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Following Soleimani Killing, Iowans Consider Candidates' Foreign Policy

Kate Payne/IPR
A crowd of potential caucusgoers listens to entrepreneur Andrew Yang speak at a coffee shop in Perry.

Democratic presidential candidates are criticizing the Trump administration’s decision-making process in killing a top Iranian military commander. With less than a month until the first in the nation Iowa caucuses, some potential caucusgoers say the tensions in the Middle East could impact how they make their decisions.

Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed in a targeted U.S. airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq, a decision ordered by President Donald Trump.

In the wake of the news, Trump’s would-be challengers have spoken out about the Trump administration’s handling of a targeted killing of one of the most high-profile military figures in Iran, at a time when relations between the two countries have grown increasingly tense.

Questioned at various candidate events in the state this weekend, some likely Iowa caucusgoers said the developments have put foreign policy at the forefront of their minds.

As they make their final decisions in the few weeks left ahead of caucus night, some said they would be factoring in how the different Democratic candidates might handle further conflict in the Middle East. Others said the tensions further strengthen their confidence in their candidate of choice.

Outside of an event with entrepreneur Andrew Yang in Perry on Friday, Dean Lyons said the news of the killing “scared” him. The Grand Junction, Iowa resident said he’s still undecided about who he’ll caucus for, but says the situation in Iran will be a factor.

“I’m not going to lie to you, it scared the hell out of me. I mean, I think, we keep doing that, we’re gonna be in another war and we don’t need another war,” Lyons said. “If we get in this war, we can’t have a pushover. We’ve got to have somebody who can stand…can Biden do that? Can Pete do it? I don’t know, you know? I think it’s a big decision.”

"If we get in this war, we can't have a pushover. We've got to have somebody who can stand...can Biden do that? Can Pete do it? I don't know, you know? I think it's a big decision." - Dean Lyons, likely caucusgoer

Following a town hall with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Dubuque on Saturday night, husband and wife John and Nancy Ferry said they would’ve liked to hear Warren respond to the situation in Iran. Warren gave a shorter version of her stump speech and took questions from the audience but did not directly speak to the killing of Soleimani at the event.

The Ferrys said they haven’t picked their first choice, but are considering Warren, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The candidates’ reactions could impact their decisions ahead of the caucuses, they said.

“In how people react to it, yes,” Nancy said.

“Depending on what they say about it, too,” John added. “I haven’t heard much from any of them yet. It’s so soon. They haven’t been back to work even yet. So we’ll see what happens there.”

Following a Sanders event in Dubuque Sunday afternoon, husband and wife Dave Donovan and Ann Bodnar-Donovan said they had already made up their mind to support the Vermont senator’s second presidential bid. In the wake of Soleimani’s killing and increased tensions, they said they felt even more confident in their decision.

“The repercussions from that I think are going to be a lot worse than [Trump administration officials] think,” Dave said.

“We were for [Sanders] before and we are going to be for him until he’s president,” added Ann.

Waiting in line outside of the Andrew Yang event in Perry on Friday night, Perry resident Tiffany Mitchell said she’s worried about the U.S. engaging in another war, and said her mind jumped to her nephews, and others who could be deployed. Mitchell said she’s still making up her mind and wanted to hear how Yang would address the situation.

"A lot can happen in a month. A lot can happen overnight." -Tiffany Mitchell, likely caucusgoer

“I’d also like to see if he’s going say anything about what happened as far as what Trump did with the assassination here. I want to see what he has to say about that. I want to see what his national security chops are,” she said, “because that’s very worrisome going forward.”

After getting past the initial shock of waking up to the news of the killing, Mitchell said candidates’ foreign policy stances are something she’ll be listening for. At this point, she said she’s leaning towards Warren, but notes that the situation on the ground can change abruptly between now and February 3rd.

“A lot can happen in a month,” Mitchell said. “A lot can happen overnight.”

Democrats running for president have noted the threats Soleimani posed to U.S. interests, while also questioning how the Trump administration came to the decision to kill the commander, a step that both the Obama and Bush administrations declined to take, reportedly out of concern about potential ramifications in the region.

Democratic contenders campaigning in Iowa are questioning whether there is sufficient evidence that Soleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region”, as administration officials have alleged. Democratic presidential hopefuls are also insisting that members of Congress should have been notified ahead of the drone strike. They’re also warning that Iran and its proxies could retaliate and are voicing concerns about the potential for further armed conflict in the region.