Trump’s Iranophobic Picks Open a Path towards Confrontation
(Picture: Donald Trump and retired General James Mattis.)
US President-elect Donald Trump has opted for two fiercely anti-Iran generals, Mike Flynn and Jim Mattis, as White House national security adviser and Defense Secretary respectively, bound to tilt the next administration on the path of confrontation rather than engagement with Iran. The one big question remaining is whether or not Trump will opt for a similar hawkish pick for the position of secretary of state, in which case it is a guarantee that the US-Iran relations are headed for serious trouble.
Indeed, both Flynn and Mattis, despite their differences on Russia - Flynn sat next to Putin at a ceremony for Russian TV last year -the two retired generals are pretty much on the same page on Iran, demonizing Iran repeatedly in their speeches as one of US’ greatest foreign threats. Their zero-sum, Manichean images of Iran often conflate Islam with terrorism and reflect an obsession with the perceived “Iran threat” that, in Mattis’ case, led to his firing as the commander of CENTCOM in 2013. United by a firm conviction on the need for “get tough on Iran,” these two men are destined to a sharp increase in Iranophobic US policies under President Trump.
However, this does not mean that Flynn and Mattis are on the same page about the Iran nuclear agreement. In a major policy speech in April, 2016, Mattis accepted the nuclear deal as a fait accompli, albeit with the nuance that a better and more robust deal could have been worked out, in contrast to Flynn who is dead set against the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), much like Trump’s pick for CIA, Mike Pompeo, who was recently advised by his predecessor to avoid tearing up the agreement, which would be a “height of folly.”
Of course, it would be equally dumb on US’ part to erase the post-JCPOA gains in terms of US-Iran confidence-building reflected in the on-going peace efforts on Syria and Yemen, not to mention anti-terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Trump administration will definitely run the risk of being carried away by its incendiary anti-Iran rhetoric, partly to avoid the impression of a chasm between rhetoric and policy. In that case, US national interests would be harmed as a result of ideologically-driven, blind hostilities to Iran that lack sound rationalization from the prism of US’ own interests.
Henceforth, the charmed circle of Iranophobic officials surrounding Trump would be complete if the intensely anti-Iran former mayor of New York, Rudi Giuliani, is selected as the secretary of state. This might bring policy harmony to the White House, but at an exorbitantly high price that is destined to negatively affect US’ Middle East policy. On the other hand, should Trump opt for Mitt Romney, who is regarded as a more mainstream Republican politician, then Romney would be able to counterbalance the Flynn-Mattis duet and try at least to steer the US foreign policy in a sane direction. In fact, hypothetically speaking, Mattis’ choice may have increased the chances for Romney to become the next US secretary of state precisely on this ground. Still, it is almost a sure bet that in such a scenario the Defense and State Departments would not see eye to eye on a lot of issues, particularly on how to devise a sound post-Obama Middle East policy. The path of confrontation reflected in the public positions of Flynn and Mattis may also spill-over in the Russian rampart of Trump’s foreign policy, perhaps acting as a brake on the omnibus of Iranophobia.
Also, notwithstanding the policy differences between Flynn and Mattis, the former being regarded as essentially an Islamphobic far-right maniac compared to the more nuanced Mattis, who has evinced an intellectual awareness of the imperatives of interdependence in today’s complex world (e.g., in his 2015 testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee), it is perfectly possible to see a divided Trump administration, with his White House national security team singing a different tune, in which case the big question would be who would have the upper hands?
For now, however, what is clear is that serious troubled waters await to slam the ship of US-Iran diplomacy and the future of both these relations and, indeed, the whole Middle East is under a thick cloud of uncertainty.