrorist last year, and recently banned him from a UN meeting in violation of the organisation’s 1947 charter.

“Iranians do very much care about US domestic politics,” says Vakil. “They know they have supporters and interlocutors ready to translate their signals to the Democrats, to the opposition.”

Through the media and through intermediaries, Iranians have also been seeking to sway Trump to switch course. Zarif, tweeting in English, warns of US casualties in any war with Iran and regularly trashes those advising him on Middle East policy by name, saying a war with Iran will cost him re-election, just as some rightwing pundits in the US like Tucker Carlson have cautioned.

“All of this points to an understanding that Trump doesn’t have an Iran strategy, and that he can switch positions rapidly based on what people around him say,” says Alex Vatanka, an Iran specialist at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “If they chose to hit bases in Iraq and minimise American casualties, that to me shows a degree of understanding of US politics, and a desire not to escalate that people not interested in a big war should welcome.”

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