Mattis’ ISIS-is-Iran claim is breathtakingly short on facts. The Iranians are arming Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, who are fighting ISIS in Mosul, and Tehran has made little secret of its opposition to the Sunni terrorist group. Back in July, Iranian television said its government had uncovered an ISIS plot to set off bombs in Tehran, leading to the arrest of 10 terrorist operatives. “The U.S. has lots of disagreements with Iran,” a senior Pentagon civilian official told me on Friday, “but what to do about ISIS isn’t one of them. We want them defeated, and so do they.”
Linking ISIS and Iran is worrisome for other reasons—as it seems to put the Tehran government back in America’s cross hairs, as the first step in rekindling Bush’s “axis of evil,” where nations and governments were seen as forming a common anti-American front, despite their differences.
It is understandable that a Marine general would have a dim view of Iran, but this goes beyond that and is more worrisome. The idea that Iran and ISIS aren’t opposed to each other despite evidence of their mutual hostility echoes the worrying tendency of other Trump advisers, especially Michael Flynn, to collapse differences between states and groups and lump them together into a monolithic anti-U.S. “alliance.” This is the same mistake that hard-line anti-communists made during the Cold War when they failed to recognize important national rivalries and tensions between different communist governments. That caused them to exaggerate the extent of the threat, and it also caused them to miss cleavages and antagonisms that could be exploited to our advantage. The other danger is that this shows a willingness to see an Iranian hand behind groups when there is none, and then to blame Iran for the actions of groups it doesn’t control and may even be actively opposing. That’s bad analysis, it fuels threat inflation, and increases the chances of armed conflict.
If only one Trump appointee were fixated on Iran as the source of all the region’s problems, that would be worrying enough, but it seems that several of the people who will be responsible for making policy in the next administration share the same obsession. The most worrying thing is that there doesn’t seem to be anyone else in the administration available to challenge their assumptions or question whether their assessments are grounded in evidence. That suggests that there will be an echo chamber in the next administration where Iran is concerned, and that seems likely to produce poor policy decisions.