by Jim Lobe
Are we once again witnessing the politicization of intelligence of the kind that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Only applied to Iran this time?
There are a number of indications that such a process may indeed be underway. The latest was disclosed in the wake of Monday’s certification by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Iran is indeed complying with the letter of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal.
The New York Times published part of the backstory shortly after the certification was formally delivered to Congress. Here’s the most interesting paragraph (although the whole article needs to be read in order to get a better sense of how just how close the United States is to a real crisis both with its allies and Iran):
At an hourlong meeting last Wednesday, all of the president’s major security advisers recommended he preserve the Iran deal for now. Among those who spoke out were Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser; and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to an official who described internal discussions on the condition of anonymity. The official said Mr. Trump had spent 55 minutes of the meeting telling them he did not want to.
I found it passing strange that Trump used all but an hour to keep saying that he didn’t want to approve the certification. After all, such a conversation would become mighty trying for all parties (except the principal), something similar to persuading a really stubborn four-year-old he had to go to the dentist because he would otherwise lose his teeth. And it was very difficult to imagine that Trump was, by himself, making substantive or even political arguments as to why he shouldn’t certify that Iran was complying with the JCPOA in the absence of any real evidence that it wasn’t.
If indeed “the consensus recommendation of his national security team” was that Iran had complied and that certification was clearly in order, why then did it take so long to conclude the meeting?
Part of the answer may be found in a Bloomberg column Tuesday morning by Eli Lake (whose mostly neoconservative opinions I find very difficult to take but whose reporting is accurate almost all the time). Here are the relevant paragraphs:
White House and other administration officials tell me the president nonetheless is serious about cracking down on Iran for its regional aggression, and is leaning closer to those of his advisers who are pushing him to pull out of the agreement that defines Obama’s foreign policy legacy.
In this sense, he is moving away from some of the most important members of his national security cabinet. Administration officials tell me that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Tillerson have made the case that it was in the U.S. national interest to certify Iran’s compliance. They argued that the deal is structured so that the U.S. and its allies delivered the benefits to Iran up front. This included sanctions relief, a recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium, and removing Iranian companies and individuals from various sanctions lists.
…Others in the administration, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo and senior strategist Steve Bannon, have argued against the deal. In some ways this is not surprising. Pompeo was one of the pact’s harshest critics when he was in Congress. Bannon has been opposed to most international agreements, from the Paris accord on climate change to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. [eq]
Of course, it is indeed unsurprising that Bannon is opposed to the deal, despite the risks that withdrawing from it will greatly enhance the chances of the U.S. becoming involved in a new Middle East war, not to mention that such a move would further isolate the U.S. from its NATO allies (but what does Bannon care about Western unity?) Of course, Bannon is supposedly no longer on the president’s national-security team. Was he in the room?
But what is especially remarkable about Eli Lake’s story is his disclosure that Pompeo, consistent with his radically anti-Iranian record in Congress, is “argu[ing] against the deal,” presumably as the CIA director. My impression was that the CIA director is not supposed to be arguing for any policy position. His or her job is limited to providing the best intelligence produced by his agency. So, despite Lake’s lack of surprise, I do find it surprising—and deeply disturbing—that the CIA director has been arguing along with Bannon to withdraw from the agreement. Did Pompeo take part in the debate over certification that lasted 55 minutes Monday evening? [UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal reported (behind a paywall) Tuesday that Bannon did take part in the meeting and argued against certification. It didn’t report on whether Pompeo and/or Coates was there.]
It would also be interesting to find out whether and how Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates is participating in this debate. He, too, had been an Iran hawk prior to joining the administration, only slightly less hawkish than Pompeo. Just three years ago, he was speaking out against the embryonic JCPOA under the sponsorship of such virulently anti-Iranian groups as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the soon-to-be-defunct Foreign Policy Initiative, and the Iran task force of the Bipartisan Policy Center. On the other hand, he was one of a handful of Republican senators who declined to sign Tom Cotton’s infamous letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warning that any agreement signed by Obama would not be binding on the U.S. Congress. One would think that his would be an important voice in the policy debate.
It would be very useful to get more details of the 55-minute discussion to determine who exactly in the administration is arguing for isolating the U.S. even more from its western allies and risking a new and likely even more devastating and costly war in the Middle East.
Photo: Mike Pompeo (by Gage Skidmore via Flickr).