One of the most discouraging aspects of the filling out of the Donald Trump cabinet is the array of Iran haters that seem to be lining up in the foreign policy and national security areas. Trump has been personally advocating sensible policies relating to Russia and Syria but he appears to have gone off the rails regarding Iran, which just might be attributed to those who are giving him advice. A reversion to the relationship that prevailed prior to last year’s signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) between Iran and the so-called P5+1 consisting of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, and the European Union would be undesirable, to say the least, but that appears to be what is likely to develop. Or it could be even worse, finding bilateral support for “action” as a number of policy advisors in the presidential campaign from both parties were endorsing something like war against the Persians.
The irony is that the argument made then and now for attacking Iran were based on the threat of Tehran deciding to build its own atomic bomb. With the JCPA agreement, however, most would agree that any remaining concerns that Tehran might even be considering the development of a nuclear weapons program were greatly diminished. Iran has since that time been in compliance with the agreement, possible nuclear proliferation has been avoided, and, apart from the fulminations of the inevitable anti-Iranian politicians in the United States, the signatories to the agreement have expressed their satisfaction with the outcome. It has been Washington that has failed to live up to its part of the agreement by easing remaining restrictions that are being imposed against Iranian financial institutions and regarding the purchase of some commercially available dual use technologies.
Candidate Donald Trump did not need much prompting to pick up on the prevailing anti-Iran sentiment. In a number of campaign speeches he denounced the JCPA as a bad deal and vowed to tear it up upon taking office. Some of that sentiment might well have been derived from his desire to distance himself from foreign policy positions promoted by President Barack Obama that were subsequently endorsed by Hillary Clinton so it is no surprise that since being elected he has somewhat modified his stance. He is now veering towards trying to renegotiate the agreement, which would likely be impossible given that it has multiple signatories. He could nevertheless disrupt it by continuing or increasing sanctions on Iran.
The thought of reverting to a state of unrelenting hostility towards Iran is disconcerting. One recalls joint CIA-Mossad operations between 2010 and 2012 that assassinated four civilian scientists connected to the country’s nuclear program as well as the creation of the Stuxnet virus that threatened to spread to other computers worldwide. It is generally accepted that Israel’s Mossad planned and prepared the killing of the scientists with a little help from the U.S., attacks which were almost certainly carried out by associates of the radical Marxist group Mujaheddin e Khalq (MEK), which is now being seen favorably by several Trump advisors even though the group is Marxist, cult-like and has killed Americans.
The assassinations were based on the false premise that Iran had a nuclear weapons program that could be disrupted by killing the scientists and technicians involved. Two comprehensive studies by the American government’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted in 2007 and 2011 determined that no such program existed and that Iran had never taken any serious steps to initiate such research. Israel was also aware that there was no program. Nevertheless, the Israeli and American governments took steps to interfere with Iran’s existing and completely legal and open to inspection atomic energy program by identifying then killing its scientists and also introducing viruses into its computer systems. This was in spite of the fact that Iran was fully compliant with international norms on nuclear research and it was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Israel, possessing its own nuclear arsenal, had refused to sign.
The history of the Iran-U.S. relationship is significant because several Trump advisors appear to be locked into a time warp regarding the Mullahs and the threat to Americans that they allegedly constitute. Former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) head Michael Flynn, who will be the Trump National Security Advisor, is the most prominent Iran hater and also the most outspoken.
Flynn, also an unapologetic Islamophobe, has said that Iran represents a danger to U.S. national security and that our friend and ally Israel “lives under the threat of total annihilation from Iran…something the United States must never allow.” He believes that Iran intends to build nuclear weapons as well as the ballistic missiles needed to deliver them on target and thinks that “regime change” is the only solution to the threat posed by the current government. And for Flynn, Iran is not alone, it is part of a “global alliance” that includes China and Russia which seeks to threaten the U.S. and its allies.
Flynn concludes that Iran is unmitigated evil and that Washington should have nothing to do with it, apart from recognizing the reality that it and its government must be destroyed. I personally attended a conference in Moscow last December at which Flynn asserted that Iran is solely responsible for nearly all the instability in the Middle East and is behind at least five wars in the region, an assertion that is just as ridiculous as it sounds.
One might suggest that Flynn is terribly uninformed about a subject regarding which he claims expertise. His comments would suggest that the capabilities of the DIA that he once headed were dangerously overrated, but reports from his former colleagues indicate that he was always guilty of serious overreach in his pronouncements, something they referred to as “Flynn facts”.
If Flynn were just one loud voice braying in the wilderness he would be bad enough since his job is important, particularly with a president who has no foreign policy experience, but the sad fact is that he is not alone. Congressman, West Point grad and former Army officer Mike Pompeo, who will head the CIA, is more-or-less on the same page when it comes to Iran. Her supports new sanctions on the country and, regarding his appointment as Director, he had only one comment to make and it related to the JCPA, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” As in the case with Flynn and DIA one has to wonder what kind of “objective” intelligence CIA will be producing under Pompeo.
Finally, there is retired Marine General James Mattis, who is being considered for a senior position in national security, possibly as Secretary of Defense. He is yet another Iranophobe who opposed the JCPA and calls Iran a rogue state that constitutes the “greatest threat” in the Middle East. As part of the evidence for that assessment he cites Iran’s alliance with Syria, which is at least in part directed against America’s enemy number one ISIS, demonstrating once again how Establishment Washington has difficulty in understanding what constitutes actual national interests. Mattis, in fact, denies that Iran is actually fighting ISIS.
The neoconservative kingpin Bill Kristol is gloating, headlining in his Weekly Standard publication that the “Iran Deal Is Doomed!” He should be pleased. Team Trump’s attitude towards an alleged Iranian threat is delusional, more in sync with Kristol and some Israeli thinking than with any actual American interests. Just as neoconservatives always believe that it is 1938 and we are in Munich, Flynn, Pompeo and Mattis likewise seem to think that it is 1979 and the United States Embassy in Tehran is still occupied.
The three Trumpsmen are not stupid, far from it, but the problem appears to be that they cannot comfortably assess two or more conflicting concepts at the same time, which might be due to the linear thinking derived from their military backgrounds. The Middle East is awash with players, all of whom have separate agendas, few of which coincide with actual American interests. If one is fixated on or obsessed with Iran as the sole disruptive force in the region it becomes difficult to see how Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel are also problems. It is decidedly neoconnish to look at a complex foreign policy issue and only see black and white, but that is what the Trump national security team seems to be prone to do.
Hopefully someone will convince Donald Trump that the real answer to eliminating the “Iranian threat” is not war. It requires building on the relationship established by JCPA to bind Iran more closely to the international community, both economically and culturally. By all accounts, young Iranians, a majority of the population, are dismissive of the rigidity of their own government and are very open to Western ideas and lifestyle. Change will come to Iran if the United States and its European allies encourage more rather than less non-threatening contact. It will not come at the point of a bayonet as Flynn, Pompeo and Mattis appear to be promoting.