What the Iran Clash Taught Us About Trump

As the president flirts with a new war in the Middle East, understanding his mind-set is essential.

Donald Trump is seen on a television screen in the Pentagon briefing room as he delivers a statement about Iran at the White House. (Alexander Drago / Reuters)

For now, President Donald Trump seems to have sidestepped an all-out war with Iran, opting instead for an uneasy standoff. The question is whether it will hold.

Since the launch of his campaign, Trump’s foreign-policy vision has never gone much deeper than simple sloganeering: No endless wars! America first! Following the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani and the resulting tension with Iran, though, we have more clarity on what drives Trump as commander in chief, and what sort of wartime president he’d make.

Here are three lessons to draw from his handling of the Iran situation so far.

Trump has a red line

In May, Trump threatened Iran with annihilation if it “wanted to fight.” That was only bluster. A month later, Iran downed an unarmed U.S. drone. Trump ordered an armed counterattack—then abruptly called it off.

What he wouldn’t overlook, however, was an American fatality. On December 27, an American contractor was killed inside a military base in Iraq. Nawres Hamid, who was 33, died in a rocket attack launched by an Iranian-backed militia group. Two days after the assault, U.S. warplanes bombed five sites in Iraq and Syria tied to the militia group, Kataib Hezbollah, resulting in 25 deaths.

Not lost on Trump is the 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Benghazi! has been a longtime rallying cry for Trump and his fellow Republicans who saw the tragedy as a symbol of President Barack Obama’s fecklessness and then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s unfitness for higher office. “Don’t let Obama get away with allowing Americans to die,” Trump tweeted on the eve of the 2012 presidential election, two months after the Benghazi attack. “Kick him out of office tomorrow.”

Now up for reelection, Trump believes that he can’t tolerate a Benghazi of his own, people close to the president told me. They said the president felt the need to avenge Hamid’s death.

“People underestimate the death of the American contractor,” Christopher Ruddy, a friend of Trump, told me. “Donald Trump might feel sympathy if 100 people die, but if they’re not American, in his mind it’s not his problem. He does not like to have Americans dying on his watch.”

Richard Goldberg, who until recently served in the White House as a National Security Council official responsible for countering Iran’s weapons program, told me: “If you look at the president’s views and the direction he’s given, along with the personnel he’s put in place, the attitude is, We’ll never have another Benghazi.”

There were no fatalities as a result of the missile attacks that Iran launched this week at air bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday that he believed Iran had indeed “intended to kill personnel” and that there weren’t any casualties, thanks to the defensive measures taken by U.S. forces. In a televised appearance yesterday morning, Trump signaled that he would refrain from further action against Iran in the near term. Had any Americans been killed, Trump likely would have launched a retaliatory strike that would have pushed the two countries closer to conventional war.

When the enemy goes low, Trump’s instinct is to go low

In a tweet Saturday, Trump wrote that the United States had devised 52 Iranian targets. The number was an eye-for-eye approach, nodding to the hostage crisis of 1979, when Iranian demonstrators stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held captive 52 Americans for 444 days. The idea came from Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, who earlier served as the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs, a White House aide told me.

In that same tweet, Trump also revealed that in a war, he wouldn’t spare Iran’s cultural treasures. They’d also be targeted, he warned. That’s forbidden. The U.S. is bound by a 1954 international treaty that calls for the protection of cultural property during wartime. Given a full day to think about the unlawful threat he’d just made, and perhaps to reconsider whether preserving invaluable artifacts might be worthy of a great nation, Trump went all in. “They’re allowed to kill our people,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One during a flight back to Washington from Palm Beach, Florida, on Sunday. “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”

Two days later, facing opposition that stretched from the Pentagon to his own party’s leadership on Capitol Hill, Trump folded. “I like to obey the law,” he told reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday. Kelly Magsamen, a national-security official in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, told me that Trump’s interest in targeting Iranian cultural sites did not come from the Department of Defense. “Where is that coming from? Is that coming from a political adviser? From the latest person he spoke to at Mar-a-Lago?” she asked rhetorically. “I worked at the Pentagon. Any U.S. soldier—all the way down to a private, all the way up to four-star general—would know that’s violation of international law. And it’s un-American.”

I’ve spent the past several days trying to learn where the idea originated. One Trump-administration official told me that the news media were the ones who used the term cultural sites, not the president. I reminded this person that Trump had specifically used the term twice in two days. “Did he?” came the response.

I asked White House officials about another idea floated to me: whether Trump’s intention was more specific, to target political monuments; they did not confirm that it aligned with Trump’s intention.

I posed the cultural-sites question to Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump confidant who was briefed in advance on the Soleimani drone strike during a golf trip with the president at Mar-a-Lago over the holidays. Graham told me that he didn’t know where Trump got the idea.“I understand it’s an emotional time and he wants to create maximum deterrence. In my view, this doesn’t create deterrence. The goal is to divide the Iranian people from the regime. They’re already divided. I wouldn’t want to do anything to unite them.”

A former White House official, who, after insisting that no one in the national-security establishment could possibly have advised the president to demolish, say, the ruins of Persepolis, told me: “I know the man well enough to know that’s something he dreamed up all by himself.”

If Barack Obama did x, Trump will do y

Listening to the president’s 10-minute address at the White House yesterday, a non-Iranian foe seemed to be on his mind: Barack Obama.

Since inauguration weekend 2017, a guiding principle of Trump’s White House has been, simply: If Obama did it, undo it. Trump devoted part of his speech yesterday to denouncing one of the signature foreign-policy moves of the Obama administration: a deal with Iran aimed at curbing the regime’s nuclear-weapons program. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement in 2018, even though his own administration had deemed Iran to have complied with its terms.

In his remarks, Trump called the agreement “foolish” and “very defective,” and then gave a distorted account of its terms. He said, for example, that the Obama administration had “given” Iran $150 billion as part of the deal. In fact, the money came from Iran regaining its own assets, which had been frozen. Trump also claimed that the missiles fired by Iran were financed “with the funds made available by the last administration.” That baseless assertion implies that if Americans are killed by Iranian attacks, Obama has blood on his hands.

Having undermined Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, Trump has yet to put forward a concrete plan to replace it. He opened his speech by declaring that Iran would never get a nuclear weapon on his watch. But negating Obama’s work isn’t a strategy to bring that about; it’s a tactic to tarnish his legacy.