Soon after the American airstrikes killed Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani in Iraq, Tehran leaders vowed to attack U.S. military bases and service members. In his response, President Donald Trump threatened to target fifty-two Iranian assets, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sites in the Islamic Republic. The number was a reference to the fifty-two American hostages held in Iran during the 1979 revolution.
As both domestic and international hostilities against Trump began to multiply, he backed down on his initial threats and somewhat retracted his war rhetoric. In his first public appearance since giving the order to assassinate the general from his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, Pastor Paula White—Trump’s favorite televangelist and newest White House aide—gathered a group of evangelical Christians at the King Jesus International Ministry in Miami. There, the president singled out the two Democrat congresswomen—Somali-American Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Palestinian-American Rashida Tlabi of Michigan—denouncing that they “hate” Jewish people and then claimed God is “on our side.”
Invoking God is “on our side” is heretical and diametrically opposed to the traditional Christian faith; the true believers always want to be “on God’s side.” For the die-hard evangelical Christian base of supporters and financiers, Trump is the champion of their religious faith. Their political and religious agenda is cleverly shrouded in the Prosperity Gospel of health and wealth creation. For them, the genuine practice of the Christian teachings of Jesus Christ rests somewhere else. These so-called Christians, for instance, go to church to meet Jesus Christ but they seem to follow the “accidental” president, who was not elected by the majority of popular votes but chosen by the electoral college system. Despite the absence of any evidence of Christian and American values, this cohort of Christian nativists has come to consider the highly divisive leader as their “savior” even though he started his disruptive presidency with the banning of Muslim immigrants from select Arab countries, building a wall on the Mexican border, and decrying people of color and disability as well as any foreign nation or ally he disliked.
When Trump decided to abandon America’s Kurdish allies fighting to defeat ISIS in Syria and allowed Turkish forces to threaten them, Reverend Pat Robertson—the ninety-year-old patriarch among the influential televangelists and the founder of Christian Broadcasting Network—was enraged over Trump’s decisions. He highly criticized Trump and called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a “thug.” In his weekly 700 Club television show on Oct. 7, 2019, he decried that “the president of the United States is in danger of losing the Mandate of Heaven if he permits this to happen.” Using the phrase “Mandate of Heaven” by a Christian is unprecedented but seemingly purposeful in the prevailing global geopolitical environment.
The Mandate of Heaven or Tianming is an ancient Chinese political and religious doctrine. It justifies the rule of the emperor according to the natural order of the moral universe and the supreme will of the celestial power. If an emperor was unfit to govern, calamities ensued, and the mandate was withdrawn with the appropriate justice of reward and revenge. Reverend Robertson’s subtle use of the Chinese phrase was to send a coded message, which other American leaders often referred to as “Providence” or “Nature’s God” as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
In her closing statement of Trump’s impeachment inquiry, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, “In signing the Declaration of Independence, our founders invoked a firm reliance on Divine Providence.” She then added, “Democrats, too, are prayerful, and we will proceed in a manner worthy of our oath of office to support and defend the constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic, so help us God.” It was an authentic Christian and American narrative that would contrast with Trump’s understanding of Christianity and the nature of God. Apparently, for Reverend Robertson, Trump is acting more like a Chinese emperor or a dictator than a leader of the free world.
Unlike the two previous impeachments in American history, which linked to domestic issues involving Presidents Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998, Trump’s impeachment was implicated in foreign policy with Ukraine and personal gain over his political opponent with Russian adversary. When a powerful editorial in the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today described President Trump as “immoral” and called for his removal from office, the most domineering Republican group of evangelical leaders and conservative commentators rallied around the impeached president. Most likely, they're afraid of losing the president’s already shrinking electoral base to advance their own pro-Israel Middle East policy agenda that had temporarily been hidden away during President Barack Obama’s administration.
This neoconservative policy toward the Middle East has its own rebirths. Within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, for example, Gen. Wesley Clark, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, was informed that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had a plan. The plan was described in a memo that outlined how “we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off Iran” after of course invading Afghanistan.
Presenting manufactured and faulty intelligence, the Bush White House dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations to make the case for invading Iraq. Neither Saddam Hussein nor Iraqi citizens were involved in the 9/11 tragedy. Fifteen of the nineteen terrorists were citizens of Saudi Arabia, two were from the United Arab Emirates, one from Lebanon, and one from Egypt.
Soon after his UN Security Council briefing, Powell—a known internationalist as opposed to other neoconservatives in the Bush administration—regrettably realized that he had been used by the White House. A Vietnam War veteran, General Powell had served on the top of foreign and defense policy establishment under several Republican administrations, including the Reagan administration.
Unlike the current Christian nativism and hostility toward ethnic minorities and immigrants in the Republican Party under Trump, Powell advocated the Party’s platform of diversity and tolerance at the Republican National Convention in 1996. When this son of Jamaican immigrant said, “the Hispanic immigrant who became a citizen yesterday must be as precious as a Mayflower descendant,” the delegates were displeased and booed him. When he supported President Barack Obama and defended him as neither a “Muslim” nor a “foreign-born” in 2010, the Trump Republicans had long abandoned Powell and labeled him a RINO (“Republican In Name Only”). These forces and dynamics have subtly propelled the emergence of Trump’s Republican base with white evangelicals, who opposed every Obama policy, including the Iranian nuclear accord that was signed in 2015 along with Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia.
Among these world powers, China and Russia have maintained closer commercial and military relations with Iran. Even having U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran, both China and Russia have continued barter-like arrangements for Iranian oil to avoid the dollar system. More importantly, however, the increasing convergence of trilateral joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman is a direct challenge to American influence and military posture in the Middle East. “The most important achievement of these drills . . . is this message that the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot be isolated,” said Iran’s Vice Adm. Gholamreza Tahani in December 2019. The naval commander then added, “these exercises show that relations between Iran, Russia and China have reached a new high level while this trend will continue in the coming years.”
In June 2019, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani met with Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The joint naval exercises and commercial diplomacy have served them well in their win-win trilateral strategy:
1. Russia validates itself as the primary geopolitical actor in the region with Putin’s recent success in Syria and Turkey;
2. China demonstrates itself as the key geo-economic and global naval power with having its first military base in nearby Djibouti; and
3. Iran acting as the regional power in the Middle East to counterbalance the American-led coalition with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Their commercial and diplomatic links with China and Russia have, indeed, become stronger since the Trump administration.
Australia and the United Kingdom have agreed to send their warships to safeguard the oil shipments in international waterways and to preserve the freedom of navigation. However, other frustrated European allies—over Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the nuclear pact and the climate change accord—are closely working with Chinese and Russian leaders.
To many of these world leaders, the United States is largely isolated diplomatically and bankrupt morally. For them, the killing of the Iranian general was a carefully choreographed “action of choice” than an “action of necessity.” It was used to rally Trump’s evangelical and conservative base, to influence the Senate impeachment trial, and to exonerate the impeached president of violating the Constitution and U.S. laws. The timing of the assassination order, which lacked credible evidence to support “imminent danger,” has already raised legal issues within domestic laws and international conventions. Taking the moral high ground and discipline, Teheran’s leaders had measured retaliation in firing missiles at American bases in Iraq and also galvanized Iranian national sentiments and rallied their people around the murdered Muslim martyr.