Donald Trump, the United States President-elect, appointed Michael Flynn, a three-star retired general, as his National Security Adviser (NSA). Consequently, Flynn will be in a unique position to influence US foreign policy by advising a new president who has absolutely zero experience in national security affairs.
Flynn resigned as the director of the Defence Intelligence Agency in 2014. According to the Washington Post, “He frequently lashed out in public against President [Barack] Obama and blamed his removal on the administration’s discomfort with his hardline views on radical Islam.” But the main reason behind his departure may have been his views on Muslims and on Islam in general rather than just radical Islam. In February, in a controversial tweet, he wrote, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: Please forward a link to this video so that people may learn the BASICS of Islam.” He had linked his tweet to a video that purported to highlight the link between terrorism, Muslims and Islam.
In July, his book The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies was released. The book is concerned with how the US government can be victorious in a war against radical Islam. A major part of the book is dedicated to the government of Iran, its role in promoting anti-Americanism and radical Islam and the way US foreign policy should be shaped to deal with the Iranian establishment.
Flynn is particularly insistent regarding the claim that there is an alliance between the Iranian government and Al Qaida — two groups that are universally known to be arch-enemies. He writes: “The ties between the Iranian regime and Al Qaida have been a well-established fact ever since the autumn of 1998, when the American government indicted the organisation and its leader, Osama Bin Laden.” He adds, “The key section of the indictment” explicitly states that Al Qaida forged an alliance with Iran “for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States (p. 81).”
Referring to “the 1998 [US] embassy bombings in East Africa,” Flynn rejects the established, accepted version of the story. He believes that Al Qaida wrongly “took credit” for the bombings. Rather, the bombings “were in large part Iranian operations (p. 82)”, he claims.
Flynn identifies Iran as a “formidable enemy” to the US and states that it has been “at war with the United States, its friends, and its allies (notably Israel) for nearly forty years” (p. 86). He rejects any possibility of peace between Tehran and Washington. He argues that “Tehran’s war against the West is not based on a desire for territory, or on real or imagined grievances; it is rooted in the nature of the Islamic Republic, and it rests on ultimate issues. For the Iranians to negotiate a modus vivendi with us would be tantamount to abandoning the messianic vision of Khomeini and his successors” (p. 87).
Flynn argues that Iran’s “victory over the Great Satan in Iraq will compel the smaller Middle Eastern countries to come to terms with Tehran and make the region much more inhospitable to us and our friends and allies.” He adds, “All of this can be accomplished without atomic bombs—the issue that dominates the policy debate over Iran throughout the West” (p. 87).
Contrary to the current US administration’s view, Flynn downgrades the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons programme and instead highlights the threat that the very existence of the Iranian government poses to the security and interests of the US. Flynn seeks to establish that the Iranian government, with or without a nuclear bomb, is dangerous; therefore, logically, it must be toppled rather than contained.
He writes: “To focus solely on the nuclear question is a serious failure of strategic vision; the issue is the regime in Tehran and their radical version of Islam, whatever its progress may be toward atomic bombs” (p. 88).
Flynn criticises every American president who has come to office since the inception of the Islamic Republic in Iran and says, “No American president has called for regime change in Tehran; no American administration has supported the many millions of Iranian dissidents, including workers, teachers, students and others who have demonstrated a desire for democracy and the courage to fight for it” (p. 89).
He fiercely criticises former US president Jimmy Carter and President Obama. He criticises Carter for abandoning the Shah of Iran, the US’s closest ally in the Middle East. Flynn states that this abandonment directly led to the victory of the Islamic Revolution. Flynn also criticises Obama for negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. “Like Carter, President Obama is vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy (if it was right to intervene in Libya, why not in Syria and Iran ...)” (p. 91).
The solution that Flynn suggests with respect to Iran’s situation — which he will likely recommend to Trump — is that “we can best attack the enemy alliance at its weakest point, the failure of the Iranian revolution. The attack should be political not military and our most potent weapon is what [Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei most fears: The suffering Iranian masses” (p. 175).
“It was a huge strategic mistake for the United States to invade Iraq militarily. If, as we claimed, our basic mission after 9/11 was the defeat of the terrorists and their state supporters, then our primary target should have been Tehran, not Baghdad, and the method should have been political — support of the internal opposition.”
To bolster support for his position, Flynn simplistically ignores a complex collection of political, economic and military failures (including the Soviet’s defeat in Afghanistan) that resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and assumes that it was just the policy of supporting internal dissent that brought the Soviet Union down. He asserts, “If internal opposition could end the role of the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, why not Khamenei’s?” (p. 176).
Now the question is whether this line of thinking is compatible with the key aspects of Trump’s foreign policy. At least in words, Trump appears to be a mild isolationist. In his foreign policy speech, he explained his goal as president as follows: “The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends and when old friends become allies.”
It remains to be seen, when the new Cabinet is in place, which of these two will dominate the trajectory of US foreign policy towards Iran. But one caveat that the new American administration may want to consider is that once the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action collapses, the Iranians will most likely expand their nuclear programme with even more vigour than before. This can significantly increase the likelihood of a disastrous war between the two states — a war that could potentially consume the whole Middle East.
Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East and the US foreign policy in the region. He is the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He is a contributor to several websites with focus on the Middle East as well as the Huffington Post. He also regularly writes for BBC Persian. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@SShahidSaless.