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In sabotaging the Iran nuclear deal, President Trump is listening to — and following the playbook of — the neocons behind the Iraq war, says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. The US role in the Iran nuclear deal is now in the hands on Congress. President Trump has decertified Iran’s compliance, even though he acknowledges Iran is fully compliant. This give lawmakers the opportunity to reimpose sanctions that have been waived since the deal began. But more could be at stake here than just the US role. While the other members of the P5+1 say they’ll uphold the deal no matter what, the US had already failed to fully respect it, even before Trump’s latest move. If the US undermines it even more, that could be difficult for other member nations to keep it alive. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is the former Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell. Now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel Wilkerson, welcome. Your assessment of where the Iran deal is at in the wake of Trump decertifying it to Congress? L. WILKERSON: There are a lot of aspects to it, Aaron, but I think the German Foreign Minister summed it up best. He said that what Trump has done is possibly making the Iran agreement a play thing of American domestic politics. I think that’s precisely what Trump wanted to do. He wanted to get himself out of having to every 90 days essentially violate very publicly a campaign promise by certifying that Iran was in compliance with the deal, so the first part of his strategy is to get out of that by kicking it to Congress, and by not certifying. I think it’s far more dangerous than that, though, in the long run. Even though being a play thing of American domestic politics is a very dangerous thing in and of itself. As you pointed out in your opening remarks, this is something that the rest of the world including those very important other signatories to this agreement, in Europe principally, our allies, are not going to go along with this. So, it’s going to be interesting to see just how much a fella like Vladimir Putin, for example, in Moscow, and others in Beijing and elsewhere can essentially exploit this. One of Putin’s principal objectives is, of course, to destabilize NATO and he does that most prominently and most pointedly by separating the United States from its allies in Europe. Donald Trump is helping immeasurably in that process. So, if there some leverage that Putin has over Donald Trump, it’s becoming quite apparent that that leverage is working. AARON MATE: You know, I’m going to digress briefly into this sidetrack that you’ve just raised, but then I want to get back to the Iran deal. But is Putin’s goal to destabilize NATO, or simply does he just want it to stop expanding to his borders? L. WILKERSON: I think at first that was the reason that he reacted the way he did. As I’ve said many times before, I certainly understand that. We should never have started expanding NATO into Russia’s near abroad. But that’s a done deal now, at least to the extent that it has gone. I think it’s stopped. I don’t think we’re going to be courting Georgia, for example, for official NATO membership. AARON MATE: But Ukraine is still talking about joining, Montenegro joined recently. It’s still happening. L. WILKERSON: Yeah, well Montenegro, it was a quid pro quo for our business in Kosovo and the rest of the Former Yugoslavia, so I can understand that one. You might be right, we might still be contemplating things. In the long run, though, I think Putin by his move in Ukraine, has stopped that, and the latest polls I saw that I had some respect for at least, I don’t have any respect for the polls the US conducts, but there are a couple I do have some respect for. They showed Ukraine deeply divided over whether it wants to be a NATO member or not. I’m not sure that that’s on track to happen for a number of reasons, not least of which is Putin might react rather violently to that. He would have interior lines, and he would have the best position as it were, and so I don’t see the American people supporting a war with Russia over Ukraine. AARON MATE: Right, fair enough. Listen, we’ve gotten sidetracked, and that’s my fault, so I apologize. Let’s get back to Iran. In terms of whether or not the world goes along, though, doesn’t this set up a potential tough choice for other countries? Because if the US, let’s say Congress does actually reimpose sanctions, those sanctions are not just on Iran. They’re also on countries that do business with Iran. So, the question is, will countries be forced to choose between their business interests that the US can impact and harm with sanctions, or continuing to stay on with this nuclear deal? Especially one that might offer them as much benefits as it would if the US was involved. L. WILKERSON: We’ve opened a real issue that Donald Trump, H. R. McMaster, Jim Mattis, all the people in the administration, Tillerson, are not being very open with the American people about. Frankly, I don’t know whether it’s because they’re just ignorant, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. I mean they just haven’t thought about this, or it’s because they’re trying to hide it. One of the dangerous things that’s happening in the world today, besides the actual diminishment of US power, you may have noticed our GDP share just dropped another percentage point. Consider that in 1945 we were about 51% of the world’s GDP. We’re about 21-22% now. That’s quite a diminishment of power. Understandable, but nonetheless a diminishment. What’s happening with these sanctions that the Congress has been so anxious to slap on everybody in the world virtually, at one time or another, or every individual they didn’t like, is that people are growing weary of them. So, very slowly but surely, people are turning to China, they’re turning to Russia even, they’re turning to Brazil, to India, and others who have a currency that is at least regionally as manipulative or as useful as the dollar. You may have seen recently Venezuela is demarcating its oil now, in other than dollars. This is the world’s way of telling the hegemon what the German Chancellor said. “We don’t believe you’re trustworthy anymore” and people say that, “Well, it can’t happen because money will flock to the United States, interest rates are up, we’re [inaudible 00:06:57] money in again” and so forth. Well, all this is, I think, probably temporary. The world is moving away slowly but inexorably from the US Dollar. This business of sanctions that we would then exercise in a secondary and a tertiary way against our allies in Europe, for example, Germany, France, England so forth, this is going to be the beginning of the end of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and as its principal currency. It’s a very dangerous thing to be doing ’cause it is one of the last remaining really powerful weapons we have other than our military, and our military ultimately depends on the power of that weapon, our economy, our finances, and so forth. So, to undermine this particular aspect of our power the way we are doing right now, is very dangerous. AARON MATE: so I want to ask you about the way the Trump administration is framing this issue. So, they have a problem where they openly admit that Iran is respecting the nuclear deal. So, now they’re saying that it’s about other issues that this nuclear deal is allowing Iran to get away with bad behavior. So, on this front, let’s listen to a clip from Nikki Haley speaking on Sunday to ABC News. Nikki Haley: I think right now we’re saying no. As far as we see, they’re in compliance of that part of it, but what we’re saying is, is America still safe? Are we still okay with them doing all of these other bad things? What you’re seeing is everybody is turning a blind eye to Iran, and all of those violations out of trying to protect this agreement. What we need to say is, we have to hold them accountable. They can’t be continuing to support terrorism around the world like we are saying they do. They can’t continue to test ballistic missiles which will lead to a nuclear Iran. They can’t continue to do arms smuggling in the way that they’re doing. Are we really ready to have them become a North Korea? Are we going to allow that to happen? AARON MATE: So that’s Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN. Colonel, an amazing statement there where she says, she admits that Iran is respecting the deal that is designed to prevent them from ever obtaining nuclear weapons, but yet, she says that them testing ballistic missiles, that that will lead to Iran having nuclear weapons. L. WILKERSON: Well, this is all farcical, and every time I hear her talk I don’t know whether to laugh or something else quite different. Just look at what she said. First of all, Iran doesn’t support terrorism all over the world. Iran supports a very specific group of entities we have called terrorists and they’re all aimed at Israel. Iran does not support terrorism all over the world. That is a lie. It’s a misstatement, it’s an obfuscation. Much like Trump saying when he gave his remarks as he failed to certify the deal, that Iran is spreading destruction, death, and chaos. That’s almost a direct quote, all over the globe. The only country spreading death, destruction, and chaos all over the globe is Trump’s own country, and followed rather smartly by our ally and first visit by Trump, Saudi Arabia, in Yemen, and Qatar and everywhere else, that Saudi Arabia’s destabilizing the region. I could throw in Syria, I could throw in Iraq. So, if you look at what these people are doing, especially people like Nikki Hayley. I don’t believe Donald Trump is cognizant to this, but if you look at what these neoconservatives are doing, they just met for example, in Albania. What a place to meet, Albania and Kosovo. Their whole GDP is human trafficking, drugs, and arms sales, and most of it illegal, if not implicitly so. Senator Cornyn of Texas and others met there with the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, now called the Resistance of Iran. This is a savage minded terrorist group that we are now cosying up to because they are the resistance to the regime in Iran. Does this sound like Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraq National Congress, in 2002, in 2003 when we were siding up to them? I’m telling you, we’re headed for another conflict in South West Asia, we’re headed for regime change. That’s the only thing that will satisfy these people, Hayley, Bolton, and all the other neoconservatives who now have Trump’s attention, whether he knows it or not. We’re going to go to war, because the only way you stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, if you do not adhere to this agreement, which has stopped them in their tracks, is to go to war. That’s the only way you can assure yourself that all their nuclear facilities are destroyed. AARON MATE: Right, and that’s presuming that even this is the US goal here, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, because it’s the view of US intelligence, or at least it was, that Iran had no nuclear weapons program. Now, certainly as you say, this deal prevents them from obtaining it, so it’s possible that that outcome is immaterial to what the Trump administration wants, which might just be regime change no matter what. L. WILKERSON: I agree with you. We will, as we did to Saddam Hussein. I know, I was there, I helped. We will manufacture Iran’s going for a nuclear weapon if we have to. If we feel that it is necessary to manufacture the intelligence, even if they are not going for one, we will do so, and we will go to war with Iran. That’s the purpose of the people like Nikki Hayley and John Bolton and others who now, said to say, have regained access to the Trump administration. AARON MATE: What’s striking to me is that this could be the goal, even if that means the de-emphasizing the fight against the Islamic State, and Al-Qaeda. You know, I took one hint of that from actually the White House strategy last week, that they unveiled ahead of Trump’s speech. I want to read you a passage. This is the White House strategy document that they put out a few hours before Trump spoke on Friday, which he made his announcement, and they say this. “Over the last decade and a half, US policy has also consistently prioritized the immediate threat of Sunni extremist organizations over the long term threat of Iranian backed militancy. The Trump administration will not repeat these mistakes.” So, they don’t say who these Sunni extremist organizations are, but I think it’s pretty easy to infer from that that they’re referring to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, especially because that’s who Iran has been fighting. The suggestion there is that Al-Qaeda and ISIS are less of a threat than “Iranian backed militancy.” I’m curious, colonel, your thoughts on that? L. WILKERSON: I think you’re absolutely right. You’ve put your finger right on one of the tactics, one of the strategies, indeed perhaps even a deeply held belief that one really shudders of the prospect of anyone holding that as a deeply held belief, that what you just depicted is true. That in fact, we would be better off allied with Al-Qaeda than with ISIS, and fighting Iran than we would be with Iran or neutral, or otherwise. This is part of the Saudi tactic. This is part of the Saudi mantra, if you will. Let’s just look at this for a second. If anyone in terms of terrorism is sponsoring it from one end of the globe to the other, it’s the Saudis. If there’s anyone who was responsible for 9/11, and 3000 dead Americans, that was a state at that time, it’s Saudi Arabia. If there’s anyone who’s deeply responsible as an outside power for the civil war, the conflict as it were, in Syria, it’s Saudi Arabia. If there’s anyone responsible for destabilizing the Gulf Cooperation Council, it’s Saudi Arabia. If there’s anyone responsible for waging the most brutal war on the planet right now, with our support I’m sad to say, in Yemen, it’s Saudi Arabia. And yet, the United States can’t seem to break away from Saudi Arabia, but it can find in its heart of hearts, hatred for the Persians. This is inexplicable. Unless you understand how deeply lashed up with the Saudis are the Clintons, the Bushs, and almost any other wealthy family in the United States, how deeply lashed up we are with the Saudis because of our dependence for them for such a long time on black gold, oil, or how deeply lashed up we are with the Saudis for their buying of our armaments to the tune of billions and billions of dollars. Otherwise, you have no explanation for this relationship which is totally inimical to the national security future of the United States. AARON MATE: So colonel, finally, along with the Saudis, you mentioned earlier the neocons like Nikki Hayley and John Bolton. John Bolton who’s outside the administration, but has apparently a pretty big influence over Trump. There was a really interesting report on Friday in Politico where they report that Chief of Staff John Kelly has tried to limit Bolton’s access to Trump, but that Bolton got around it, and actually helped influence the most threatening line in Trump’s speech on Friday, where he said that if the deal isn’t changed to my liking, I have the power to cancel it. Let me just read to you, Politico reports that Hayley got $250,000 from the neocon casino magnate Sheldon Adelson last year, and that Bolton personally reached out to President Trump and I’ll read you this quote. It said, the line about Trump canceling the deal if it’s not changed, “The line was added to Trump’s speech after Bolton, despite Kelly’s recent edict, reached the President by phone on Thursday afternoon from Las Vegas, where Bolton was visiting with Republican mega donor Sheldon Adelson. Bolton urged Trump to include a line in his remarks noting he reserved the right to scrap the agreement entirely, according to two sources familiar with the conversation.” Colonel, as we wrap, your thoughts on this, and the role of people like Bolton in what’s happening today? L. WILKERSON: It does not surprise me. As I said before, I was there in 2002 and 2003 and I saw what the neoconservatives did. Some operating in the name of Israel, some operating in the name of as you just pointed out there, both Israel and the big money they were getting. Some operating in the same way with regard to the military industrial complex. You need war in order to sell missiles and PGMs and so forth. It’s a very frightening thing, though, that I see the same thing developing again. I see the MEK turned into a resistance, and courted by senators and others. I see them becoming the spokesperson for what we want in Iran, regime change. I see neoconservatives [inaudible 00:18:39] like Nikki Hayley, as the Ambassador of the UN, salivating to be the new Secretary of State when Rex Tillerson gets over his “castration.” I see all this developing in much the same way I saw the Iraqi WMD situation developing in 2002, and early 2003, and I saw the war that occurred thereafter. That’s what these people want. We have to go all the way back to the philosophy of the neoconservatives at the very beginning, Bill Kristol, and Richard Perle and so forth. I saw evidence of this when I was in the Pentagon in 2001 and 2002. They want Syria, they want Iran, they want Iraq, they want the entire South West Asian area free of the kinds of leaders and the kind of regimes that they felt were inimical to the interests of Israel, and ultimately to the interests of the United States. They succeeded in Iraq, however you want to measure that success. Iran seems to own it now. They failed in Syria, but they haven’t given up there yet, and they feel, I think that if they do Iran, then the others will collapse of their own weight, especially now that Iran has managed to insinuate itself into both Syria and Iraq so significantly. So, it’s all kind of wrapped up in Iran now. They don’t have to think about Syria and Iraq, because if Iran goes, those two go. This is crazy. This is crazy what we’re allowing to happen. Now, we’re allowing it to happen through what can I say? A 10 year old brat, reality TV star, occupying the Oval Office and thinking that through what he’s doing basically for domestic politics, he’s protecting America. While these neocons are running circles around him. Whether he told Bolton to get out of the White House is irrelevant. They’re running circles around him, and we’re developing the same kind of scenario leading the war for this country, Iran, that we did for Iraq several years ago. AARON MATE: We’ll leave it there. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, thank you. L. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me. AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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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.