If reports are correct that Rex Tillerson is going to be fired as U.S. Secretary of State, to be replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, with Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton taking Pompeo’s old job, then prospects for war with Iran become significantly greater. Tillerson has been less bellicose in his attitude toward Iran than either Pompeo or Cotton, who are both fervid critics of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and ardent advocates of getting the United States back onto a collision course with the Islamic State.
The New York Times on Thursday quoted “senior administration sources” as saying White House chief of staff John Kelly had crafted such a shake-up in President Trump’s foreign policy team, though it wasn’t clear whether President Trump had signed off on it. If he does, as is likely, expect the administration to go after Iran aggressively.
For context, here’s a little history. Back in late 2006, major officials of the George W. Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, strongly advocated a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear capability. According to Time writer Joe Klein, Bush rejected the idea on the advice of his top military advisers, who argued that the Islamic State could devastate U.S. forces in nearby Iraq in retaliation, and also unleash a possibly effective terrorist war against Americans. The president opted instead for a covert destabilization campaign, a plan that soon leaked to the media.
But the idea never died among some “neoconservative” administration officials, and it was fueled further by agitated voices from outside the country, notably from Israel and Saudi Arabia. An internal memo dated April 2008, released by Wikileaks in 2010, referred to repeated exhortations from Saudi King Abdullah that the United States should “cut off the head of the snake”—meaning destroy the Iranian regime that was Saudi Arabia’s most troubling regional adversary. It had become all the more powerful and menacing in the region, of course, through Bush’s invasion of Iraq and destruction of that nation’s Sunni leadership. Now that country fell under the sway of its Shia majority, rendering it more receptive to an alignment with Iran. The regional balance of power was upended. So now King Abdullah wanted Bush to double down and initiate a military adventure in Iran similar to the one that had created the hopeless mess in Iraq.
That sentiment was echoed by Israel, which suggested in diplomatic discussions that, if the United States shied away from such an action, Israel might adopt a go-it-alone strategy, which of course inevitably would have elicited a strong Iranian response and likely drawn the United States into a war with Iran.
There was a lot of war talk in those days, and it was never clear that Bush would resist the call from neoconservatives to end Iran’s nuclear program and curtail its regional sway through military action.
Then in late November 2007 came news that the U.S. intelligence apparatus had issued a National Intelligence Estimate saying that Iran actually had abandoned its nuclear weapons ambitions back in 2003, though it still wanted to develop a nuclear capacity for nonmilitary energy uses. Said the NIE: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” This served to curtail Bush’s range of action, and he wasn’t pleased. As he later wrote: “NIE had a big impact—and not a good one.”
That was the state of play when Barack Obama became president in 2009 and promptly adopted a new approach to the Iranian challenge. Opting for diplomacy, he joined with five other world powers (Russia, France, China, Germany, and the UK) in an effort to craft a framework that would include the lifting of crippling economic sanctions on Iran in return for curtailments in the country’s nuclear energy program and assurances that Iran would eschew any nuclear weapons development for 10 years. The deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was Obama’s greatest foreign policy achievement.
Republicans hated it. During the GOP nomination battles, most of the candidates declared they would “tear up the deal on day one.” Trump avoided such language, but he called the deal “disastrous” and one of the dumbest diplomatic agreements ever. He vowed to dismantle it. And yet he couldn’t quite bring himself to do that when it came time for him to either certify or decline to certify that Iran had been complying with the agreement. In mid-October, he declined to certify Iranian compliance (though the UN agency that monitors such matters had declared that Iran was in compliance). But he also declined to resume sanctions against Iran and kicked the question over to Congress.
According to The New York Times, one of the leading voices within the administration urging Trump to keep the deal intact was Rex Tillerson. The Times said that Tillerson, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, “argued that it was in the national security interest of the United States to keep the deal’s constraints on Iran.”
But now Tillerson may be on the way out, and the big winner if he actually is fired will be Jared Kushner, Trump’s 36-year-old son-in-law, who holds a plethora of titles: senior adviser to the president; deputy national security adviser for strategy; and special representative for international negotiations. If Tillerson gets fired, Kushner almost surely will have been one of the leading voices advocating such a move. He and Tillerson have been adversaries within the administration since the beginning.
What’s more, Kushner has strong ties to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (known informally as MbS), who is emerging as the most powerful Saudi of them all. As a senior Middle East diplomat told TAC’s Mark Perry the other day, “Kushner and MbS aren’t just close, they’re very, very close.” King Abdullah may be gone, but the Saudis still want America to cut off the head of the snake. And whenever the crown prince talks, Kushner listens very intently. And, by all accounts, whenever Kushner talks, his father-in-law listens intently.
Unlike Kushner, Tillerson manifested frustration with some of the more outlandish activities of the Saudi crown prince, most notably his diplomatic aggressiveness against the little kingdom of Qatar and his brutalization of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in an effort to get Hariri to resign his office—which he did after being summoned by bin Salman to Riyadh for a thorough dressing down. (He later indicated he might reverse the decision.) But according to reports, Tillerson hasn’t been frustrated just with the Saudis and their allies, the United Arab Emirates, but also with Kushner, whom he suspects of conducting his own foreign policy from inside the White House—sometimes, it seems, with an eye toward Saudi interests.
It’s reasonable to suspect he holds even more tender feelings toward Israel. He grew up in a religious home strongly devoted to the Jewish state, and his family has given millions of dollars to Israel, including some devoted to Jewish settlements on the West Bank. When he was a teenager and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to visit, the Israeli leader slept in Jared Kushner’s bedroom, while the teenager occupied another room in the house. He has visited Israel regularly since childhood and “holds strong views about the state of Israel,” wrote The New York Times in an article about Kushner’s close ties to the country. The paper added those ties are “personal and religious.”
All this is entirely understandable. But the question is what kind of counterweight will emerge in the Trump administration to urge caution in U.S. relations with Iran at a time when both Israel and Saudi Arabia want America to take on the Iranian regime.
It won’t come from Pompeo or Cotton if they ascend to the positions they seem to be headed for. Pompeo has been described as a “fierce critic” of the Iran deal, and a recent headline in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz declared: “Mike Pompeo has a Hawkish History on Israel and Iran.” Cotton, one of the most vociferous neoconservatives in Congress, has urged U.S. actions to bring about regime change in Iran through covert activity, and he has argued that actual military action against the regime should be considered a serious option.
If personnel determine policy, as has been said, then these moves, if they occur, will drive the United States into a posture of increasing bellicosity toward Iran and a strong likelihood that Trump eventually will end America’s commitment to the nuclear deal. If that happens, we’ll be back to the war talk that filled the air back in the Bush years—with growing prospects that it might not be just all talk.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist, author and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His latest book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, was released in November.