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Col. Lawrence Wilkerson warns the Trump administration’s rhetoric on Iran reminds him of the prelude to the Iraq war – and could be setting the stage for a U.S. regime change effort in Tehran.

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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. It’s no secret some figures in the Trump administration are hostile to Iran, so last week they were put in a tough position. Under a congressional deadline, the White House was forced to tell lawmakers the truth: two years later Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. How was the news delivered? Well, check out this letter. The State Department’s announcement is called, quote, “Iran continues to sponsor terrorism.” Only down below do we read the fine print: Iran is, quote, “compliant with its commitments”. When you swallow a bitter pill like that, it helps to have a chaser. So, the White House also announced it’s now reviewing Iran policy. And the next day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this. REX TILLERSON: An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea. And take the world along with it. The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran. The evidence is clear: Iran’s provocative actions threaten the United States, the region, and the world. AARON MATÉ: That rhetoric echoes what we heard about Iraq before the 2003 invasion. So, what could it now portend? Well, joining us is someone with some unique insight. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff under President George W. Bush when they launched the drive to invade Iraq. He is now an adjunct professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel Wilkerson, welcome. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me. AARON MATÉ: I want to read to you how the New York Times reported Tillerson’s announcement. “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described a landmark Iran nuclear deal as a failure only hours after the State Department said Tehran was complying with its terms.” So, in the Trump administration’s formulation, a deal that Iran is complying with is a failure. How do you take that? LARRY WILKERSON: Well, first, I think what you said in your opening remarks is correct. I think we’re seeing the same sheet of music unfold again. A different target this time, Iran, instead of Iraq. But we’re seeing the same people in many respects – neo-conservatives, most of them – influence this administration and take advantage of some of the things that this administration offers them, such as its rank amateurism, and try to use that to get what they want. What they’ve always wanted, which is regime change in Tehran. So, when you get a certification the way we got this certification, coming from the State Department to the Congress, what you have is simply a holding pattern until the review is finished, which they’ve announced they’re doing, and, I dare say, that is already a foregone conclusion. Because that review is going to find that the other aspects of Iran’s behavior, which incidentally had nothing to do with the nuclear negotiations; terrorism, missiles and so forth. Yemen, Syria; are all going to make it such that Donald Trump is going to say, “Well, we’re just, you know, the Iranians have broken the agreement. They’ve broken the agreement.” Which of course will be about as right, as accurate, as Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. Or Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11, has contacts with Al Qaeda. But it’ll work with a lot of the American people because this is the way they do things, and they’re very powerful, and very good, at doing them. AARON MATÉ: Okay. So, a lot to address there. The antagonism towards Iran is not new. It goes back many decades. There was the U.S.-backed coup in 1953. In the ’80s, the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein against Iran. You had a U.S. downing of an Iranian passenger jet in 1988, which, of course, the U.S. said was an accident. There had been the sanctions. But who wants regime change in Iran, and why? LARRY WILKERSON: There are a number of people who want this to happen, just there are a number of people with differing motivations who wanted Saddam Hussein gone out of Iraq, and, incidentally, want Bashar Al-Assad gone out of Syria. These people have motivations that range from, they think, protecting Israel by keeping the areas around it in constant turmoil. That way they can’t focus on Israel. To the fact that in the case of the Persians and the case of Iran they still hold a grudge from the 1979 Revolution where our man, the Shah, was thrown out to just general stability in that region of the world, or in this case, instability, which again serves Israel’s interests. To oil going through the Strait of Hormuz and the consistent availability and price of that oil. You name your objective and I’ll find you someone in this group of people who has that objective. But if I had to put my finger on a unifying purpose, it would be Israel. And what they think is the security of Israel. AARON MATÉ: Someone like Noam Chomsky has argued that one big factor he thinks is the fact that the U.S. and Israel just don’t want a country that can deter their ability to use force in the region. And then, of course, there’s also the fact that you have Saudi Arabia bitterly opposed to Iran. What about those two factors there? LARRY WILKERSON: They’re huge factors, and they’re tactical factors, I think, rather than strategic, but they’re huge factors. And you have this tacit alliance right now, an alliance of convenience, for example, between Riyadh and Tel Aviv because of these factors. And if Israel thinks that the Saudi princelings are somebody to ally themselves with, all they need to do is consult the script that put 15, I think it was out of the 19 Saudi Arabian hijackers, on those planes that flew into those buildings, and in Pennsylvania, on 9/11. The Saudis are not someone I would be sidling up to in an alliance of convenience or otherwise. If you want to ensure your security in that region of the world, and you are Israel? You had best be thinking seriously about making peace with over 400 million people who, at one time or another, might oppose your existence. AARON MATÉ: You have some first-hand insight into the prospects for making peace with Iran. Because I remember seeing interviews that you did with our senior editor Paul Jay here on The Real News, and you said that Iran, under… back when you served under President Bush, that Iran actually floated a comprehensive peace proposal. Can you tell us what that was about? LARRY WILKERSON: Well, the Iranians were… let’s go back a little further than that, before President Bush issued his Axis of Evil speech. The Iranians were helping us in Afghanistan post 9/11. They were helping us go after al Qaeda, they were rendering intelligence, they were helping us neutralize the Taliban. They indeed helped us even with the Bonn Conference in the selection of Karzai as the initial ruler of Afghanistan in the absence of the Taliban government. So, the Iranians were helping us in every way that they could, that was meaningful on the ground in Afghanistan, when we said that. Even doing that, even classifying them in the Axis of Evil, we still got a response from the Iranians, through our ambassador in Geneva, that essentially said they wanted to talk. And they wanted to talk about all the issues including the nuclear issues that we had said earlier in a UN paper that we thought we would talk about if we ever got to some sort of talk, some sort of negotiations. But we turned that down. We’d already put them in the Axis of Evil, we had said they were just like Pyongyang, they were just like Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. That was not bad enough, we turned them down. We essentially did not respond to that initiative. And we didn’t respond to it because we had other clients for Iran. And those clients included regime change. By force, if necessary. And I have no doubt that that is what the secret review that the Trump administration is going to accomplish, is going to conclude. What I want to see is what they do once they have declared that the Iranians have so violated their side of the agreement that the agreement is null and void. Are they then going to try to reopen negotiations? Which is, you will recall, is kind of what Donald Trump said during the campaign, “he woulda got a better deal.” And if they do try to do that, who’s going to be with him of the P5+1? China and Russia probably won’t be with him. It’ll be interesting to see if Germany, France, and the U.K. will be with him, or the EU. Or, do they not try to open negotiations – new negotiations – and get a, quote, “better deal”, unquote, and just declare regime change as their objective? And allow Israel or combine with Israel and bring military action against Iran? I don’t see that they’re going to just let the situation sit. So, it’s going to be very interesting to see how this policy review that the Trump administration is doing unfolds, and what it means. AARON MATÉ: And that policy review includes looking at whether or not the Trump administration wants to re-impose sanctions, correct? LARRY WILKERSON: Yes. In this case, I think what we would see is we’d see some sort of declaration that the Iranians had cheated or weren’t living up to their end of the deal, or whatever. Or that their terrorism, and their missile, and Yemen participation and so forth, negates the agreement. And then they would simply tell the Congress, and the Congress has been looking for something like this for a long time – it can’t seem to agree on anything anymore – but it will agree on this, probably – to go ahead and just unleash the worst, most harsh sanctions they could possibly come up with. And, of course, that’s going to devastate the Iranian economy even further. I say “even further” because we haven’t lived up to our side of the nuclear agreement yet, in terms of sanctions relief. The kind of sanctions relief that would really help the Iranian economy, and help Rouhani get re-elected, for example. So, I think that’s a package that we will, as you suggested, we’ll slam the sanctions on ’em again, too. Now, I don’t think we’ll have international cooperation. That’s what I meant when I suggested that those different countries, maybe one or two of the European countries might join us, but I even doubt that. And I’m quite certain that Russia and China will not join us. And so, the sanctions regime will mostly just be the United States. It’ll be unilateral sanctions. But even that, with the kind of sanctions we are still bringing against them, and can tighten up even further, and those are the financial sanctions, mean they can’t do business in the world the way they should be able to. They’ll be very, very tough sanctions for Iran to put up with. AARON MATÉ: Now, you mentioned that there was a time when Iran was helping the U.S. against the Taliban, and the sort of contemporary analogue to that is that today Iran is indirectly, but very effectively, helping the U.S. in the fight against ISIS through these brutal Shiite militias in Iraq. And they’re also in Syria, as well, supporting the Assad regime. So, on these two points, the support of the Shiite militias, who the U.S. ostensibly needs in Iraq, but also with Syria, whether Iran has some leverage there, that it can use against Trump? And on that point, I’m wondering, if Iran didn’t face such a long historic antagonism from the U.S. going back to the coup, through the sanctions, through the threats of force, whether Iran, do you think, would be so supportive of Assad? LARRY WILKERSON: I think Iran has a very difficult choice in that regard. I think their only formidable weapon, if you will – and we forget this in the United States – when you have a country that’s up against you, and you are the hegemony, the world hegemony, you’re the world superpower, you’re the world military power, they don’t have too many choices when they fear you. Whether you’re North Korea in Pyongyang, or you’re Rouhani, or the Ayatollah in Tehran, or you’re Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, or Bashar al-Assad in Damascus – whomever you are, if you feel like the United States has got you on its list, you build a nuclear weapon. Or, you hire some terrorists. You inculcate a terrorist organization within your borders or nearby; Hezbollah, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf. You name the terrorist organization that has any affiliation with the state anywhere, and you will find geopolitical, geostrategic purpose for the creation of that terrorist organization. Now, in the case of Hezbollah, Hezbollah, as one person at Fort Bragg very conversant with terrorist groups said to me one time, is the A-team. We were talking about Al Qaeda at the time, this was immediately post-11, and he said Hezbollah is the A-team. You don’t ever want to take them on unless you have to. Well, I would offer that Hezbollah thinks the United States is the A-team, too, in terms of vested state powers. So, Hezbollah does not want to take us on. The only time Hezbollah has ever hit us is when we were in their backyard, directly impacting their interests, with our military power. So, Hezbollah is an arm of Iran, if you will, that stands up for Iranian interests when the Iranians need to express those interests. It’s clearly understandable. I’m not condoning it. I’m just saying you have to get into your enemy’s head, and you have to think the way they think, and you have to see why they’re doing things, in order to unwind what they’re doing in order to combat what they’re doing. And the way to do that is not by taking Hezbollah on direct, you’re taking Iran on direct. The way to do that is, as I thought the Obama administration was starting to do, recognize that Iran is the natural hegemony in the Gulf, and, over time, create better relations with Iran and therefore take away at least much of their incentive for having an organization like Hezbollah and maybe turn Hezbollah into more of a political movement than a terrorist movement. It already has both aspects to it. But this is very sophisticated, complex work. And frankly, the United States doesn’t do sophisticated, complex work anymore. We instead send 59 TLAMs to blow you out of your bunker. That’s the way the United States performs in the world today. AARON MATÉ: Colonel, I want to end with where you began, which is that when you said that what you’re hearing now from the administration is reminiscent of what we heard from the Bush administration in 2003, during the prelude to the Iraq war. As someone who was on the inside then, who worked under Secretary of State Colin Powell, what do you think is going on now, behind the scenes, and what should we in the public be looking out for? LARRY WILKERSON: They’re doing this review, supposedly. And I will be so surprised I’ll fall of my chair, but I’ll kiss somebody’s read end somewhere, I guess, if it comes out and says this is really a diplomatic achievement of the first order. This nuclear agreement is exactly what we need. And we’re going to preserve it. In fact, we’re going to make it better. We’re going to make it even a better agreement than it already is because we’re going to adhere to it 100%. We’re going to move in and we’re going to take the sanctions off to keep Iran’s economy from improving. We’re going to work with Rouhani to make that economy a good, solid, sound, prosperous economy. And we’re going to improve relations across the board with Iran. Shut up, Riyadh. That’s what we’re going to do. And every time I see you doing something inimical to that, I’m going to smack you as hard as I can. That’s the kind of diplomacy and hard ball that we need to be playing. Are we going to do that? Is what’s going to roll out of this review going to be something legitimate, something smart, something even brilliant like that? No. What’s going to roll out of this review is, “I told you so. They’re bad people, and we need regime change.” That’s what’s going to roll out. I mean, I’d almost be willing to bet on it. AARON MATÉ: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell. In part 2 of this interview, we’re going to discuss another aspect of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, and that is its cutbacks to foreign aid. But for now, Colonel, we thank you for joining us. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News. ————————- END

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.