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While Trump is withdrawing US troops from Syria and Afghanistan, he is ramping up aggression against Iran — acting both less and more hawkish than his intelligence agencies. Trita Parsi says Washington is violating international law in its campaign to isolate and strangle Tehran
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Ben Norton.
Well, President Donald Trump is withdrawing from old wars. He is acting more and more aggressively against Iran. In the latest scandal, Trump has come under attack for disagreeing with and even criticizing his intelligence services. But what is interesting about the scandal is that some countries, like North Korea, Afghanistan, and Syria, Trump is being less hawkish than the intelligence agencies want him to be. But at the same time, on Iran Trump is being much more hawkish. It goes without saying that U.S. intelligence agencies have a long record of supporting military coups and wars abroad, and spreading lies such as the 2003 WMD myth that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq. But many members of the self-declared liberal resistance are attacking Trump for ignoring U.S. Intelligence agencies.
On January 29, the U.S. Senate held a briefing on the supposed global threats faced by the United States. The two major intelligence chiefs testified: Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and CIA Director Gina Haspel. The intelligence chiefs challenged Trump’s attempt to seek peace with North Korea. Here’s a clip from CNN.
CNN: Coats also seemed to differ with the president on North Korea. Six months after Mr. Trump tweeted that there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea, Coats told Congress that’s not quite the case–that reality check coming just weeks before the president is set to meet once again with dictator Kim Jong un.
DAN COATS: We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities, and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.
BEN NORTON: But what’s interesting is at the same time, surprisingly, the U.S. intelligence chiefs were in fact much less hawkish on Iran. In fact, the director of the CIA acknowledged that despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, Iran is, in fact, not pursuing nuclear weapons, and Tehran has in fact been abiding by its side of the international nuclear agreement. Here’s a clip from PBS.
PBS: What is the intelligence community saying about Iran’s nuclear capacity?
The Trump administration has long said that Iran did not heed that 2014 nuclear deal, and always wanted a nuclear weapon. But Gina Haspel, the CIA director, was much more honest. She said that Iran was complying with the deal, but that it might start enrichment in the future. So here is her talking with Senator Angus King, who is an independent but caucuses with Democrats.
ANGUS KING: Since our departure from the deal they have abided by the terms. You’re saying they’re considering, but at the current moment they’re-
GINA HASPEL: Yes, they’re making some preparations that would increase their ability to take a step back if they make that decision. So at the moment, technically, they’re in compliance.
BEN NORTON: Donald Trump shot back at his intelligence chiefs on Twitter. He hyped this supposed threat that Iran poses and he wrote: “Be careful of Iran. Perhaps intelligence should go back to school.”
Well, joining us to discuss this contradiction, we are speaking with political analyst and author Trita Parsi. Trita is the author of several books, including most recently Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy, and he’s teaching at Georgetown University. Thanks for joining us, Trita.
TRITA PARSI: Thank you for having me.
BEN NORTON: So can you help unpack what’s going on here? It’s very interesting, the way this has been framed on both sides. So on one side we have, you know, kind of mainstream Democrats who are criticizing Trump for ignoring U.S. intelligence agencies–although, of course, there’s a good reason to not listen to them usually, given how they have a history of selling, you know, lies that led us into the Iraq war. But at the same time, Trump is actually ignoring them on North Korea and Syria, where the intelligence communities are pushing for a more hawkish approach. But on Iran Trump is once again ignoring them, and really exaggerating the supposed threat that Iran poses. Can you respond to this?
TRITA PARSI: So in some ways we shouldn’t be terribly surprised. This is a president that has no foreign policy experience, no understanding of international relations, and comes in with a few fixed ideas and a tremendous amount of just pure ignorance. Moreover, he’s a person who has never worked in a larger organization. He’s only been running his own family businesses. So the idea that what he says or what he thinks needs to be checked and corrected by others, or that it needs to be coordinated, is just simply foreign to his mindset. And as a result he is perfectly situated to constantly be in contradiction with all the elements of not only the U.S. government, but frankly, his own cabinet, at times.
Now, Trump–politically he may see this as a positive, in the sense that him going to war against the intelligence community fits his idea that he is selling to his supporters, that he is cleaning the swamp, draining the swamp; that he is opposed by the establishment. Because at the end of the day, the intelligence communities are obviously a core part of the establishment.
So he may not mind that this is taking place. In fact, he may be exaggerating and seeking to get electoral benefit from this, with his own base. When it comes to the substance of the issue, I think there it’s quite clear. He actually does seem to have some form of an instinct towards being less involved militarily in the Middle East. That instinct, however, is subjected to his impulses. His impulses constantly override his instincts. Moreover, the viewpoints of his core closest advisers, such as Bolton and Pompeo, is completely at odds with his instincts. Their worldview is, of course, much more about a need to be very, very strongly present in the Middle East. And an organizing principle for their entire worldview, frankly, seems to be Iran, in which they oppose Iraq on every front, and they are quite dramatically exaggerating the influence that Iran has in order to be able to justify more and more hawkish policies.
Now, on Iran, Trump has a weakness where he quickly departs from any idea of being less involved in the Middle East, which is his hatred for the Iran deal, which stems from his hatred for Barack Obama. So it’s interesting to see how oftentimes it appears as if his advisers have succeeded in convincing him to go along with hawkish policies that he otherwise probably not would agree with by using Iran as a justification for that. So for instance, Bolton was trying to convince Trump to stay in Syria in order not to just counter ISIS, but to counter Iran. That seemed not to have fully worked, but nevertheless it was an argument that was quite effective. Now we see that actually it’s the same argument that Trump now is parroting publicly in order to justify staying in Iraq, in which he says that he’s going to keep troops in Iraq in order to keep an eye on Iran, including on Iran’s nuclear program. So he has this very weak spot for any argument that has the word ‘Iran’ in it, and it appears as if Bolton and Pompeo have been quite astute at utilizing that in order to push him in a much more hawkish direction than he otherwise likely would have gone.
BEN NORTON: I was in fact going to ask you about that, Trita. While Trump is allegedly moving to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria–and we can talk about some of the response to that–at the same time, he recently divulged that he’s going to keep U.S. troops in Iraq, and in fact he might send some of the troops currently in Syria to Iraq. In an interview on CBS, Trump said this is in order to “watch Iran.”
DONALD TRUMP: Being in Iraq- it was a big mistake to go- one of the greatest mistakes going into the Middle East that our country has ever made. One of the greatest mistakes that we’ve ever made–
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you want to keep troops there now?
DONALD TRUMP: –but when it was chosen– well, we spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Whoa, that’s news. You’re keeping troops in Iraq because you want to be able to strike in Iran?
DONALD TRUMP: No, because I want to be able to watch Iran.
BEN NORTON: So, Trita, what do you make about this? I think there’s an interesting contradiction here, where it seems like one of two things could be happening. Trump is either trying to appeal to both the kind of isolationist right and the neoconservative right. He has surrounded himself with John Bolton and Pompeo. He also recently appointed the arch-neocon Elliott Abrams to be his special envoy in Venezuela. So it seems like part of his Iran strategy could potentially be to appease them, and appeal to both sides of the of the right wing spectrum. But at the same time some analysts have suggested that what Trump could be doing is actually withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan in order to potentially move toward a war with Iran in the future. So what do you make of this decision, and do you think one of these explanations fits?
TRITA PARSI: I think from Trump’s perspective he is just reacting. I don’t think there’s a strategy behind this. He is reacting, and he is being manipulated by these individuals in his cabinet that have a much, much stronger view of foreign policy, have an understanding of it. I tend to disagree with them about their recommendations. But compared to Trump, of course, they’re knowledgeable in a way that Trump simply is not. So he’s being manipulated by them in order to move him in a much more hawkish direction. Again, as I mentioned, the Iran argument is the one that Trump seems to constantly be falling for.
But it’s really fascinating to see how that statement came out. Again, it shows how uncoordinated policy is right now, because the Iraqis, of course, reacted very negatively to this, and the President there spoke out against this and said that, you know, the United States has not gotten Iraq’s permission to do this. Moreover, the idea that the United States would be able to keep an eye on the Iranian nuclear program from Iraq, of course, is laughable. It reminds me of how Sarah Palin said that she knew much about Russia because she could see it from her window.
We had a nuclear deal with Iran that actually had U.N. inspectors deep inside of the nuclear deal; 24/7 inspections, and monitoring from various instruments. To say that we now instead can watch the program from Iraq and that that is a superior policy option for the United States is, of course, beyond laughable.
BEN NORTON: And then finally, Trita, I want to talk more about Europe’s role in this. We have seen, of course, the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Comprehensive Plan of Action, which is popularly known as the nuclear deal, had many signatories. It was not just the U.S. and we’ve seen that the other signatories, including the EU, China, Russia, France, the UK, they have stayed abiding by their side of the agreement. Although we’ve seen some flipflopping. In the case of France, and Germany, and Britain, we have seen some companies say they will abide by the U.S. sanctions and refuse to do business with Iran out of fear of secondary sanctions. But we also have seen recent reports that Germany, the UK, and France have developed a system called INSTEX to avoid U.S. sanctions and to try to continue doing business with Iran, as was stipulated under the nuclear deal. So can you respond to the international community’s dealing with the Iran nuclear deal, even though Trump has withdrawn from it, and Europe’s potential strategy of trying to circumvent U.S. sanctions?
TRITA PARSI: Well, I don’t think the Europeans are circumventing sanctions, because at the end of the day the sanctions are illegal. The sanctions are in contradiction in violation of aU.N. Security Council resolution. The Europeans are protecting legitimate trade; trade that has been permitted by the UN Security Council as a result of the Iran deal, and the UN Security Council’s adoption of the resolution that endorsed Iran. The resolution that was passed 15 to 0.
So the Europeans and the Russians and the Chinese are trying to see what they can do to keep the deal alive. However–and of course, the INSTEX is a very important step forward in that, even though it does not appear in any way, shape, or form to have been sufficient to make Iranians content with the situation. They have been waiting quite some time now for the Europeans to provide this alternative payment system that would allow and enable this trade to continue and flourish. It is starting off very small, very careful. It’s going to be focusing on humanitarian trade at the outset. But it does have the potential of going into something that would be much much bigger than that. Not only will it allow for trade between the Europeans and Iran, but theoretically other countries. China, Russia may also be using this system in order to have their transactions with Iran protected. Bottom line is the United States is completely isolated in its opposition to the deal, and has even incentivized very close allies such as the Europeans to create alternative payment systems that are not only competing with those that are currently exist under the control of the U.S., but is actually undermining the U.S.’s influence over these international financial systems.
BEN NORTON: We’ll have to end our conversation there. We were joined by political analyst and author Trita Parsi, who is the author of several books, including most recently Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. Trita teaches at Georgetown University. We’ll have him back soon, to follow this important story. Thanks a lot for joining us, Trita.
TRITA PARSI: Thank you for having me.
BEN NORTON: For The Real News Network, I’m Ben Norton.