The trio of generals who have so far joined Donald Trump’s national security team—Mike Flynn as national security adviser, James Mattis as secretary of defense, and John Kelly as secretary of homeland security—along with Representative Mike Pompeo as director of the CIA, have unnerved official Washington and leaders around the world. From North Korea to the South China Sea, from the Mexican border to Syria, they’re a cohort likely both to facilitate and to encourage Trump’s instinct for confrontation and bellicosity, and their out-of-the-mainstream approach, even extremism, in military and intelligence affairs is unprecedented in recent US history.
And it’s likely that the first target of Trump’s generals and the CIA will be Iran. “Ingredients are falling, tragically, into place for a possible war with Iran,” wrote Paul Pillar, a former CIA analyst who retired in 2005 as chief of the National Intelligence Council’s Near East section, in The National Interest.
Just as the administration of George W. Bush came into office fixated on Iraq—which was the subject of the very first meeting of W.’s National Security Council on January 21, 2001—the Trump administration is likely to direct its fire against Iran. At the very least, its animosity toward Iran could lead to an escalating military confrontation and an aggressive push for regime change, while at worst it could trigger a shooting war between the two countries that could dwarf the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in both scope and intensity.
Earlier this year Flynn wrote a book-length blueprint for war with Iran, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, co-authored by über-hawk Michael Ledeen. Mattis, who’s nursed a decades-long animus against Iran and who was fired by President Obama as leader of the US Central Command for urging the deployment of a third aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf as part of a military buildup against Iran, has repeatedly declared that the three greatest threats to the United States are “Iran, Iran, and Iran.” And Kelly, who will help oversee the US-Mexican border, took an alarmist view about Iran’s alleged meddling in Central and South America when he led the US Southern Command.
All three, at one time or another, have sought to portray both Iran and political Islam as existential threats to the United States on par with the twentieth-century struggles against Nazism and Communism. “I don’t know why they hate us, and I frankly don’t care, but they do hate us and are driven irrationally to our destruction,” said Kelly. And Flynn has described Islam as a “failed civilization,” suggesting a mindset akin to the long-discredited thesis promoted by Samuel Huntington in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.
Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), will have Trump’s ear constantly and will sit in on virtually every White House meeting on defense and foreign affairs. He is by far the most extreme of Trump’s first round of appointments. He was even described by colleagues at the DIA as a “Captain Queeg–like character.”
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In The Field of Fight, Flynn outlines in great detail his belief that the United States is facing an apocalyptic struggle against a coalition of enemies at whose heart is Iran. “We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people,” writes Flynn. “We are facing an alliance between Radical Islamists and regimes in Havana, Pyongyang, Moscow, and Beijing.” (For good measure, Flynn throws Bolivia, Venezuela, and Syria into the mix, too.) “Iran is the linchpin of the alliance, its centerpiece,” concludes Flynn. To strike at the heart of Flynn’s imagined global alliance, he urges a campaign for regime change. Unfortunately, he writes, “No American president has called for regime change in Tehran.” Along with Ledeen, an arch-neoconservative who left the American Enterprise Institute for the even more radical Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Flynn supports an aggressive effort to topple Iran’s government.
Just as the Bush administration established the super-secret Office of Special Plans inside the Pentagon, under Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith, to concoct intelligence linking Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, Flynn believes that Iran is in league with both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS)—even though Iran’s true allies, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraq’s Iranian-trained Shiite militia forces, are leading the fight against both Al Qaeda and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. “The 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa—for which Al Qaeda took credit—were in large part Iranian operations,” write Flynn and Ledeen, despite overwhelming evidence that they were indeed carried out by Al Qaeda, the Sunni extremist group that, along with the Islamic State, has condemned Shiites, including Iran, as false Muslims.
Similarly, in 2012, during his reign at the DIA, Flynn urged DIA staffers to conduct a quixotic quest in search of evidence to prove that Iran was behind the assault on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
But Flynn’s Islamophobia—he once tweeted “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” and he’s raised unfounded alarms about the spread of Shariah law in the United States—goes far beyond Iran. In a speech carried by Christian Reporter News on YouTube, Flynn made it clear that he sees Islam itself as the problem. “Islam is a political ideology,” he said. “It definitely hides behind this notion of it being a religion.…It’s like a malignant cancer.” Flynn makes no distinctions when it comes to political Islam, lumping terrorists such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, insurgent groups such as the Taliban, more moderate political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood—all Sunnis—with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah in a grand alliance. Such a sweeping generalization flies in the face of the reality that each of these entities has a distinct identity, and many of them are in conflict with each other, even militarily, across the region. Yet Flynn is undeterred. “They are well-funded, well-armed, well-trained, and confident that they can do us in. It would be foolish for us to wait until they pose an existential threat before taking decisive action.”
“In 2014, I was fired as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency after telling a congressional committee that we were not as safe as we had been a few years back,” writes Flynn. But it was much more than that. After a military career in which Flynn played a leading role in the most lethal campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan as an aide to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Flynn was ousted—according to several accounts, including from Colin Powell (who called him “right-wing nutty”)—as DIA boss for being insubordinate, erratic, given to conspiracy theories, and a purveyor of unsubstantiated intelligence tidbits that DIA officials started calling “Flynn facts.”
Flynn’s penchant for conspiracy theories even spilled over, in November, into the ludicrous “pizzagate” flap, which culminated in the widely reported shooting incident at Comet Ping Pong on Washington, DC’s Connecticut Avenue. Via Twitter, Flynn leveled charges against Hillary Clinton involving sex crimes with children, and his son, Michael Jr., joined in, feeding the flames of the bizarre “pizzagate” theory, suggesting that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, her campaign manager, were guilty of molesting or murdering children in the basement of Comet Ping Pong.
Flynn is not the only one of Trump’s top national security officials to have been canned.
Mattis, a Marine general who also served in Afghanistan and Iraq, was appointed by President Obama to head the US Central Command in 2010—and then fired outright for advocating an expansion of US military and naval forces in the Persian Gulf to challenge Tehran. “He was so hawkish on Iran as head of United States Central Command from 2010 to 2013 that the Obama administration cut short his tour,” reported The New York Times. “Iran is not a nation-state,” said Mattis in an April 22 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “It is a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem.”
Nicknamed “Mad Dog” (“the closest thing we have to General George Patton,” says Trump), Mattis prides himself on a reckless, kill-em-all persona. “It’s a hell of a hoot, it’s fun to shoot some people,” he said once. And he told troops under his command: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” Earlier this year, such macho, tough-guy rhetoric attracted neoconservative support for Mattis when he was considering a wild-card independent presidential bid, including from neocon William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, but the idea was quickly abandoned.
Like Flynn, Mattis has conflated the various branches of political Islam, not least by trying to link Iran to ISIS. “I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief,” said Mattis, in his CSIS speech. “Iran is not an enemy of ISIS.” In fact, Mattis told the audience, Iran is clearly in league with the Islamic State. “I would just point out one question for you to look into: What is the one country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One and it’s Iran. Now, there’s got—that is more than happenstance, I’m sure.”
Yet another member of Trump’s national security team who is obsessed with Iran is Pompeo, who will head the CIA. An oilman and a newcomer to Congress who rode Tea Party support to victory in Kansas’s 4th District in 2010, Pompeo is even newer to the world of foreign intelligence, joining the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence only in 2013, after doing a stint on the infamously ineffective Select Committee on Benghazi in 2012. Pompeo is for stepped-up domestic surveillance, and he’s called for the death penalty for Edward Snowden. “Mr. Pompeo is literally an extremist,” Steven Aftergood, a director at the Federation of American Scientists, told Bloomberg. “He has staked out extreme positions on intelligence surveillance, interrogation, and other areas that deviate from the mainstream consensus.”
Pompeo has been a fierce and uncompromising critic of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the six-nation compact with Iran that placed severe, long-lasting restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program. Last year, Pompeo circulated a letter written by 190 retired generals, admirals, and other military officers calling the accord “dangerous” and likely to lead to war. Since then, in a string of more than two dozen press releases, three op-eds, and numerous Fox News appearances, Pompeo has warned darkly about secret codicils in the accord that allegedly undermine its integrity. And just before his nomination to lead the CIA was announced, Pompeo tweeted, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism.”
Can Trump and his generals, along with Pompeo, withdraw from or cancel the JCPOA? The deal, which took effect in 2015, led Iran to reduce by 98 percent its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, get rid of all its medium-enriched uranium, shut down its Arak heavy-water production plant and close its underground plant at Fordow, vastly reduce its overall production capability, and agree to intense scrutiny by international inspectors.
Of course, Trump has famously proclaimed his intention to tear up the deal as soon as he takes office. And, although many experts say doing so will be difficult, if not impossible, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CBS’s 60 Minutes that it can be done. “I think what options we have are much more than you think. Many more,” said Netanyahu. “There are ways, various ways of undoing it.…I have about five things in my mind. And I’ll talk about it—with President Trump.”
Mattis, for his part, has defended the JCPOA with faint praise. “We are just going to have to recognize that we have an imperfect arms control agreement. Second, that what we achieved is a nuclear pause, not a nuclear halt, and we’re going to have to plan for the worst,” he said last spring. But, provocatively, he went on to say that at the very least, what the United States is learning, under the JCPOA could aid the US Air Force in bombing runs and missile strikes. “If nothing else, at least we will have better targeting data if it comes to a fight in the future,” he said.
Rather than tear up the accord, which would alienate and anger the other signatories—Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany—the Trump administration is more likely to opt for confronting Iran across a wide range of non-nuclear issues: its support for Hezbollah; its role in conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan; its conventional military forces (including naval patrols in the Persian Gulf, a flashpoint); and its medium-range missile program. Already, there are signs from Capitol Hill that Republicans in the House and Senate are preparing new sanctions bills targeting Iran, on issues both nuclear and non-nuclear. According to the Financial Times, members of Congress have already been in touch with the Trump transition team to discuss such actions.
Neoconservatives, energized by Trump’s description of the Iran accord as a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever,” have outlined a plan for the new administration to gradually unravel the deal by bringing up other, unrelated topics. Trump should seek “an agreement with Iran to verifiably curb its regional aggression, state sponsorship of terrorism and domestic repression of human rights,” wrote former Senator Joe Lieberman and Mark Wallace of United Against Nuclear Iran in a Washington Post op-ed. “If Iran does not change course, the president-elect should make clear he is prepared to impose a new round of comprehensive secondary sanctions against Iran—and then to walk away, with cause, from the JCPOA.”
Lieberman, who endorsed Flynn’s book, spoke earlier this month at a Capitol Hill conference sponsored by the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK) to discuss regime change in Iran (the MEK, which spent years on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups, is widely considered to be a cult that has little or no influence among Iranians). “Elections have consequences,” said Lieberman. “I can tell you, when it comes to Iran, the change from Barack Obama to Donald Trump is a very hopeful one. Now we go to an administration that is not protective or defensive of the Iran agreement, but is ready to challenge it.”
One paradox for the new administration is how to resolve its policy toward Russia, especially in the context of what could develop into a showdown with Iran, Russia’s ally and a key participant in the wars in Syria and Iraq. Trump’s generals, especially Flynn, have placed themselves squarely in the anti-Russia camp, with Flynn—in The Field of Fight—naming Russia as the chief instigator of anti-American aggression around the world, in league with Iran. “There is no reason to believe Putin would welcome cooperation with us; quite the contrary, in fact,” he writes. “Putin fully intends to do the same thing as, and in tandem with, the Iranians: pursue the war against us.”
Yet, oddly, despite his portrayal of Russia as a dangerous adversary, Flynn has drawn criticism from both the left and the right for his frequent appearances on the Russian propaganda channel RT, doing a paid speech for RT, and breaking bread two seats away from Russia’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, at an RT gala dinner in Moscow. (Asked by The Washington Post why he’d appear on RT, since it’s “state run,” Flynn replied, “Well, what’s CNN?”) And, like Trump, Flynn has suggested that the United States and Russia might work toward an entente. “How do we combine the United States’ national security strategy along with Russia’s national security strategy, despite all the challenges that we face?” asked Flynn.
Just before being fired from DIA, in 2014, Flynn angered Pentagon superiors by planning a pair of exchanges with Russia’s intelligence services in the wake of the crisis over Ukraine, part of an “intelligence-sharing initiative” that involved inviting Russian military intelligence officials to Washington. Both exchanges were canceled, reported The New York Times.
Given these contradictory signals, when and if Trump, Flynn, Mattis, et al. trigger a confrontation with Iran, they will also create an enormous point of conflict with Russia, too. To be sure, both Trump—who, the CIA says, received covert election support from Russia’s intelligence service—and his designee for secretary of state, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, have business and personal ties to Russia’s elite. But the chance of a US-Russia entente will evaporate if the Trump administration seeks to build an anti-Iran alliance in the Middle East. And the same goes for Syria: Although Trump has hinted that the United States might ally with Russia against ISIS, that doesn’t square with the views of Flynn, Mattis, and Pompeo that Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are engaged in an anti-American crusade in the region in defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
One thing is certain, though. If, as seems inevitable, relations between the United States and Iran worsen under Trump, hard-liners in Iran will gain political strength. Already, President Hassan Rouhani, one of the architects of the JCPOA, is facing an uphill climb in his 2017 reelection bid. Escalating hostility from Washington will undermine Rouhani’s political standing and boost the fortunes of hard-liners, including among the Revolutionary Guard, who want to topple Rouhani and who’ve long argued that the United States can’t be trusted as a diplomatic partner. As the influence of the hard-liners in Iran grows, it’s more and more likely that provocative steps by Washington, including military ones, will be met by one-upmanship from Iran. That, in the end, is a formula for war.