If Tillerson’s Out, is Iran War In?
The Trump administration will reportedly oust Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and install CIA Director Mike Pompeo in his place, with Republican Sen. Tom Cotton replacing Pompeo. Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council says that’s a recipe for a US war on Iran
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The White House is reportedly planning a major cabinet shakeup that has strong implications for the world. According to reports, the White House is seeking to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and install in his place CIA Director Mike Pompeo. To replace Pompeo at the CIA, the White House is reportedly planning to install Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican of Arkansas. Now, both Pompeo and Cotton have many things in common, including an avowed disdain for Iran and the Iran Nuclear Deal. My next guest argues that, together, Trump, Pompeo, and Cotton are a recipe for war on Iran. Trita Parsi is President of the National Iranian American Council and author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy. Trita, welcome. Your response to this news, it was in The New York Times today, confirmed later on by The Washington Post of this major cabinet shakeup with Tillerson out today.
TRITA PARSI: Yes, I think this would be quite disastrous. In fact, The National Interest had already reported this more than a week ago. It’s not as if we already were not in a very, very shaky situation with Iran. The Trump administration decertified the nuclear deal. They’re trying to see if they can get new sanctions through Congress by January. If the President doesn’t renew waivers on Iran, then the United States will actually be clearly out of compliance with the nuclear deal, and it could very well cause the collapse of that deal.
To then, in addition to that, bring out Tillerson that, with all of his flaws, nevertheless tried to moderate Trump a little bit on this issue, and bring in Pompeo instead, someone who, the day before he was confirmed, or the day before it was reported that he would become the CIA Director, tweeted that he looks forward to rolling back the nuclear deal, and then puts Cotton in the position of CIA, a gentleman who sent a letter, orchestrated the letter of 47 senators to the Iranian Supreme Leader in the midst of the negotiations, telling the Iranians, “Don’t bother striking a deal with President Obama because we’re going to undo whatever he does,” to put them in charge certainly should worry people that we are taking a giant step closer towards war with Iran.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s go to a clip of both these men sharing their views on Iran. Both of them have spoken very recently about it. In fact, in October, they both gave public remarks on the subject. Let’s go first to Tom Cotton speaking to The Washington Post at a public event. He talked about why he’s open to military strikes on Iran.
TOM COTTON: The Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the IRGC are the cudgels of a despotic theocracy. The IRGC is accountable to a singular person, the Supreme Leader. They’re the vanguard of a pernicious empire that is expanding its power around the Middle East and unlike ISIS and its mirage of a caliphate, Iran is now a powerful nation-state that remains the world’s largest state sponsor of terror.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Tom Cotton speaking to The Washington Post in October. In the same month, Mike Pompeo gave a speech at the University of Texas, Austin and he spoke about Iran in these term.
MIKE POMPEO: We have a number of calibrated military strikes, like Ronald Reagan conducted against Libya, like Bill Clinton conducted repeatedly against Iraq, like Donald Trump conducted against Syria, like Ronald Reagan conducted against Iran itself by blowing up half of their navy and several oil platforms, which I would point out, wasn’t too long before the Iran-Iraq War ended. Ehud Barak has said Iran’s nuclear infrastructure could be destroyed in a fraction of a night. I would say that’s probably a little optimistic, but again we have options between capitulation under this deal, and forcible regime change followed by a decade of occupation and Iran needs to know that.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Mike Pompeo, the Director of the CIA, speaking last month in Texas. Trita, you have there Cotton openly floating the idea of launching military action against Iran and Pompeo making a comparison between Iran and ISIS. Your thoughts on the attitudes of these two individuals towards Iran.
TRITA PARSI: There’s only one way of making sense of that attitude. Making this really clear analytical error can only be explained by the intent to drive things towards military confrontation. If you listen closely to what Cotton said at that speech, as well as what he said earlier on, he, essentially saying that the problem is the nature of the Iranian government. As long as that government is there, we’re going to have issues and we cannot strike a deal, we cannot have a compromise. That is a clear return to the policies of the George W. Bush administration, who essentially said, “We will only pursue regime change,” and we know exactly what that did to the Middle East. So much of the disaster we’re seeing in the Middle East right now is a direct consequence of the regime change effort that was made in Iraq.
Similarly with Pompeo. It’s quite fascinating. What happened two months ago? Pompeo, as the head of the CIA, released documents that previously had been classified but really didn’t contain much new, but he allowed FDD, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a very powerful neoconservative shop in Washington, D.C., to get copies of this ahead of time and essentially made, spun it as if the Iranians actually have an extensive operational collaboration with Al-Qaeda, which is entirely false. Really, when you look at these documents, you do not get that conclusion at all. It’s starting to look very much like Iraq, in which false connections are starting to be made, regime change rhetoric is starting to come out. This is a repeat of what we saw in 2002. The question is will the American public fall for it again?
AARON MATÉ: Well, Trita, let’s talk more about that document because it got a lot of attention and it was reported very credulously by the corporate media, people taking it seriously as evidencing a, as showing evidence of a link between Iran and Al-Qaeda. It was written by an unnamed Al-Qaeda official, the document says, and let’s say that that’s true. In terms of it showing Iran’s ties to Al-Qaeda, the picture that emerges is that Iran was essentially trying to hold Al-Qaeda figures who went into the country illegally after 9/11 as bargaining chips, possibly with the both the US, and also with Al-Qaeda, to deter Al-Qaeda from attacking Iran. Is that a fair read on what the document says?
TRITA PARSI: Not only is that a fair read, that is the majority read of most people who follow this issue, including in the US intelligence services, who know very well that the Iranians rounded up a lot of these Al-Qaeda fighters and deported them to their countries of origin. The Iranians even tried to have a swap with the United States in which it would hand over some of those people to the US, the US said no to that during the Bush administration. And the fact that the Iranians have been fighting Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and as of late, of course, Iran was a key force in Iraq in defeating ISIS there. So, one document does not change the larger picture in which we have ample evidence of the Iranians fighting Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda trying to hit Iran, which they have done on numerous occasions successfully.
Again, it’s about cherry picking, exaggerating, fabricating things in order to be able to sell a military confrontation with Iran. Again, I’m not entirely sure that that is exactly where Trump himself wants to go but he is increasingly surrounding himself, particularly if he makes these picks with people who will say yes to Trump and at the same time have the capacity of outmaneuvering Trump by being so hawkish.
AARON MATÉ: Right. I should say that, according to The Washington Post, Trump hasn’t made his decision yet but this is apparently a plan to replace Tillerson, a plan that has been drawn up by Chief of Staff John Kelly. Trita, you mentioned that prisoner swap that Iran offered to the US that was rejected. If I have the history right, that was part of a wider deal, a wider overture, to the Bush administration from Iran, that was rejected by the White House, by the Bush White House, with contempt to the Swiss diplomat who transmitted it but that prisoner swap brings up an interesting issue for me in terms of what the US could possibly do, what the US and its allies could possibly do to destabilize Iran because if I have it right, Iran wanted to exchange Al-Qaeda prisoners for members of the MEK. Right? The MEK is a group inside Iran that has been responsible for terrorist attacks, and I’m wondering if you think that, if you’re concerned that one of the ways the US and its allies could go after Iran is by, again, using the MEK to launch attacks or carry out actions that destabilize it.
TRITA PARSI: Certainly. The MEK is an Iranian terrorist organization that was based in Iraq, was fighting for Saddam Hussein, was essentially becoming Saddam’s private army that they were using against Shiites in the south, Kurds in the north. When the invasion of Iraq occurred, the Iranians wanted to have them extradited to Iran, and in return offered the US some of these Al-Qaeda fighters that they had in prison as a result of them fleeing Afghanistan. The Bush administration said no to that and presumably it may have been precisely for the reason that you spelled out, that there was at the time certain elements inside the Bush administration, not the majority but certain elements inside the Bush administration who actually wanted to see how they could use the MEK as a way of destabilizing Iran and take the war away from Iraq and all the way into Iran.
Now, today, they have become much less of a factor, because they have been relocated away from Iraq after many, many years but the intent to be able to destabilize Iran has clearly been there amongst many people in the Trump administration who have been supporters of the MEK. Of course, you have that speech given by the Saudi crown prince a couple of months ago in which he said that he will take the fight into Iran, and Saudi has been presumed to be the main financial backer of the MEK for quite some time now.
AARON MATÉ: Trita, finally, you mentioned this scenario, this possible scenario of Pompeo and Cotton in these positions, as a potential mirror image of what happened in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion when, obviously, the State Department and the CIA played key roles in drumming up the case for war on Iraq. If Pompeo and Cotton are installed what should we be looking out for in the coming period?
TRITA PARSI: Well, again, one of the things we should be looking out for, again, is that they will start trying to make connections that simply are not there. The Bush administration was trying to say that Saddam Hussein was working with Al-Qaeda and was behind 9/11. It was completely false. I would suspect that we will see similar type of arguments. I’m seeing a lot of reports now that there’s supposedly some very extensive North Korea-Iran links as well. I would watch out for developments of that kind, and I think it’s very important for the American public to follow this closely and make their views quite known, because I do believe that there are more level-headed people inside the US military that are in no mood for a major military confrontation with Iran, and they are furthermore not in the mood for a war that the American public opposes.
AARON MATÉ: Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council and author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy. Thank you.
TRITA PARSI: Thank you so much for having me.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.