Blogs: Paul Pillar

Israel-Palestine: The Deal-Maker Deals Himself Out

Shaking the Foundations of Loyalty

Ukraine Buffeted from East and West

The Impulsive Approach to Managing Alliances

Anti-Iranism in the Trump Administration

Paul Pillar

The other bit of allegedly “destabilizing behavior” by Iran on which Flynn focused concerned the civil war in Yemen and most recently an attack by Houthi rebels on a Saudi warship.  Flynn disregarded how whatever aid Iran gives to the Houthis pales in comparison to the direct military intervention by the Saudis and Emiratis, which is responsible for most of the civilian casualties and suffering in this war.  It would be surprising if the Houthis, or any force on the opposite side of this conflict from the Saudis, did not try to go after Saudi forces at sea as well as on land.  Flynn also disregarded how the Houthis are not obedient clients of Iran, how in the past the Houthis have ignored Iranian advice urging restraint in their operations, and how there is no evidence whatever, at least not among what is publicly known, that Iran had anything to do the attack on the Saudi ship, let alone of posing a similar threat to U.S. assets in the area.  Nor was anything said about how the major U.S. terrorist concern in Yemen—Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—is on the anti-Houthi side in this war.  Nor anything about how former president and longtime U.S. counterterrorist partner Ali Abdullah Salih has been allied with the Houthis.

Flynn’s statement represents a taking sides in a local rivalry for no good reason, and in which the United States does not have a critical stake.  One of several harmful consequences of this kind of needless side-taking is to embolden those who side is taken to engage in more destructive behavior without being brought to account.  James Dorsey describes this way the destructive behavior that Riyadh is encouraged to take by the United States siding so unquestioningly with the Saudis in their rivalry with Iran: “A four-decade long, $100 billion global Saudi effort to box in, if not undermine, a post-1979 revolution Iranian system of government that it sees as an existential threat to the autocratic rule of the Al Saud family by funding ultra-conservative political and religious groups has contributed to the rise of supremacism, intolerance and anti-pluralism across the Muslim world and created potential breeding grounds of extremism.”

Several motivations are driving the Trump administration onto its collision course with Iran (including—as a subject for another time—Trump going all in with the right-wing government of Israel).  There is the general and enduring negative view of Iran among Americans; capitalizing on this is exploitation that Trump shares with many politicians of both parties.  There is the legacy of using opposition to the nuclear accord as a way of frustrating and opposing Barack Obama at every turn—something that Trump shares with other Republicans.

Somewhat more specific to Trump and his team is how confrontation with Iran is a way of putting the specific, named face of a nation-state onto the Islamophobia that pervades the Trump White House.  Other states would not serve that purpose as well, including the other six of the states subject to the total ban on inward travelers.  Iraq is supposed to be supported by the United States, Sudan is too peripheral for people to get worked up about, and the other four are beset by so much internal warfare that it would not be credible to portray them as an external threat.  Other Muslim nations, such as Saudi Arabia, are not convenient targets for other reasons, perhaps including Trump's business interests.

None of these are sound motivations as far as U.S. interests are concerned.  The unsound motivations get reinforced by personal animus toward Iran even among a more thoughtful official such as Secretary of Defense Mattis.  If anything is to influence the president in the opposite direction, it might have something to do with his friend Vladimir Putin getting him in line with Russia on the war in Syria, which would mean acting more in parallel with Iran than in conflict with it.

Meanwhile, Trump and Flynn leave themselves no apparent exit from an ever-escalating confrontation with Iran, no matter what the Iranians could reasonably do.

Image: Soldiers in Kermanshah. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Tasnim News