Over the weekend, Trump tweeted that if Iran threatened the U.S., it would face its “official end.” In response, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif accused President Trump of genocidal taunting. Shortly after, a rocket was fired into Baghdad, Iraq and landed near the U.S. embassy. Trump has also warned that Iran could target commercial vessels, including oil tankers or U.S. military vessels in the region, increasing tensions further. The Real News Network’s Sharmini Peries spoke to Col. Larry Wilkerson about the U.S.’s threats to Iran, where Trump stands on war, and the likely catastrophe of going to war with Iran.
“Last time the U.S. asserted aggression of this kind in the region, it was against Iraq under the Bush administration, under Dick Cheney’s administration,” Peries said, adding that if the plan for Iran can be prevented, it will be up to the Pentagon.
“[But] we don’t have Jim Mattis in the Pentagon anymore,” Wilkerson said. “What we have is a sycophant, a member of the military-industrial-complex par excellence, a Boeing man, Patrick Shanahan. We do not have any kind of opposition at the highest level in the Pentagon.”
While Wilkerson agreed with the comparison to the Iraq War, he stressed that Iran is a much bigger and a more united country, with millions equipped for war and operating forces who fought in Iraq and Syria: “Iran is not Iraq. I can’t say that enough times. It’s 80 million people, not 26 million people. It’s four times the size of Iraq. It is not flat desert. It is very forbidding mountains— the Zagros Mountains, for example,” Wilkerson said.
Iran does not want war, Wilkerson explained. If they did, their actions would not be on the defensive and consist of only small strikes.
“They don’t want war at all, but they are prepared to defend themselves against what are incredible provocations put out by people like John Bolton and now Donald Trump tweeting,” Wilkerson said. “These are major provocations. They’re not the kinds of things a great power should be saying to any other power in the world—let alone a power that is quite unequal to the United States.”
Trump doesn’t want war either, Wilkerson explained, though the administration’s dysfunction allows pro-war people like Bolton to push for it regardless.
“[Trump] said that he’s opposed to catastrophic, stupid wars like the war in 2003 that we started with Iraq. He’s opposed to this kind of frittering away of American power,” Wilkerson said. “He’s got other people around him, though, that in his inattention to detail are doing things—people like John Bolton, people like Elliott Abrams with respect to Venezuela, and so forth. These people are doing things that Trump, I think, in his heart of hearts is opposed to. I don’t think this is a president who wants war.”
There is already a lack of strategy for what happens after the U.S. bombs Iran, Wilkerson explained.
“What do you do when the bombing doesn’t work? Because it won’t work, and then you have to invade. You have just caused yourself to enter a situation that just might finally unwind this empire for all time. So, why would you want to start on that path? Why would you want to embark on that path? Are you going to drop the bombs and then say, ‘Everything’s copacetic now, we taught them a lesson, we can go away?’ Because those bombs aren’t going to do anything to accomplish our objectives,” Wilkerson said. “It would be an order of magnitude tragedy for the United States to invade and try to occupy this country of 80 million people, four times the size of Iraq. Just absolute catastrophe.”
DONALD TRUMP And don’t kid yourself. You do have a military-industrial-complex. They do like war.
SHARMINI PERIES And that was President Trump in a Fox News interview with Steve Hilton on Sunday. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Here is a bit more of what President Trump had to say in that interview.
DONALD TRUMP When I first came to office, one of the first meetings I had was at the Pentagon with Generals and they were showing me the Middle East and they had fourteen or fifteen sites where there was nothing but war, problems. Every single one of those sites was instigated by Iran. It was Iran military. It was people paid by Iran. It was just—You have no idea. It was just—I said, this is terrible. They were so strong. I ended the Iran nuclear deal and, actually, I must tell you, I had no idea it was going to be as strong as it was. It totally—The country is devastated.
SHARMINI PERIES A series of events in recent weeks has created a dangerous tension between the US and Iran. On Sunday, Trump warned Iran not to threaten the US, or else it would face it’s “official end.” Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, shot back, accused President Trump of genocidal taunting. Shortly after all of this, a rocket landed near the US embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. Now, President Trump also warned of further threats from Iran, targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers or US military vessels in the region. Trump did not blame Iran directly, but he did utter more threats against Iran.
DONALD TRUMP We’ll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it will be a very bad mistake, if they do anything. I’m hearing little stories about Iran. If they do anything, they will suffer greatly. We’ll see what happens with Iran. [cameras flash]
SHARMINI PERIES On to talk about all of this with me is Larry Wilkerson, former Chief of staff to the Secretary of State Colin Powell, and now a Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. Larry, good to have you here with us.
All right, Larry. Last time the US asserted aggression of this kind in the region, it was against Iraq under the Bush administration, under Dick Cheney’s administration. You were there inside the administration at the time. Now, if we come back, fast forward to today, the Trump-Bolton-Pompeo plan will need a willing Pentagon to resist, if we are trying to stop a war here. So give me your take on what is going on because apparently, Bolton is now not working at the White House on these plans. He’s actually lodged himself at the Pentagon. The question is, will the Pentagon be able to resist this kind of aggression, creating this tension in the region as is happening now?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Sharmini, you characterized the situation quite well when you compared it to the catastrophic decision and then execution of that decision to invade Iraq in 2003. We’re looking at essentially the same train of events, leading up to what could very well be at least a bombing, if not an invasion of Iran. To answer your question directly, we don’t have Jim Mattis in the Pentagon anymore. What we have is a sycophant, a member of the military-industrial-complex par excellence, a Boeing man, Patrick Shanahan. We do not have any kind of opposition at the highest level in the Pentagon. What we have is a man who will say yes sir, yes sir, three bags full, and how high do you want me to jump, and, oh, give me some more instruction before I come down. That’s Patrick Shanahan. That said, there are some people in the Pentagon who will rue the day and will try to stop that day from arriving, that [if] military action against Iran is taken, that might prove as unsatisfactory as it’s going to be. And I mean, the kind of military action, for example, we took against Syria where we dropped a few bombs and shoot a cruise missile or two, and so forth, or even shoot a lot of missiles, or drop a lot of bombs. All that’s going to do is strengthen the resolve of Iran, put 80 million people in Iran against the United States instead of just the government and a few other hard liners, and it’s going to cause us to have to reconsider everything we’ve done.
Ultimately, the only thing we can do at that time to save face as well as to carry out our policy will be to invade and that will be a disaster that will make the 10 years in Iraq look like child’s play by comparison because Iran is not Iraq. I can’t say that enough times. It’s 80 million people, not 26 million people. It’s four times the size of Iraq. It is not flat desert. It is very forbidding mountains— the Zagros Mountains, for example. It is territory that almost killed Alexander the Great. It is people who are solid in their homogeneity, more or less. It is a country that does have millions of men under arms and women too. And it has a special operating force that has learned, since we gave it the strategic power and position in the Gulf by taking out Saddam Hussein, how to fight. It learned how to fight in Iraq. It learned how to fight in Syria. It knows how to do what is called asymmetric warfare. If we want to see the Saudi oil fields go up in smoke under two or three hundred Iranian ballistic missiles, let’s just keep on going. What Trump saw and what Bolton saw that they are now positing as a threat being presented by Iran, is Iran taking defensive measures, as they well-should, given the provocations that we’ve thrown at them, in order to defend itself when and if we attack.
SHARMINI PERIES Larry, these tensions in the region begins actually with the US withdrawing from the nuclear agreement. Then, they started imposing and reimposing economic sanctions. Now, these battleships have been sent to the Gulf and attacks are pending. On top of that, we have the Saudi oil carriers that have been attacked. Some say these are all false flag operations to intensify the situation. Your thoughts on that?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Well, that would be my guess too. If I were Iran— and I think I know the Iranians a hell of a lot better than this administration does— I would be sitting there, waiting behind my defensive structure, as it were, and I would be aiming at inflicting the maximum possible damage on those assets that I think the United States is going to hurl at me, giving the provocations that we have presented to them. I would not be wasting my time striking here and there with something that’s not really effective, and that’s what the Iranians are doing. They are not—They don’t want war. They don’t want war at all, but they are prepared to defend themselves against what are incredible provocations put out by people like John Bolton and now Donald Trump tweeting, tweeting that Iran will end, its official end will come if it threatens the United States.
These are major provocations. They’re not the kinds of things a great power should be saying to any other power in the world— let alone, a power that is quite unequal to the United States. This is a situation that I would characterize as clowns and baboons in Washington— and I include in that Patrick Shanahan, Michael Pompeo, Donald Trump, and John Bolton— and people in Tehran who are determined to defend their state. No matter what we think about those people, no matter how heinous we might think they are, and I don’t think that about 80 million Iranians— maybe their government is heinous— but they are getting ready to defend themselves and you better bet that all 80 million of those Iranians will join that defense, just as they did in the extraordinarily brutal and bloody war for eight years with Iraq. They will not shy away from fighting back.
SHARMINI PERIES Hey, Larry. Let’s take a look at President Trump on Fox News, another segment of that interview.
STEVE HILTON [FOX NEWS] You can reassure people you’re not looking for some kind of conflict in Iran—
DONALD TRUMP Well, I’m the one that talks about these wars that in nineteen years, and people are just there, and don’t kid yourself. You do have a military-industrial-complex. They do like war. You know, in Syria with the caliphate—So I wipe out 100 percent of the caliphate. I say I want to bring our troops back home. The place went crazy, but if it was up to them, they’d bring thousands of soldiers in. They never want to leave. They always want to fight. No, I don’t want to fight.
SHARMINI PERIES All right, Larry. He says that he is being pressured by the military-industrial-complex here, being very frank. He says no, he doesn’t want to fight against Iran. Your thoughts on this?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON I think Donald Trump is showing, again, the nature of his mercurial character. I do not think this president wants war. I think he is personally and institutionally, if you will, in his position as president, opposed to great powers doing stupid wars. He said that. He’s opposed to catastrophic, stupid wars like the war in 2003 that we started with Iraq. He’s opposed to this kind of frittering away of American power. He’s got other people around him though, that in his inattention to detail are doing things— people like John Bolton, people like Elliott Abrams with respect to Venezuela, and so forth. These people are doing things that Trump, I think, in his heart of hearts is opposed to. I don’t think this is a president who wants war. I can criticize him for all manner of other things, but I do not think he wants war. So that’s when you see these, kind of, different statements coming out of him.
One minute he’s saying things like the military-industrial-complex is pushing me into war, things that President Clinton and President Obama have said, for example. On the next moment, he’s threatening Iran, something that is totally counter-productive because you don’t threaten Iran like you did Kim Jong-un and hope you’re going to sit down at the table and talk someday. You are foreclosing that option when you threaten Iran— different countries. The US makes this mistake all the time. It thinks every country in the world fits its template of what countries should look like and every country is different. North Korea and Iran are in very different strategic positions, in very different circumstances, and are very different cultures. Shouting and screaming at Iran, as he did at “Rocket Man,” for example, is counterproductive to the maximum.
SHARMINI PERIES Larry, last week we saw Pompeo was in Russia meeting with President Putin and his counterpart, the Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov. Then, we had the Japanese Prime Minister, and then the EU, and then China all coming out, urging the United States to adhere to the joint nuclear agreement. You take this on in a number of interviews with us since the US withdrew from this agreement and how important it is. So, your take on the current geopolitical pressure placed on the US to lift the sanctions against Iran and to adhere to the nuclear agreement?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON First of all, I would have loved to have been in the room with Pompeo and Sergey Lavrov. Sergey Lavrov is one of the finest diplomats I have ever met in my life. I think Colin Powell would verify that. Sergey Lavrov must laugh when Michael Pompeo comes in the room and he has to deal with him. I know he has to present the diplomatic front and so forth, but Pompeo—It’s like Mickey Mouse coming in to talk to Superman. I mean, that’s not too fine a point. So, I would have loved to have been there and just watch the chemistry between this one consummate diplomat and the other idiot in the room, the man who longs for the Rapture more than he does good diplomacy. That’s the first observation I’d have.
The second observation I’d have is more power to Russia, more power to Sergey Lavrov, more power to Xi Jinping, more power to Prime Minister Abe, and all these people who see the United States as somewhat berserk right now, even insane, and want to stop this train before they have to get off of it and begin to do their own essential defense calculations, because the United States has become an unreliable partner. That’s what we’re seeing in the world right now. I’m hearing it from Berlin. I’m hearing it from Paris, from Brussels, from London, from Tokyo. I’m hearing it from all over the world. What has happened to the United States? Can we no longer depend on the United States? Can we no longer even look to the United States to be anything other than a warmonger and an economic sanctioner? That’s the only thing we see coming out of Washington these days other than trade wars, which by the way are not benefiting us or the global community at all. This is really a disaster, they say. When you saw the British Major General, the other day, object to the intelligence characterization of Iran made by John Bolton and others in the United States, you saw the British military telling the US military it was full of it. That’s almost unprecedented.
SHARMINI PERIES Larry, the current situation in the Persian Gulf is being compared to the Gulf of Tonkin. Now, you are the historian on US military adventures around the world. What do you make of these military measures being taken by the US at the moment?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Well, we’ve had so many Gulfs of Tonkin, Sharmini. I mean, we had the one that actually was the Gulf for Vietnam. We had a similar one for the Mayaguez incident right after that. We had, of course, my own Gulf of Tonkin, which was Dick Cheney and [Condoleezza] Rice saying we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud. We’ve had politicized intelligence and politicized incidents in the world that led to war ever since the Maine blew up in the harbor of Cuba. Let’s just look at the situation today and say that it is far more profound, far more common, far more intense, and leads me to say that I wouldn’t doubt for a moment that we might manufacture a so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident in the Persian Gulf in order to allow us to commence bombing Iran.
My question again of these people— whether they be military professionals, or civilian decision makers, or advisors— my question is, what do you do when the bombing doesn’t work because it won’t work and then you have to invade. You have just caused yourself to enter a situation that just might finally unwind this empire for all time. So, why would you want to start on that path? Why would you want to embark on that path? Are you going to drop the bombs and then say, everything’s copacetic now, we taught them a lesson, we can go away? Because, those bombs aren’t going to do anything to accomplish our objectives, the most prominent of which is no nuclear weapon in Iran at all. So what are we going to do— invade and ensure that there’s no nuclear weapon? We do that, and we are finished in the Middle East and may be finished for a long time globally. It would be an order of magnitude tragedy for the United States to invade and try to occupy this country of 80 million people, four times the size of Iraq. Just absolute catastrophe.
SHARMINI PERIES All right, Larry. We’ll leave it there for now and we’re looking forward to having you back, as this situation isn’t going away any time soon.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON I wish it would.
SHARMINI PERIES Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.