For a president who professes aversion to wars in the Middle East, in ordering the killing of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, US President Donald Trump may have made an already slippery slope toward military conflict with Iran much more slippery. To be sure, it is easy for Trump to point out to the US public that Suleimani had much American blood on his hands, but that still doesn't mean that the public believes that it is in the best interest of their country to go to war.
A September 2019 University of Maryland poll of a nationally representative sample of 3,016 respondents shows the trouble Trump faces with US public opinion as the crisis with Iran escalates. There are three main takeaways: Three-quarters of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, say that war with Iran would be unwarranted; the public mostly blames the Trump administration for heightened tensions with Iran and disapproves of Trump's Iran policy, and Americans are deeply divided in assessing Trump's goals in Iran.
Overwhelmingly, the US public does not believe that US interests warrant war with Iran. Only about one-fifth of respondents say that their country "should be prepared to go to war" to achieve its goals with Iran, while three-quarters say that U.S. goals do not warrant it. Among Republicans, only 34 percent say that war should be on the table to protect US interests.
Even more worrying for Trump, roughly half the poll was conducted before the September 14 militant attacks on Saudi oil fields, which the United States pinned on Iran, and half was conducted after, providing an unusual window into public reaction. The attack had no impact on US public attitudes, with three-quarters continuing to say the war option is unwarranted. And there's reason to believe that the recent attack on the US Embassy in Iraq and the killing of Suleimani would have the same result.
An October University of Maryland poll probed four different possible explanations for the crisis with Iran: the nature of the Iranian regime; the war in Yemen; the US withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal; and the US imposition of new sanctions on Iran, including on its oil exports. The importance of each was probed separately, after which respondents were asked to rank these factors. The least popular options were the war in Yemen, which 5 percent blamed, and the nature of the Iranian regime, which 22 percent blamed. A greater 69 percent fault Trump administration policy, either his decision to withdraw from the Iran deal (35 percent) or the imposition of new sanctions (34 percent). Notably, 60 percent of Republicans attributed the crisis to Trump administration actions.
Disapproval of Trump's Iran policy rose from 51 percent before the attack on the Saudi oil fields to 57 percent after. One might expect a similar public reaction after the latest news events, given the public's aversion to war and apparent belief that early Trump policies are behind the escalation in the Persian Gulf.
In assessing the possible goals of Trump administration Iran policy, 30 percent (53 percent of Republicans) say the aim is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. A similar 28 percent (45 percent of Democrats) say the aim is undoing former US President Barack Obama's policy; 9 percent say Trump just wants to "look tough" at home; and 7 percent each say it's either to please Middle East allies or to change Iranian behavior.
The fact that the goal Republicans most cite for Trump's Iran policy is preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons could spell trouble ahead for the president, since Iran has been accelerating its nuclear program in recent months and is likely to move faster after Suleimani's killing. This polling suggests that an escalation between the United States and Iran that follows the killing of Suleimani will test Trump's approval among the US public. Of course, the president has demonstrated a superior ability to control the narrative, especially among his supporters. He'll surely be able to encourage some rallying around the flag. But the public's weariness of war is real—as are the costs in American blood that conflict with Iran would entail—and Trump's early actions in withdrawing from the Iran deal and tightening sanctions on Iran are seen by both Democrats and Republicans to be the real culprit in poor relations between the two countries. And the more Trump's policies are seen as dragging the United States toward confrontation with Iran, the more public opposition he'll face.