If the White House has an Iran policy, “the only one visible is confrontation,” says Adam Weinstein of the National Iranian American Council
Aaron Maté : It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The White House says it believes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is preparing a new chemical weapons attack and that he will pay a heavy price if it happens. The statement surprised many Pentagon officials who said they were kept in the dark. Speaking to Congress today, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said the warning is also directed at Russia and Iran. Nikki Haley: The goal is at this point not just to send Assad a message but to send Russia and Iran a message that if this happens again, we are putting you on notice. Aaron Maté : The warning comes at a time when the US is increasingly taking aim at Iran in Syria and beyond. US forces in Syria have targeted Iranian proxies on the ground. A series of news reports say White House officials want to target Iran in Syria and even oust its government in Tehran. From President Trump on down, top administration members have made hostile comments and openly embraced Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia. Adam Weinstein is a policy associate at the National Iranian American Council. Adam, welcome. Adam Weinstein: Thank you for having me. Aaron Maté : Thanks for joining us. Each week seems to bring new developments in the Trump White House’s confrontational posture towards Iran. Let’s start with the latest. If you could respond to this statement that was put out by the White House yesterday warning Syria and also Russia and Iran about a possible chemical weapons attack and also talk about the context for what’s happening right now with US forces targeting Iranian proxies inside Syria. Adam Weinstein: It certainly seems like an unusual time for the Assad regime to conduct a chemical attack. We know that it likely has been a tactic of theirs in the past in which they sort of bombarded a civilian population in order to send a message to other pockets of rebel resistance, but right now does not seem like a rational time for the Assad regime to be considering an attack. Furthermore, what cast doubt on the White House statement is the fact that the Pentagon had no idea about it. I think what we see is an escalation in Syria followed by White House efforts to legitimize that escalation. So you look at targeting of, I believe it’s Kata’ib Imam Ali, which is a militia that has some connections to Iran in the al-Tanf area of Syria. The alleged reason for targeting that militia is that they were getting too close to US Special Forces, but it’s unusual because just a year ago, US Special Forces were calling in close air support for that very same militia in operations in Iraq. So what we see is this sort of escalation that’s happening in Syria followed by White House efforts to legitimize that escalation and portray Iran or Iran-backed militias as the aggressor. Aaron Maté : Yeah. Adam, there have been a series of reports in the media about this, as I mentioned, but on Friday, there was a really important one in The Washington Post that did not get a lot of attention. For the first time, it quoted a White House official, anonymously but still had a quote basically confirming that the goal now is to target and confront Iranian forces inside Syria. That official was quoted as saying, “If you’re worried that any incident anywhere could cause Iran to take advantage of vulnerable US forces, if you don’t think America has real interests that are worth fighting for, then fine.” The official also said that the expanded US role would not require more troops comparing it to The Rat Patrol, the 1960s television series about small Allied desert forces deployed against the Germans in Northern African during World War II. The official in this piece basically confirming that, also said that Iran is as much of a priority to the White House as is the Islamic State. Why is Iran and targeting Iranian forces such a priority for the US inside Syria? Adam Weinstein: I think it’s a priority for the Trump administration and those around him. President Trump has surrounded himself by people who have long called for a regime change in Iran. I also think it speaks to one of President Trump’s campaign promises where he said he was going to rip up the JCPOA and the nuclear deal, and he criticized the Obama administration very harshly for being supposedly soft on Iran. So I think there’s a domestic element to it where the Trump administration is trying to appear as if it’s sticking to its campaign promises. And the Trump administration has also surrounded itself by individuals who very much support, at a minimum, limited strikes on Iran and possibly even regime change. There’s also neo-conservative calls for regime change within some think tanks in Washington, DC that have a relationship with the Trump administration and may be influential to his thinking. Aaron Maté : We should say the calls for regime change are not even anonymous anymore. Speaking recently to Congress, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the US supports a transition of government inside Tehran. In fact, let’s go to that clip. Rex Tillerson: Our policy towards Iran is to push back on this hegemony, contain their ability to develop obviously nuclear weapons, and to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government. Aaron Maté : Adam, when he talks there about a peaceful transition of government and supporting elements there that would further that goal, what and who is he talking about? Adam Weinstein: I’m not sure who he is talking about because there are no elements in Iran that are peaceful that would call for a full transition of government or a full regime change. Of course, there’s the Mojahedin-e Khalq who mostly exist in exile and were until 2012, I believe, listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the Department of State. But there are no elements within Iran calling for total regime change. Of course, there’s a large segment of the Iranian population that is extremely critical of the Iranian government in Tehran, and they might even like to see a new government, but they’ve chosen to express themselves at the ballot box, and that’s why we saw a 75% turnout at the recent presidential elections that reelected Rouhani. That’s why we saw in 2009 there were protests, but the protests were limited to electoral reforms to the fact that the Iranian masses thought that their vote had been stolen, but the protests never rose to the level of calling for a total regime change. So I’m not sure what Mr. Tillerson is talking about, what elements he’s talking about. Aaron Maté : Let’s talk about some of the side effects of this hostility towards Iran. A lot of attention is on Syria and rightly so given the amount of foreign countries involved there including the US and Iran. But a place like Afghanistan does not get very much attention even though the Iran role there, as you’ve written about, could be very critical. At the start of the US invasion in 2001, Iran actually cooperated with the US against the Taliban, and you make the argument, which most people aren’t familiar with, that the US actually can’t solve the Afghan War without Iran’s help. Adam Weinstein: That’s true, and I’m not the only one who has made that argument. Scholars such as Ahmed Rashid who’s a famous journalist from Pakistan who wrote the book Taliban among others, Barnett Rubin who I believe is now at NYU have also made those arguments that what you need is a regional solution for Afghanistan that includes Pakistan, that includes Iran. I think something that a lot of Americans don’t realize is prior to 9/11, Iran had also been a victim of terrorism by the Taliban. Their diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif were executed by the Taliban. At one point, it appeared that Iran might actually launch a ground invasion into Afghanistan, but they chose not to, mostly because they feared getting into a conflict with the US and Saudi Arabia. And this is before 9/11. After 9/11, the Iranian government offered its condolences, the Iranian people especially offered their condolences, and Iran saw a mutual enemy in the Taliban and sought essentially shared intelligence with the US and very much helped the US early on in the war effort. In fact, a recent book about Iran and Pakistan written by Alex Vatanka who’s at the Middle East Institute says that Taliban representatives went to Tehran and asked Iran essentially what would its position be in the US were to invade Afghanistan, and Iran’s answer was more or less, “We don’t support a Taliban government in Afghanistan.” However, the Bush administration then labeled Iran as part of the Axis of Evil and opened a new front in Iraq. From Iran’s perspective, it saw itself as surrounded by the US military on both of its borders, and it did not view the war in Afghanistan as a conflict that was going to be quick but one in which the US would stay for possibly decades, and we now see that that’s likely true. So that’s where you see Iran in some cases assisting elements of the Taliban or at least keeping lines of communication open with the Taliban, and then you see a more contentious relationship. But the US really squandered an opportunity to work with Iran at least in the limited scope of stabilizing Afghanistan. Not only was this an opportunity to improve US-Iran relations, but it is impossible for a landlocked country like Afghanistan to achieve some level of economic independence and some level of stability if it does not have a strong relationship with Iran and Pakistan. Aaron Maté : Okay. Finally, another angle that I think is overlooked is the role of Democrats in all of this. Certainly, it’s true that the hostility from the Trump administration towards Iran is very different than what we saw under President Obama who, of course, negotiated the nuclear deal. But I’m wondering to what extent Democratic policies in recent years and in recent decades have abetted this, have sort of laid the groundwork perhaps for what’s happening today. We’ve had Democrats recently join with Republicans in voting for new sanctions on Iran even after the recent attack inside Tehran, and there’s a history of Democrats laying the groundwork for the more bellicose policies of their predecessors. I’m thinking about Iraq where President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, but before that you had years of US sanctions that crippled Iraq and also sporadic bombings by the US under President Clinton, and I’m wondering if President Obama and his administration, not withstanding the Iran nuclear deal, could’ve done more to avoid a situation like this today. Adam Weinstein: I’m not sure that the Obama administration itself could’ve done more. You saw it received an immense amount of pushback for the JCPOA alone. I think the Obama administration hoped that a candidate would’ve been elected that would’ve continued its work. I definitely think the Obama administration, at least as a long horizon goal, sought to normalize relations with Iran. But as you point out, when it comes to Iran, both Democrats and Republicans have been in agreement often about sanctions about the label of Iran as the largest state sponsor of terrorism. What we see in Washington, DC is that explicit state sponsors of terrorism like Iran, which openly funds Hezbollah, for example, or has in the past funded Hamas, are treated much more harshly than what you might call implicit state sponsors of terrorism like Saudi Arabia, which export extremism or clandestinely sponsor terrorist groups. That double standard has produced very negative ramifications for US foreign policy in which we often ignore the bigger threat for a threat that just isn’t that substantial to the US. It’s not so say that Iran does not pose a threat to the US, but when Iran has just elected a moderate for a second- Aaron Maté : Adam? Adam? Adam Weinstein: Yes. Aaron Maté : How does Iran pose a threat to the US? Adam Weinstein: Iran does not, in my opinion, does not pose an existential threat, but Iran certainly has its own goals in the region that don’t align with US goals. Iran would like to have some influence in Iraq, and of course it’s only natural that it would have influence in Iraq the same way the US has influence in Mexico. There’s a shared culture among … There’s a shared religion. They might not be Arab, but they share Shiism. Many of the clerical elite have intermarried with one another for generations. So there’s a relationship there that’s difficult to severe. So I understand the argument that Iran’s support of groups like Hezbollah does pose a threat, but it doesn’t pose an existential threat. The way to approach that threat is not through military force or through an escalation of tensions or through a draconian sanctions regime. Aaron Maté : Adam, listen, I think this is tangential. I don’t want to get in a big debate over it, but in terms of Iranian support for Hezbollah being a threat to the US, what that support means is that Hezbollah is able to fight Israel. What is Hezbollah’s goal? Why was it established? It was founded in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and has kept up the fight ever since as a way to deter Israeli aggression. But that is being sidetracked. Just one more thing. You said that Obama wanted to normalize relations with Iran, but why didn’t he? He had the choice, but he didn’t. Adam Weinstein: I’m not sure he did have the choice. There was a lack of political will in the US, and there was a lack of political will in Iran. Once the JCPOA was achieved, you saw hardliners in Iran, there was an uptick in anti-US rhetoric, there was an uptick in arrests, there was an uptick in censorship because I think hardliners were afraid of an opening. I think hardliners see an opening with the West as an existential threat to themselves. So I think Obama was in a difficult situation. Perhaps he could’ve pushed harder on trying to engage in talks with Iran on Syria. That might’ve been one way. Possibly Afghanistan. I think he could’ve provided more clarity to foreign businesses and to banks that they can now do business in Iran. I think there was a lack of clarity following the JCPOA, which led to a chilling effect in investment, and I think Iran very much resents that and feels that the US has violated the spirit of the deal. So there are some things the Obama administration could have done, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I think he needed more time. Aaron Maté : Lastly now, quickly, looking forward, what do you expect to see happening with the Trump administration and Iran? What are possible areas of concern where the White House could ramp up confrontation even more? Adam Weinstein: I think the biggest area of concern is that, frankly, I don’t think the Trump administration even has an Iran policy. If they do have an Iran policy, the only one that’s visible is one of confrontation. We have no back channel diplomacy from what I know. You may remember that Secretary Kerry had Foreign Minister Zarif on speed dial if they needed to deescalate something, and when the US sailors ventured into Iranian territorial waters, they were released in less than 24 hours because of that relationship. Those relationships no longer exist. There is no diplomatic relationship, and there are so many potential sparks for an escalation in conflict that’s either intentional or possibly a result of a misunderstanding. It could happen due to a naval incident in the Strait of Hormuz. It could happen in Syria. It could happen in Iraq. There’s no telling. I don’t know what the Trump administration itself envisions, and I don’t think obviously from what we’ve seen with the latest statement on the supposedly imminent chemical attack in Syria the Trump administration doesn’t seem to be in communication with many of its advisors. But certainly the inner circle around the Trump administration wants to see an escalation in tensions that eventually provoke Iran itself into leaving the JCPOA and a deterioration in relations. Whether the Trump administration wants a full-scale conflict with Iran is anybody’s guess. I think that’s still speculation at this point, but there are certainly elements within the Trump administration that have indicated that they would like to see a conflict with Iran and certainly indicated that they would like to see regime change, and I frankly don’t see any path to regime change without a full-scale and disastrous conflict that would make Iraq look benign. Aaron Maté : Just to clarify for those who aren’t familiar with the acronym, the JCPOA refers to the Iran nuclear deal. Adam Weinstein, policy associate at the National Iranian American Council. Adam, thank you. Adam Weinstein: Thank you. Aaron Maté : And thank you for joining us on The Real News.