Trump’s Iran-Bashing Distraction

Like other U.S. presidents, Donald Trump is falling in line behind the Israeli-Saudi fiction that Iran is the principal source for world terrorism and regional disorder, a dangerous turn, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

One of the most direct indications of Donald Trump’s failure, or refusal, to understand issues involving Iran is his tweeted declaration this week that the Iranians “should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!”

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)

It supposedly should be an occasion for Iranian thankfulness when Iran, subjected to economic punishment, gains only partial relief from that punishment through difficult negotiations in which it subjects itself to greater restrictions and more intrusive monitoring than any other state has willingly accepted for its nuclear program, even though some neighbors unfriendly to Iran not only have nuclear programs without those restrictions but also nuclear weapons.

No mention is made of Iran abiding by the agreement while most of the questions about compliance concern U.S. behavior and sanctions relief — which is why many Iranian hardliners argue that the nuclear agreement was a bad deal from Iran’s perspective.

Another illusionary Trump tweet asserts that Iran “was on its last legs” — which it certainly was not, having endured not only years of sanctions but also an extremely costly war begun by Iraq — until the U.S. “gave it a life-line in the form of the Iran deal: $150 billion.” That $150 billion figure has long been discredited, with regard not only to the amount but also to how Trump and others who have thrown it about ignore how money that came into Iran’s hands (unfrozen overseas assets, and restitution for goods the United States never delivered) was always Iran’s money to begin with.

In explaining the timing of Trump’s declarations, one always has to look at what he is trying to divert attention from, and right now the uproar over the anti-Muslim travel ban is no doubt involved. But the supposed trigger for these tweets and for an anti-Iran blast that Trump’s national security adviser delivered in the White House press room was an Iranian test of a ballistic missile. Missiles have long been used by Iran-bashers as a red herring.

Singling Out Iran 

Missiles of various ranges are so much integrated into conventional armed forces, and missile proliferation has gone so far in the Middle East, that it does not make sense to single out an Iranian missile test as something that, in the hyperbolic language of security adviser Flynn, are among Iranian actions that “undermine security, prosperity, and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East and place American lives at risk.”

Retired U.S. Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn at a campaign rally for Donald Trump at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Oct. 29, 2016. (Flickr Gage Skidmore)

If rivals of Iran can’t develop their own missiles, they buy them. Saudi Arabia has bought them from China. The United Arab Emirates has bought them from North Korea. Short of the negotiation of a comprehensive regional missile disarmament pact, Iran will have missiles.

Former State Department intelligence officer Greg Thielmann highlights the most important points about this latest attempt to brew a tempest in the Iranian missile teapot. A prohibition on Iranian missile activity incorporated in a United Nations Security Council resolution that was enacted during Barack Obama’s presidency was intended and used, just like other sanctions, as one more pressure point on Iran to induce it to negotiate restrictions on its nuclear program.

Accordingly, the later Security Council resolution enacted after negotiation of the nuclear agreement included only a hortatory clause “calling” on Iran to lay off the missile tests. It is at best a stretch to call the latest test a “violation” of this resolution, and it certainly is not a violation of the nuclear agreement or any other agreement that Iran has signed.

As long as the nuclear agreement lives and Iran does not have nuclear weapons, Iranian ballistic missiles are of minor importance, and they do not pose a threat to U.S. interests (and this most recent test, by the way, was a failure).

Thielmann summarizes as follows the environment that Iranian defense planners face, and the reasons Iranian missiles are a symptom rather than a cause of conflict and weapons proliferation in the Middle East: “During the eight-year war following Iraq’s invasion, Iran was more the victim of than the source of ballistic missiles raining down death and destruction. In spite of its large missile arsenal, Iran has no long-range ballistic missiles; three of its regional neighbors do. Iran has no nuclear warheads for its missiles; two of its regional neighbors do. Iran does not have a large and modern air force as an alternative means of projecting force as do Saudi Arabia and Israel.”

Misrepresenting the Yemen War

The other bit of allegedly “destabilizing behavior” by Iran on which Flynn focused concerned the civil war in Yemen and most recently an attack by Houthi rebels on a Saudi warship. Flynn disregarded how whatever aid Iran gives to the Houthis pales in comparison to the direct military intervention by the Saudis and Emiratis, which is responsible for most of the civilian casualties and suffering in this war. It would be surprising if the Houthis, or any force on the opposite side of this conflict from the Saudis, did not try to go after Saudi forces at sea as well as on land. 

Flynn also disregarded how the Houthis are not obedient clients of Iran, how in the past the Houthis have ignored Iranian advice urging restraint in their operations, and how there is no evidence whatever, at least not among what is publicly known, that Iran had anything to do the attack on the Saudi ship, let alone of posing a similar threat to U.S. assets in the area. Nor was anything said about how the major U.S. terrorist concern in Yemen — Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — is on the anti-Houthi side in this war. Nor anything about how former president and longtime U.S. counterterrorist partner Ali Abdullah Salih has been allied with the Houthis.

Flynn’s statement represents a taking sides in a local rivalry for no good reason, and in which the United States does not have a critical stake. One of several harmful consequences of this kind of needless side-taking is to embolden those who side is taken to engage in more destructive behavior without being brought to account.

James Dorsey describes this way the destructive behavior that Riyadh is encouraged to take by the United States siding so unquestioningly with the Saudis in their rivalry with Iran: “A four-decade long, $100 billion global Saudi effort to box in, if not undermine, a post-1979 revolution Iranian system of government that it sees as an existential threat to the autocratic rule of the Al Saud family by funding ultra-conservative political and religious groups has contributed to the rise of supremacism, intolerance and anti-pluralism across the Muslim world and created potential breeding grounds of extremism.”

Several motivations are driving the Trump administration onto its collision course with Iran (including—as a subject for another time — Trump going all in with the right-wing government of Israel). There is the general and enduring negative view of Iran among Americans; capitalizing on this is exploitation that Trump shares with many politicians of both parties. There is the legacy of using opposition to the nuclear accord as a way of frustrating and opposing Barack Obama at every turn — something that Trump shares with other Republicans.

Somewhat more specific to Trump and his team is how confrontation with Iran is a way of putting the specific, named face of a nation-state onto the Islamophobia that pervades the Trump White House. Other states would not serve that purpose as well, including the other six of the states subject to the total ban on inward travelers. Iraq is supposed to be supported by the United States, Sudan is too peripheral for people to get worked up about, and the other four are beset by so much internal warfare that it would not be credible to portray them as an external threat. Other Muslim nations, such as Saudi Arabia, are not convenient targets for other reasons, perhaps including Trump’s business interests.

None of these are sound motivations as far as U.S. interests are concerned. The unsound motivations get reinforced by personal animus toward Iran even among a more thoughtful official such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis. If anything is to influence the President in the opposite direction, it might have something to do with his friend Vladimir Putin getting him in line with Russia on the war in Syria, which would mean acting more in parallel with Iran than in conflict with it.

Meanwhile, Trump and Flynn leave themselves no apparent exit from an ever-escalating confrontation with Iran, no matter what the Iranians could reasonably do.

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.) 

24 comments for “Trump’s Iran-Bashing Distraction

  1. John
    February 3, 2017 at 20:19

    Too early to draw a conclusion……agreed…. Israel wants USA armed forces to do their ……how do we say….dirty work….. Your son or daughter……Do the math…. maybe ?

  2. Rob Roy
    February 3, 2017 at 20:13

    Thank you. Bottom line, Israel wants the war with Iran. If one could name one reason Trump got elected, it would be Obama. If Obama had done his job as he should have and could have, Trump would not be in office. Obama could have passed single payer health care with one sentence the day after inauguration. He could have expanded social security by uncapping wages. He could have refused to sign ridiculous amounts of money to the military and instead put people to work on the infrastructure…repairing roads, building bridges, refurbishing schools and public buildings. He could have passed a universal basic income (like Finland). He could have strengthened the public school system. He could have tried the war criminals in international court. He could have chosen a good secretary of state, not a war hawk. He could have brought the crooked bankers to trial. He could have encircled himself with decent people who would do their best for the citizens, instead of a known dishonest assembly. He could have refused to sign the Patriot Act and the NDAA. He could have made clear that Iran and Russia were/are no threat to the US. He could have praised whistleblowers instead of letting them be indicted and go to prison. He could have refused to try to unseat Assad. He could have said no to Hilary’s attacking Libya and no to the Ukraine debacle.He had the wind at his back and he utterly failed. Because he didn’t not do any of these things, Trump is in office and he has chosen the worst of the worst to surround him. If the VIPS say there’s no evidence of Russia hacking the DNC and Julian Assange says it was a leak, not a hack, that tells me the accusations are garbage. The New York Times and Washington Post are written by compromising reporters who will, again, push the hype about Iran and Russia, so, yes, there will be wars to come, and civil rights and the backward slide into disenfranchisement of women and minorities will continue apace. Obama let this happen. It’s time the rest of the world ganged up on the USA.

    • Joe J Tedesky
      February 4, 2017 at 01:10

      At least you see things for what they are Rob Roy. What you show with your words is what is lacking in our country to no end, and that is you have cut through the noise to rightfully place the blame, not on one party, not on one ideology, nor any of that, but on the truth and the whole truth at that.

    • KB Gloria
      February 9, 2017 at 13:52

      I would like to know your, and others, thoughts on who we could have elected that would have taken care of all that starting in 2008 after the Bush wars tanked the economy. I am not being facetious, I am really wondering, because it seems to me, and probably to other readers of Robert Parry, that most of this garbage started with Reagan?? Or earlier with I am asking, seriously, for me–I just read a Jeff Greenfield book, “Then Everything Changed” about what would’ve happened if Kennedy had died in 1960, Robert Kennedy survived to win, or Ford won, no Jimmy Carter, no Ronald Reagan. It is speculative, but plausible–and these comments made me think, “If not for Bush, then probably no Obama? and then what Rob, said, if not for Obama, no Trump.”

      Where would we start to stop the line leading to Trump?

  3. Herman
    February 3, 2017 at 14:26

    Regarding my hopes for Trump regarding the phony Cold War, to remain hopeful I need to add more tint to my rose colored glasses. The most stunning action so far was the Ambassador to the UN calling Russia and aggressor in the latest Ukrainian Government provocations and calling for Russia to return the Crimea or risk further sanctions. Regarding the matter of the Crimea, how can efforts at détente ever overcome such remarks. It doesn’t seem possible and suggests the cooperation between Russia and the United States against radical extremism is become less and less likely.

    Amazing stuff.

    • Bart in Virginia
      February 3, 2017 at 17:12

      Maybe our ambassador to the UN could work a trade with Russia, giving them Charleston, SC, for a warm water port. Some dredging required.

      • John
        February 3, 2017 at 20:21

        Bart….lol !! …..Thanks for the humor : )……….

  4. February 3, 2017 at 14:01

    Another article on Iran:
    “The Trump Administration’s Lies About Iran”
    By DANIEL LARISON • February 2, 2017, 2:01 PM

    • Zachary Smith
      February 3, 2017 at 18:18

      Nice link.

      Spicer has managed to combine Flynn’s nonsensical statement blaming Iran for the attack with the garbage analysis I mentioned earlier in the week that the attack had been intended for a U.S. ship, and he has produced something even more divorced from reality. No U.S. ship was attacked or targeted by anyone, Iran wasn’t responsible for the attack that did happen, and yet according to the Trump White House Iran took “hostile actions” against one of our ships.

      By allowing these morons to say these things in his name, Trump is doing himself an awful lot of unnecessary damage. If this nonsense is allowed to continue they’re going to continue with that damage.

      • Greg Herr
        February 4, 2017 at 09:35

        They may as well say that the Iranian aggression of placing their land and territorial waters so close to our ships cannot stand! A majority of Congress would nod their heads in unblinking approval.

  5. February 3, 2017 at 13:50

    I believe this war madness could result in World War Three. The article below says it all. Iran is on the “hit list.”

    “The U.S. Plan To Topple All 7 Countries On Trump’s Refugee Ban List”

    “According to four-star General Wesley Clark, shortly after the attacks of 9/11, the Pentagon adopted a plan to topple the governments of seven countries; Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran.”…
    [read much more at link below]
    By Darius Shahtahmasebi | January 27, 2017

    • evelync
      February 3, 2017 at 16:15

      Yes, thanks for reminding us of Clark’s warning. He also led an effort when he was running for president in 2004 to “Stop the Iran War”. I remember him saying that Iran is a “multicultural country of 80 million people”. that should give our “leaders” pause but it doesn’t – they just keep up the war mongering.

      How dare Trump and the rest of the foreign policy anti Iran bozos pretend that Iran is monolithic. From what Clark said, it’s an incredibly diverse, ancient culture.

      If we hadn’t been lackies for Britain/Shell oil and orchestrated a coup against their democratically elected Mosadegh, installing the vicious, torturing Shah, leading to the revolution of the Mullahs, we’d look a lot better in the rear view mirror.

      As a Democrat, I voted for Gary Johnson cause he promised no more regime change.

      We’re determined, apparently, to blow up the world while ignoring problems at home.

      • Joe J Tedesky
        February 4, 2017 at 01:02

        I’ve heard it said that Iran has the second largest Jewish community in the Middle East, next to Israel’s. Descriptions of targeted society’s is always slanted in a bad way, when the warmongers want to go to war. Although I know you already know that, I thought my comment would further extend your thought.

        • John
          February 7, 2017 at 05:26

          The Iranian Jews actually get a disproportionately large representation in the Iranian Parliament as well. Israel has offered them substantially large amounts of money to relocate to Israel, and the Iranian Jews decline because, as they follow the Torah, they see any support of Israel as a sin. (The Jewish religion teaches that G-d exiled the Jewish people from Zion because of their sins, and will send the Mosiach to lead them to Zion when both the people and the land are ready. Any attempt to return to Zion by the hand of man is therefore tantamount to blasphemy.)

          Iran also has many Zoroastrians, Baha’i, and others.

          As a side note, the Iranian Muslim heirarchy has issued a fatwah against nuclear weapons, calling aby pursuit of nuclear weapons a sin against Islam.

  6. Joe J Tedesky
    February 3, 2017 at 13:20

    While I give up hope that a person with the views of a Paul Pillar will ever have an appearance on CNN, or another network like it, I find it almost hard to believe that America is pursuing this Iranian ill thought out gamble. Iran should go the route of dear old Israel, and throw nuclear proliferation to the wind, and do as the Israeli’s did and secretly build a nuclear arsenal the size of Israel’s and Saudi’s combined. When it comes to Russia it is as though we Americans want Russia to choose sides. None of this saber rattling will have a good outcome.

    • Bill Bodden
      February 3, 2017 at 14:12

      I find it almost hard to believe that America is pursuing this Iranian ill thought out gamble.

      Simple, Joe. Trump and his team are either not playing with full decks or they are suffering from megalomania.

      Meanwhile, Trump and Flynn leave themselves no apparent exit from an ever-escalating confrontation with Iran, no matter what the Iranians could reasonably do.

      Megalomaniacs and other egotists are never inclined to admitting they could be wrong.

      Estimates from reliable sources indicate that the Bush/Cheney war on Iraq will have an ultimate cost to the U.S. in the range of $3 to $5 TRILLION. Can we afford another and more costly war with Iran? Come to think of it, a war with Iran would also mean reviving the war with Iraq – at least the part of Iraq allied with Iran.

      • Joe J Tedesky
        February 4, 2017 at 00:56

        It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but the volume of lies being told in America has gone through the roof. I mean to tell you, their lying on the right, and they are lying on the left, too a point that I find it unbearable. The saddest part is that all the truth tellers have been confined to Internet sites…and then the hype is your reading fake news.

    • Realist
      February 4, 2017 at 01:59

      1. America always needs and creates an international whipping boy who gets blamed and punished for the unwise policies of our own leaders. At this time, Iran shares that distinction with Russia. Trump must find another such scape goat (China anyone?) if he is to lighten up on either one of them. Until this week, I retained hope that might be possible.

      2. Russia has and always will choose sides–it’s own best interests, just like every other country on the planet does, though not always very effectively under the intense pressure that Uncle Sam brings upon the globe. Maybe I should have specified that Putin will choose Russia’s best interests, as American pressure did get Yeltsin to give away the farm.

      3. I was always of a mind that Iran, which is a very modernised, Westernized, highly educated and (aside from undue religious influences) a rather “liberal” country in the global scheme of things (many highly educated Iranian doctors, scientists, professors and other professionals trained and living in the United States who maintain close family back home and frequently bring their relatives to the States which they love, if not its government), should be given the respect and prerogatives to maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons the same as the Pakistanis, Chinese, Indians, and Israelis. They are not savages and they are not suicidal. They would hold the weapons only for deterrence, not for use in a first strike against Israel as everyone in the West maintains (but surely cannot believe). Short of vaporizing Iran in a genocidal war which the American and Israeli governments seem to crave, we have insanely settled for disrespecting and punishing them at every turn. The sanctions, being maintained in the face of the nuclear treaty which agreed to end them, is simply making them continue to crawl on their belly before the whole world and then rubbing their faces in the mud when they complain. It is outrageous. Our leaders plan the same for Putin if he ever cracks. It’s what they do.

      • Joe J Tedesky
        February 4, 2017 at 11:04

        Poking a stick at Russia, Iran, or China, is said by some to have a strong effect on the price of oil, and a hedging pay off in the markets. This could all be true, oil goes up, and sliding markets for those who bet against them, will leave a lot of cash on the table for some lucky one for sure. Considering all of that though, I still think our military involvement in the Middle East is a result of ‘the Clean Break’ ‘Yinon Plan’ rollout, and with that hidden mindset America has gone to war for Netanyahu’s brutal Israel.

        The same China which was a cheap labor market plus a potentially huge consumer market to be seen by mega corporations as a dream made in heaven, has finally evolved into a major product threat to these very same corporations who once saw a captive labor slave society now turn into a truly profound competitor. America cannot bear to see China control the South Asian Pacific countries, and with this same mindset America wants to contain Russia, Iran, or any other country who may have independent thoughts of that kind.

        Immigrants are like us. There will be the ones who rise to be professionals, as there will be those who fill in the labor pool openings where they can find work, but there will also come with the new immigrants the few who will join with our own bandits and thieves to the detriment of society. I know you are aware of this that there are good and bad among all of us, but I think more Americans have to hear this from time to time, because apparently there are many among us who forget where they came from. Oh, and to the very vain who judge by appearances I have one question, ‘have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately’? You must admit, and I’m included in this, but how frumpy and dumpy we Americans have become….case in point, please observe Americans waiting in any airline gate area, and then go comb your hair.

        • Realist
          February 4, 2017 at 17:24

          Frankly, we’ve been told we are exceptional far too often and far too long. Now we start awarding participatory prizes for merely being an American as soon as a kid can hold a plastic gold-painted trophy. Now I know that the average “Joe” in the street doesn’t set American foreign policy which is so onerous to our fellow human beings around the planet–he doesn’t even get any input–but he thinks it’s his patriotic duty to disdain and hate whomever he is told is a danger to him by our great leaders who act mostly in the interests of a few privileged characters. Maybe it’s because I was born in the mid-40’s, maybe it’s because I was educated by RC parochial schools, maybe it’s because all my paternal ancestors trace back to the hard-working, highly disciplined Kashube culture of Pomerania in, West Prussia, and my mother’s people were equally industrious volk from the Eifel region of Western Deutchland, but I agree with you that humans, in general but Americans in particular, need to be a good bit more introspective, self-critical, tolerant and altruistic and rather less egotistical, selfish, intolerant, paranoid and entitled. Maybe I have deceived myself, maybe our forebears whom we can still identify from the 19th and 20th centuries had the same faults that we have been conditioned through familiarity and admiration to overlook. I hope not. I would make one last point here, this truly warranted and appropriate honor and respect that should be given to human diversity and its many cultures, religions, races, languages and so forth should be extended to these people in situ–in their own parts of the world–not just when they immigrate to the United States and swear their allegiance to its government. We’ve got to learn to respect and fairly treat Iranians who remain loyal to their own society, and to Russians and Chinese who want to better their own countries and make them “great” amongst the nations of the world. We’d do well to get back to merely influencing other peoples by our good examples rather than wanting to dictate everything to them, because–just look at us, as you basically said–who are we to preach?

          • Joe J Tedesky
            February 5, 2017 at 00:29

            You are thoughtful person, and a good man. You my dear fellow are what America has to put out in front more often than we do. Sorry, but I truly liked what you wrote, and it sounded as though it came straight from the heart. Good on you Realist, your words are inspiring …Joe

    • Peter Loeb
      February 4, 2017 at 09:00

      JOE, I AGREE!

      I never really thought there would be an agreement between Iran and other
      nations as between equals. Rather I think that Iran should (by Executive Order???)
      withdraw from the deal in all its phases and from NPT as well.

      The one caveat should be: That Israel submit to similar agreements thus
      dismantling all its nuclear sites under random inspection from the
      UN, dismantle all sites for the manufacture of WMD’s. Etc. Israel
      is the greatest threat to world peace in the Mideast.

      Of course, Israel like Iran has been, should be subject to
      economic sanctions and embargo should it—for anhy reason—
      engage in any “behavior” beyond the bounds.

      The agreement should be under the UN and include Russia
      and China (as with Iran) as monitors. The US—which
      is funding prohibited behaviors should not be in any
      monitoring role.

      The many suggestions in the UN General Assembly passed
      overwhelmingly and blocked at the UN Security Council should
      form a basis.

      This author has made these suggestions many times in
      previous years.

      There are other areas of war crimes etc. by Israel which
      are not addressed in this particular suggestion.

      Incidentally, the Bible does not guarantee Israel’s
      right to arm without question. After all, Iran
      also has its sacred book(s).

      With the wisdom of hindsight, Iran should never have
      engaged in the nuclear deal as the US was never
      negotiating “in good faith”.

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

      • Joe J Tedesky
        February 4, 2017 at 10:35

        Peter, your point about focusing on Israel as we do on Iran, was the method to my madness. If I were king of the world I would do everything in my power to wipe the world clean of the many nuclear arsenals in all countries. In any case, what’s fair seems fair that if Iran is to be put through the hoops, then why not Israel and Saudi Arabia? Joe

  7. Mark Thomason
    February 3, 2017 at 13:06

    The War Party in the person of Hillary was promising exactly this, and demanding it.

    Why is Trump doing what they promised and still demand? It can only be the Deep State shaping information and options.

    Trump needs to break free of this.

Comments are closed.