Donald Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein

The economy, not foreign policy, is usually a major issue in presidential elections, when the party out of power sees a chance to replace the president. 2020 may be different because the economy is strong and the Iran crisis may dominate the Democrats’ drive to recapture the White House.

The emotional and political explosion that occurred in the Middle East after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani triggered retaliation against U.S. Iraqi airbases by missiles fired from Iran. Unless the confrontation is contained, escalating violence could impact the U.S. homeland through cyber attacks and threaten U.S. military and diplomatic personnel stationed abroad.

Precisely 40 years ago, another presidential election was deeply affected by Iran’s behavior. Government supporters invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held captive 52 American diplomatic personnel for 14 months. President Jimmy Carter lost his reelection bid largely because of inability to secure the release of U.S. personnel. Many said it was an act of war.

Earlier, in 1952, the Republican Party, with Dwight Eisenhower as candidate, exploited public frustration over the brutal Korean War to win the White House for the first time since 1932.

Eight years later, in 1960, John Kennedy portrayed the Eisenhower administration as “tired old men” who needed to give way to young, vigorous leaders like him. It succeeded until he and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, plunged the country into a disastrous war in Vietnam. The election of 1968 is the most dramatic case where foreign policy dominated the campaign. It also brought Richard Nixon to the presidency.

Some critics charged that President Trump decided to kill Soleimani in order to deflect public attention from an impending impeachment trial in the Senate. That charge is now moot because the tensions in Iraq and Iran are so dangerous. With the Iranian public fully united behind its government, the Iran crisis may persist into the summer and dominate U.S. politics.

A key question in this unfolding Persian Gulf drama is what now happens in Iraq. The United States, beginning in 2003, staked its Middle East strategy on building an independent Iraqi state that’s strong enough politically and economically to stand against the growing power of its menacing neighbor, Iran. Washington spent billions of dollars in economic and military assistance to help build a fledging democratic government that had no experience with free elections.

It was another U.S. experiment in nation-boding that hadn’t succeeded. Now the Iraqi parliament voted tentatively to force American troops out of the country, as public outrage over the killing of Soleimani in Baghdad boiled over.

The Trump administration has, in my view, three reasonable options on how to proceed in relations with both Iraq and Iran: (1) Wait and see what actions they take; (2) Quietly open preliminary talks with Tehran to see what flexibility its government shows in potential negotiations; or (3) Use naval power in the Persian Gulf to prevent Iran from interfering with continued free flow of oil to world markets.

» Wait and see. We don’t know for now how far the Iraqi government will go to press for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from its territory. It will take weeks, perhaps months, to find a new government to replace Prime Minister Mahdi who says he will leave office. The economic fallout in the country could be severe if international groups pull out of Iraq and the U.S. imposes sanctions on its export of oil. In Tehran, its government will need time to deal with the political fallout of Soleimani’s death, because he was a close adviser to supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Wait and see also assumes that the foreign minister spoke for the government when he said after the missile attack on U.S. bases that Iran did not want an escalation of attacks.

» Open talks with Iran. President Trump told the world in his address last week that the U.S. will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. The U.S. needs to learn if Iran’s current regime has flexibility on this demand. Similarly, Trump made clear that the U.S. will demand that Iran must rein in the terrorist al-Quds Force that Soleimani headed for nearly 20 years supporting proxy forces in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and especially Iraq. It was this force that the 2013 nuclear deal negotiated by President Obama failed to address and allowed Soleimani’s forces to operate across the Middle East. Could Iran agree to this restriction without upsetting the balance of political power within its regime? It’s a key issue in any negotiation with Iran.

» Use naval forces in the Persian Gulf. Although Iran’s government wants to avoid escalation with the U.S., it will continue to harass shipping in the Persian Gulf so long as economic sanctions seriously harm its economy. Its negotiators will want to tie relaxation to harassment of shipping to a reduction in U.S. sanctions. But if Tehran increases the number of attacks by its fleet of fast gunboats, the U.S. fleet in the Gulf has the capability to hit the ports where these craft are located or blockade them if necessary. This is less dangerous than the missile attack on U.S. installations, and it would demonstrate Washington’s seriousness in preventing Iran from forcing the U.S. and its allies out of the Persian Gulf.

It is time for sober reflection in Tehran and Washington on how far either side can be forced to compromise with what it considers its vital interests.

Nuechterlein is a political scientist and author who lives near Charlottesville. He writes an occasional column on politics and foreign policy for the Register & Bee. E-mail him at

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