Trump and His Iran-Haters

Some of President-elect Trump’s national security appointees are part of Official Washington’s “we-hate-Iran” group think, raising concerns about another Mideast war, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The direct stakes in whether the Trump administration adheres to the agreement that restricts the Iranian nuclear program are important enough, in terms of nuclear nonproliferation. Also important are the opportunities to build on that agreement constructively to address problems of concern to both Iran and the United States.

But at stake as well, as the new administration makes policy toward Iran, is the need to avoid a potentially disastrous turn, highly costly to U.S. interests, in the U.S.-Iranian relationship.

Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn speaks at the Defense Intelligence Agency change of directorship at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, July 24, 2012. Army Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess Jr. turned over directorship of DIA to LtGen Flynn after serving in the position since 2009.  (DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, now retired and President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor. (DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)


Recall how the policy options were being framed in American public debate as of about four years ago, before the negotiations that produced the nuclear agreement got under way. Amid much alarmist talk about an Iranian nuclear weapon being just around the corner, the “military option” was repeatedly and seriously discussed as the principal alternative to negotiations. In other words, people were talking about starting a war with Iran — although that is not how the option was commonly phrased.

A military attack, intended to damage the mere potential for producing weapons that others, including the attacker, already have would have been a naked and illegal act of aggression. It also would have been counterproductive in probably stimulating a decision by Iran to make a nuclear weapon that it had not previously decided to make.

But that is how the alternatives were nevertheless discussed. Some who talked up the alternative of a military attack may have regarded it as more of a bluff, but for others war was an actual objective.

So in addition to the other setbacks to U.S. interests that would ensue from the United States reneging on the agreement, a U.S.-Iranian war is a potential, and highly costly, additional possible consequence. The looming danger of such a war is not, however, only a function of how the nuclear agreement is handled.

The danger looms because appointments that Donald Trump is making to senior national security positions are installing at high levels of the new administration a predisposition to stoke permanent conflict with Iran, a predisposition that is far more visceral than analytical and that embodies the kind of fervor and hatred that has the risk of leading to armed conflict.

Flynn and His Facts

The most important figure in this picture apart from the President-elect himself is his choice as national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Flynn’s attitude toward Iran is a corollary of his broader Islamophobic view of the Muslim world, in that it involves perceptions that are out of right field if not downright bizarre.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani celebrates the completion of an interim deal on Iran's nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013, by kissing the head of the daughter of an assassinated Iranian nuclear engineer. (Iranian government photo)

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani celebrates the completion of an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013, by kissing the head of the daughter of an assassinated Iranian nuclear engineer. (Iranian government photo)

If his preconceived notions about such topics do not fit the facts, then he tries to make the facts conform. One incident reported by the New York Times involved the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. Flynn insisted Iran had a role in the attack, and he told subordinates at the Defense Intelligence Agency, of which he was then the director, that their job was to find evidence that he was right. (No evidence of any Iranian role in the attack has surfaced.)

We should not be surprised that someone who performed his duties as an intelligence chief in this manner has more recently shown an affinity for fake news of other sorts that fits his political objectives, such as alleged involvement by the Democratic presidential nominee in pedophilia rings.

Other appointments made to date do not provide much hope of providing a corrective to Flynn’s proclivities on anything having to do with Iran. One cannot expect such a corrective from CIA director-designate Mike Pompeo, who comes to the job with a strongly stated political agenda of trashing the nuclear agreement.

Nor can it be expected from the nominee for Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, even though he is more erudite than Flynn. Mattis has a thing about Iran that appears to let passion shove the erudition aside whenever Iran is involved. Mark Perry may be right that the passion is a Marine Corps thing and stems from the truck bombing, by Iran’s client Lebanese Hezbollah, of the barracks in Beirut in 1983 in which 220 Marines and 21 other Americans died. Perry quotes another senior Marine officer as saying about Mattis, “It’s in his blood. It’s almost like he wants to get even with them.”

Mattis and His Excesses

Whatever the underlying cause of his passion, the passion causes accurate and realistic appraisals of Iran to suffer. When Mattis asserts that Iran is not really a nation-state but instead a “revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem,” this indicates a failure to understand, or a refusal to understand, the history of Iranian politics and policy in the four decades since the Iranian revolution and the evolution of Iran’s relationship with the rest of the region.

Retired Marine General James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump's choice to become Secretary of Defense.

Retired Marine General James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to become Secretary of Defense.

When he says that “Iran is not an enemy of ISIS” and that “I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief,” this flies in the face of fundamental realities about both ISIS and Iran and how the latter is combating the former, especially in Iraq.

Ingredients are falling, tragically, into place for a possible war with Iran. We have seen this play before, although some of the cast has changed. Flynn’s leaning on intelligence officers to scrape together evidence to support his predetermined, and false, assertion about Iranian culpability in Benghazi eerily resembles the leaning by the George W. Bush White House, led by Vice President Cheney, on intelligence officers to scrape together evidence to support the predetermined, and false, assertion that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein was allied with Al Qaeda.

Mattis’s statements about Iran and ISIS, some of which imply an alliance between the two, also have some of the same odor of the pro-war sales campaign of 14 years ago.

The Iraq War came about partly because enough people who had been committed to that expedition for years were put in positions of power to get an inexperienced president — for whom the war served other role-defining purposes — to go along. Now we are about to get the least prepared president in U.S. history, with little capacity on his part for questioning whatever assertions are voiced by the retired generals or others around him.

At least George W. Bush, although lacking foreign policy experience, could have learned something from his father, who had been president, envoy to the United Nations and to China, and director of central intelligence. Donald Trump’s father was, like Donald, a real estate developer.

9/11 made possible the change in the American public mood necessary to sell the Iraq War. It won’t, however, take anything on the scale of 9/11 (which, remember, had nothing to do with Iraq anyway) to help catalyze a war against Iran. A lesser terrorist attack, or maybe an incident at sea, could serve the purpose. Assertive, forward U.S. military operations would increase the chance of such an incident, and once an incident occurs, it can be exploited and slanted for war-making purposes beyond the facts of the incident itself. (See Gulf of Tonkin, 1964.)

More Choices to Come

Trump has more appointments to make relevant to policy on Iran. One can hope for appointees who will exhibit more analysis than ardor and will favor facts over fakery. But the trend so far is not promising. Some persons mentioned for important sub-cabinet posts have been dedicated to killing the nuclear accord.

President-elect Donald Trump. (Photo credit:

President-elect Donald Trump. (Photo credit:

Then there are the hard-core neocons, including ones who were crestfallen when it appeared that Trump’s nomination marked an end to neoconservative dominance of Republican Party foreign policy. Some of these people became declared never-Trumpers and a few even hitched their wagons to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. But many of these people, upon hearing what the early appointees say about Iran, must now be licking their chops.

In their view, the lesson for Iran of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (and never mind the subsequent eight-plus years of unpleasantness) has been: you’re next. “Take a number” — that’s how it was put by John Bolton, a neocon uber-hawk on Iran who has been to Trump Tower for a job interview and is one of the candidates for Secretary of State.

A U.S. war with Iran would be disastrous for all interests except Iranian hardliners, ISIS and those who exploit Middle Eastern instability, others in the region doing ignoble things from which they would like to divert attention, and speculators who are long on the price of oil. Iran would strike back asymmetrically at times and places of its choosing, and the United States would help make enduring Iranian hostility a reality and not just a prejudicial preconception, and would do so not just among the hardliners. A messy and bloody Middle East would become messier and bloodier.

Those in the United States who correctly want to avoid such a calamity should take the early Trump appointments as a warning sign. The appointments especially ought to be a wake-up call for those who were too focused on Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness, or too encouraged by Trump’s utterances suggesting he would have a less interventionist foreign policy, or too inclined to dismiss both major party candidates as equally lost causes, to anticipate the current prospects regarding policy toward Iran.

None of this is a prediction that there will be such a war.  But the danger of one is greater now than it was before Nov. 8 and the appointments that followed. Vigilance is required to avoid further steps that would increase the chance of a war.

The immediate issue to watch is the fate of the nuclear agreement, but that is not the only relevant issue (and Mattis, to his credit, has said that junking the accord now would be a mistake regardless of one’s previous views of it). Also to be watched for are any moves, such as aggressive U.S. military operations in the Persian Gulf, that could become steps down a slippery slope to conflagration.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

25 comments for “Trump and His Iran-Haters

  1. December 16, 2016 at 08:33

    If Iran did one nuclear test underground, peace would be assured. Otherwise, Israel and its puppet the US will attack.

  2. Wm. Boyce
    December 11, 2016 at 22:10

    I don’t think people have an appreciation of how aimless Mr. Trump’s attitude toward many things is.

    ““I’m still open-minded. Nobody really knows,” Trump said. “Look, I’m somebody that gets it, and nobody really knows. It’s not something that’s so hard and fast. I do know this: Other countries are eating our lunch.”

    That statement is in reference to human-induced climate change, a subject upon which 99+% of the scientific community DOES know about. Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to worry too much about pesky intelligence briefings, or the possibility of cyber-hacking of our infrastructure. This guy is a nitwit with a gift for showmanship. It’s going to be a very rough ride.

    • LJ
      December 14, 2016 at 16:49

      I think Trump does get it. He’s living a charmed life and people are stupid. Once when I was young and still thought my father was really intelligent ( and he really was) I asked him, Dad what’s your favorite quote? He said ‘ Life’s a joke and all things show it I use ti think it and now I know it, Christopher Marlowe. Gee thanks dad, that was helpful. He was probably half in the bag at the time. Honi soit qui mal y pense

  3. tina
    December 11, 2016 at 01:02

    Perhaps I am completely stupid. But I want to know, why do we, and by that I mean the United States of America, always need an enemy? Cuba, Iran, Russia, China, Somalia, North Korea, the former Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Mexico, Venezuela….No matter what era, somehow we always need an enemy, and if we don’t fight that enemy big-time, we will lose our whole way of life. There is no simple answer, but I have had it with “fighting” some external threat. I have seen too many deaths, and for what? So we can say Merry Christmas? Does this make any sense?

    • LJ
      December 14, 2016 at 16:43

      Tina you obviously never played linebacker . Maybe you never went to a Duke vs. North Carolina basketball game. Even been to a Sporting event? If you were a ancient Celt or maybe a Greek or an Aztec you might slaughter and animal (or human) to appease the Gods. Why ask why?

  4. zman
    December 10, 2016 at 10:42

    As is per usual. the warhawks have been given the go ahead to bad mouth and threaten Iran. This is no different than Killery and her mob. For Mattis (et al) to make such statements show only one thing…they are lying traitors in the pocket of Israel. He and the rest of the the Trump appointees, being in positions of power and intel, already know that ISIS belongs to the US. There is no chance whatsoever for any of them to not know this. The conclusions to be drawn from this are readily apparent…more of the same beating of war drums. People voted Trump for peace with Russia, they are going to be disappointed, as Iran and Syria are necessary for the survival of Russia. The Orange Idiot will be found to be no more intelligent and just as corrupt than the rest of the swamp. I would love to be proved wrong.

  5. Realist
    December 10, 2016 at 03:38

    I just don’t get the visceral hatred of Iran and Russia by so many leaders in America, to the point where they’d put the future of humanity in jeopardy by going to war against these countries. Neither of these countries are truly a threat to America or its interests. Both know their limitations and have no intention of invading their neighbors or picking a fight with America or its NATO vassals. They do, however, have a set of standards and self-respect which will prevent them from rolling over to every American dictate and opting to surrender if America is insane enough to start an actual shooting war with them.

    And, just how does America propose to fight total war against Iran? You read stupid recommendations by reckless “analysts” who say we should start by sinking their ships in their own territorial waters. Then what? Are you going to fly thousands of bombing sorties over the country, as we did over Iraq in all the wars we have fought against them? After slaughtering thousands of innocents, will that accomplish something worthwhile in the name of the American people? You think they will “surrender” like the Serbians did? You think no American planes will be lost to the Russian S300 missile defenses? Or, will we carry out long range butchery by raining down cruise missiles on Tehran and other population centers? Do you think that won’t be countered by missile attacks on the prime instigator–Israel–of all this? Certainly you cannot contemplate sending in American “boots” which is the only way to occupy a country. They will be chewed up worse than the cannon fodder we sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. And, if Iran moves to be re-supplied with missiles and other ordnance by Russia–which they will–is America going to attack Russia, thereby thrusting the whole tumult into a full-blown World War III? And, don’t expect Russia to back off from such a provocation, as they would be certain that we were coming for them next.

    Where the hell are the voices of reason in the U.N. to at least speak out against such madness as contemplated by American neocons? Yeah, that body is impotent–made effectively so by the United States–but can they not at least weigh a moral judgement against Washington’s mad plans of conquest. Aren’t seven wars of aggression started by America in the new millennium enough carnage in such a short time? Why must Iran be destroyed, followed by the world? If you think Jesus is coming down on a cloud as part of the package, guess what? You assholes are NOT going to be the ones rewarded.

    • LJ
      December 14, 2016 at 16:39

      Realist you point fingers to distract attention from yourself. Always there are 3 fingers pointing back at yourself but most people turn there heads and lock where you are pointing. Smart people aren’t listening to you anyway. Unfortunately they are not the majority. The crowd of people who are most concerned about money, status, celebrity, power, getting ahead, etc. well they are the majority. The blind hatred of Iran and Russia is a form of conformity and think speak. It is obviously irrational . There behaviors has absolutely no impact on the lives of Americans. This conformity to an irrational hatred facilitates rising in the National Security apparatus, getting a better job and becoming “somebody” . This is really easy to understand . Didn’t you go the High School? You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat> How can you expect to have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat? Pink Floyd. He got beat up often .

  6. nexusxyz
    December 9, 2016 at 02:30

    Iran will conclude mutual defence pacts with Russia and China. This obviously means that an attack on Iran will go global. The US would never be able to invade and occupy Iran. The costs would be massive in both material and men.

  7. Wm. Boyce
    December 9, 2016 at 01:41

    So an ignoramus is taking charge of the U.S. government, and appointing a bunch of generals to advise him, even in matters that concern war. We’re going to “fight ISIS,” are we?

    Peace will not be in the offing.

  8. bluto
    December 8, 2016 at 19:26

    A very successful model for taking down the Apartheid state – no mention of BDS whatsoever and still gets the job done

    ‘The End of Political Judaism and 1P1V1S’

    WHEN: Saturday Dec 17 2016, 2:00 – 3:15 pm
    WHERE: Otay Branch San Diego Public Library,
    3003 Coronado Ave, San Diego, Ca 92154
    WHO: Dr Lance Dale


    ‘Welcome to Apartheid Israel’ – Tzipi Livni Nov 16, 2016
    Livni’s surrender of 1- retained Settlement Blocs, 2- the Wall, and 3- ending of Palestinian Right of Return

    Obama’s Greenlighting of the UN Sec Co Resolution against Israel triggered by the Palestine Annexation Law/(Amona)

    The 3 Existential Events (seen as such by Israel itself) for the Collapse of Israeli Apartheid:
    The Iran Nuclear Deal, UN Sec Co Resolution against Israel, and the ICC

    ‘The 3rd Israeli Generals Revolt (CIS) vs Bibi and the Settlers’
    -The Commanders for Israeli Security (CIS)

    ‘The Diskin/CIS UN Chapter 7 Plan and the Dismantling of Israeli Apartheid’

    The Israeli Civil War:
    ‘Obama and the CIS vs Bibi, Adelson and the Settlers’

    ‘1P1V1S (-One Person One Vote One State) replacing Apartheid’
    -Marwan Barghouti and 1P1V1S from Shining River to Shining Sea

    Political Judaism and Kahanism in Israel and the US – Settlers, the Kahanist Alt Right, and the Israeli Lobby/Jewish Lobby’s Islamophobia cottage industry

    The Successful 2nd American Revolution of 4-2-15 and the Iran Nuclear Deal’

    ‘How the Israeli/Israeli Lobby ‘Clean Break Dream’ perished in Aleppo’

    Q and A after talk…

  9. Bill Bodden
    December 8, 2016 at 19:02

    A U.S. war with Iran would be disastrous for all interests except Iranian hardliners, ISIS and those who exploit Middle Eastern instability, others in the region doing ignoble things from which they would like to divert attention, and speculators who are long on the price of oil. Iran would strike back asymmetrically at times and places of its choosing,

    The fleet stationed in Bahrain would certainly be vulnerable. If all the ships in that fleet suddenly weighed anchor to get out of the gulf, Iran might think it a judicious idea to cut them off at the Strait of Hormuz.

  10. Bill Bodden
    December 8, 2016 at 18:53

    When he says that “Iran is not an enemy of ISIS” and that “I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief,”

    Someone needs to tell Mattis that ISIS is a Sunni organization funded by Sunni dictators on the Arabian peninsula who are very hostile to Iran whose religion is Shi’ite.

  11. Abe
    December 8, 2016 at 15:59

    President-elect Trump’s national security appointees are part of Official Washington’s “we-love-Israel” group think, also known as “the Establishment,” dramatically increasing the likelihood of yet another Mideast war waged on behalf of Israel.

    Instead of speaking euphemistically about “Iran-haters” or talking generally about “hawks”, it’s time to accurately identify these characters as “Israel Lobby money-lovers” and “pro-Israel warmongers”.

    After we establish accurate terminology and clear perspective, let’s revisit the issue of all those IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Then we can address all the WMD in Israel.

  12. LJ
    December 8, 2016 at 15:50

    The Neoconservatives wanted Hillary and they want Iran. As the President of Iran stated before our election the American voters choice was between bad and worse. Trump was belligerent about the Iran deal previous to the election. Either way War with Iran was definitely on the table. Besides Mattis, the Director of the CIA and apparently the Israelis also don’t want the deal scuttled, So we will see. The Congress and the Senate would support an attack on Iran under any circumstances AND HAVE ALREADY VOTED SINCE THE ELECTION TO CONTINUE SANCTIONS WHICH Technically ABROGATES THE DEAL IPSO FACTO. But no matter who was President. Nonetheless , Russia and China will not give up Syria and Iran which are integral to China’s One Belt , One Road policy. I do not see Trump attacking Iran. It would mean WW III. He’s not that STUPID.

    • Maria S calef
      December 11, 2016 at 21:17

      Despite of AIPAC and USA Congress intention to fight Iran, there is an international agreement that includes not USA _Iran, but others countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency. So the violation will affect the others signatories of Iran Deal.

  13. Ragnar Ragnarsson
    December 8, 2016 at 12:46

    When Romney was running in 2012, he was actively beating the war drums for Iran. If he was our president elect, I’d be worried.

    Trump has repeatedly said that the Iran deal was a disaster and should be revoked. I don’t believe he once said anything about bombing Iran unlike previous aspirants to office. Remember McCain: bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran?

    Straight from the article: “Mattis, to his credit, has said that junking the accord now would be a mistake regardless of one’s previous views of it”

    This from the man who also changed Trumps view on torture by saying something along the lines of, I can get more done with a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers.

    If a person would go back and research the things Trump has said about foreign policy for the last almost 20 years, it’s obvious the man wants to pursue peace in the world. Out of every single person who has run or held office in the last 16 years, he’s the one who gives me the most hope of PNAC finally being tipped into the dustbin of history.

    For all the alarmist bloviation flooding the nation about Trump, I think he’s actually going to do a whole lot more good and a whole lot less harm than we’ve seen in a very, very long time.

    • exiled off mainstreet
      December 9, 2016 at 16:18

      While I am hopeful, and while I discount Pillar’s views, since he appeared to be in the bag for the uniquely dangerous harpy during the campaign, I would not totally discount this article. I think the fact that Russia is fully behind Iran at the present time will limit the nature of the actions he takes. I think it is significant in his speeches that he states that regime change is off the table. I do suspect he will engage in more sanctions, and that the end result may be to weaken US dominance over the world financial system, but this is a disquieting aspect of his entourage.

  14. Hillary
    December 8, 2016 at 06:53

    Unless Trump is able to escape the dominating influence of AIPAC & the American Jewish/Zionist Israeli lobby Iran is doomed.

    • John Doe II
      December 8, 2016 at 11:51

      You’re going to be told lots of things.
      You get told things every day that don’t happen.

      It doesn’t seem to bother people, they don’t—
      It’s printed in the press.
      The world thinks all these things happen.
      They never happened.

      Everyone’s so eager to get the story
      Before in fact the story’s there
      That the world is constantly being fed
      Things that haven’t happened.

      All I can tell you is,
      It hasn’t happened.
      It’s going to happen.

      Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
      —Feb. 28, 2003, Department of Defense briefing

    • Joe Tedesky
      December 8, 2016 at 14:37

      Israel should be made to honor the nuclear nonproliferation treaties like every other nation.

      • Call A Spade
        December 11, 2016 at 02:49

        They should be nuked.

    • JWalters
      December 8, 2016 at 21:08

      This chaos in the Middle East was predicted back in the 1940’s by many knowledgeable people, including both the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. In rough form, it was engineered.

      • Call A Spade
        December 11, 2016 at 02:52

        The ANZACs attacked Turkey not for a trade route but to secure Iraq and Iran for oil.

    • Call A Spade
      December 11, 2016 at 02:49

      Russia/ China may see this as the trigger point and nuke the US then what start eating your dead family members?

Comments are closed.