As the Trump administration makes its first positive signal towards calming relations with China, it continues its relentless drumbeat of hostility towards Iran.
This begs the question of why an administration which appears otherwise committed to pulling back from international conflicts so that it can focus its energies on defeating Jihadi terrorism and ISIS is so fixed in its hostility to Iran?
In an earlier article I discussed how the system of alliances Iran has created to protect itself from the sort of attack Saddam Hussein launched against it in 1980 is all but guaranteed to provoke US hostility.
Beyond that there are however visceral factors. Donald Trump has made it very clear that – arch deal-maker that he believes himself to be – he thinks the nuclear agreement the Obama administration did with Iran was a bad deal. Donald Trump’s strong support for Israel and his pronounced philo-semitism (several members of his family are Jewish, and Trump’s office in his penthouse in Trump Tower holds a number of awards given him by Jewish organisations, including a prominent Tree of Life given him by the Jewish National Fund) also naturally prejudices him against a country which many Jewish people have come to believe is Israel’s greatest and most dangerous enemy.
A key factor in shaping the Trump administration’s current hostility to Iran is however the pronounced personal animus against Iran of President Trump’s National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, who on 3rd February 2017 made an extraordinarily belligerent statement concerning Iran as follows
Today, the United States sanctioned twenty-five individuals and entities that provide support to Iran’s ballistic missile program and to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and engages in and supports violent activities that destabilize the Middle East. This behavior seems continuous despite the very favorable deal given to Iran by the Obama Administration. These sanctions target these behaviors.
Iran’s senior leadership continues to threaten the United States and our allies. Since the Obama Administration agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran in 2015, Iran’s belligerent and lawless behavior has only increased. Examples include the abduction of ten of our sailors and two patrol boats in January 2016, unwarranted harassment of vessel traffic and repeated weapons tests. Just this week, Iran tested a ballistic missile, and one of its proxy terrorist groups attacked a Saudi vessel in the Red Sea.
The international community has been too tolerant of Iran’s bad behavior. The ritual of convening a United Nations Security Council in an emergency meeting and issuing a strong statement is not enough. The Trump Administration will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations that threaten our interests.
The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.
What is strange about this hostility is that General Flynn never gives any real explanation for it. He never mentions Israel at any point in the whole interview, so it is unlikely that Iran’s opposition to Israel is the cause. Though Flynn makes clear his strong opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran, that seems more a product of his pre-existing hostility to Iran than a cause of it. To the extent that Flynn ever explains his hostility to Iran it is what he calls its “bad behaviour” rather than its opposition to Israel or its nuclear programme that seems to lie behind it.
Iran’s supposed “bad behaviour” is of course the same language General Flynn used in his 3rd February 2017 statement, and it is this which provides the clue to understanding General Flynn’s hatred for Iran.
It is difficult to avoid the impression that Flynn formed his ideas about Iran as a US intelligence officer during the George W. Bush administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both of those wars Iran and the US pursued parallel but often conflicting strategies, with both countries seeking the defeat of fundamentalist Sunni Jihadis in Afghanistan and Iraq, but wanting to prevent the other country from emerging the undisputed victor. The result was what might be called ‘duplicitous cooperation’, with Iran and the US simultaneously working with and against each other in an often totally ruthless and treacherous way.
It is not difficult to see why against this background General Flynn as a front line intelligence officer might come to see the Iranians as deceitful and treacherous, and conclude that they can’t be trusted, and why he might develop an intense loathing for them. Thus his interview with Al-Jazeera is peppered with comments like this
I could go on and on all day about Iran and their behaviour, you know, and their lies, flat out lies, and then their spewing of constant hatred, no matter whenever they talk
I’ve been very pro – we have to do something with Iran. We have to talk to Iran in some form or fashion, but we’ve got to do it in a way that also recognises their … their really bad behaviour over the three-plus decades, three and a half decades, that frankly the Mullahs have been in charge of their country
Iran’s bad behaviour is so consistent and it’s so often – and it’s, and it’s just continuous
and this particularly interesting exchange with the interviewer
Michael Flynn: Well, they’re – I mean, they’re definitely a, a nation state that has demonstrated behaviour that is unacceptable to international norms and laws, and they don’t accept accountability for any of their actions. So that’s – so putting that aside –
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Here’s a, here’s a country that is helping you fight ISIS. Iran is helping America fight ISIL in Iran –
Michael Flynn: [INTERRUPTING] For their own purposes.
Mehdi Hasan: But nevertheless, still helping the United States. They helped the United States fight the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2004.
Michael Flynn: [INTERRUPTING] They also killed – they also killed a lot of Americans in Iraq, I mean –
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] I’m not denying that. I’m saying to you they are helping you.
Michael Flynn: [TALKING OVER] And they also killed a lot of Americans in Beirut and Americans in other embassies around the world. So I mean, it’s a funny –
The reality is that in a war against an organisation like ISIS and against Jihadi terrorism generally it is not always possible to choose one’s allies. Unfortunately from his comments about Iran it seems that General Flynn for the moment cannot see this, and cannot put his past feelings behind him, but is instead falling into the classic trap of a general who remains obsessed with fighting the last war rather than the present one.
The reality, as his Al-Jazeera interviewer tried to get General Flynn to understand and as Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has just pointed out, is that it is all but impossible to defeat ISIS and Jihadi terrorism in the Middle East without working with the most powerful country in the Middle East, which is now Iran. The fact that Iran is both willing and able to help is the only consideration which ought to matter.
Donald Trump in his Inauguration Address made the following promise to the American people
We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth
The prospects of the Trump administration keeping that promise ultimately depend on people like General Flynn putting their old animosities behind them. Hopefully before long they will see that.