While it is very premature to draw any conclusions about the full composition of the incoming Donald Trump Administration and its Middle East/North Africa (MENA) policy orientation, the first three significant national security appointments announced by the President-elect do hint at how the next four years might proceed.
Those appointments are: General Michael Flynn, President Trump’s National Security Adviser; Representative Mike Pompeo, Central Intelligence Agency Director; and Senator Jeff Sessions, Attorney General. General Flynn and Senator Sessions have been fixtures in the Trump camp since the very start of Donald Trump’s unlikely path to the White House. They are being appropriately rewarded for their early and sustained loyalty, and have been appointed to positions that fairly well match their talents and experiences.
Representative Mike Pompeo and General Michael Flynn, who will be key intelligence advisers and briefers to President Trump after his inauguration, have one strong thing in common: They opposed the P5+1 deal with Iran, believe it must be rolled back or much more aggressively enforced, and view Iran as the world’s most dangerous sponsor of international terrorism. These views coincide with statements made by candidate Trump during his 18-month long quest for the presidency. And while campaign rhetoric very often is shriller than the actions taken by a President, once elected and sworn in to office, the combination of President Trump, his National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn, and his CIA Director (assuming he is confirmed by a Republican-led US Senate) Rep. Michael Pompeo, will clearly be looking to take stronger action against what they all see as Iran’s increasing regional aggression and power play.
On June 10, 2015, just weeks before the final P5+1 (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) agreement was signed, Gen. Flynn testified before the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. He focused much attention on Iran’s role in the region. The full 16-page testimony is worth reading in its entirety, but relevant quotes make the point and indicate what kind of advice he will be giving to the new President. After criticizing the P5+1 deal as a “placeholder,” not a “permanent fix” of Iran’s powerful commitment to have a nuclear bomb, Gen. Flynn declared: “I believe Iran represents a clear and present danger to the region, and eventually to the world—they are still a U.S. State Department designated Islamic state sponsor of terrorism, they have and they continue to violate international sanctions, and they continue to spew hatred in their rhetoric coming from senior members of their government—to include their top Mullahs.”
He went on: “We should expect a far more aggressive Iran as it relates to the Gulf (both overtly and covertly) and one that will remain militarily engaged in the Levant for the foreseeable future even if Assad is overthrown. To the extent that Iranian support to the Huthis (in Yemen) is regarded as successful we should expect to see it emulated in Bahrain and possibly eastern Saudi Arabia.”
Gen. Flynn proposed that the best response to this continued Iranian regional aggression was to provide greater support to our Arab regional allies: “Immediately recognize, fully support, help organize and assist those regional partners create an `Arab NATO-like’ structure and framework. Build an Arab Army that is able to secure their regional responsibilities.”
Rep. Pompeo was enthusiastically endorsed for CIA Director by the Wall Street Journal on November 21, following President-elect Trump’s announcement of the appointment. The Journal pointed to Pompeo’s proactive role in challenging the Obama Administration’s role in finalizing the P5+1 deal, as a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
As the Journal reported, in the summer of 2015, Rep. Pompeo, a Kansas Republican, traveled to Vienna, Austria to the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to review the full IAEA file on the just-concluded Iran nuclear agreement. He traveled with Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who is still on President-elect Trump’s short list of candidates for Secretary of Defense (along with former CENTCOM Commander General James Mattis). Pompeo and Cotton found two secret codicils to the P5+1 agreement that the Obama Administration had kept secret (Secretary of State John Kerry would claim that he never read them). They dealt with limitations on inspections at the Parchin military base and the refusal of Iran to answer some key historical questions about their nuclear weapons program. Based on those two secret documents, Rep. Pompeo became a sharp critic of the deal and pressed for much more aggressive enforcement of the inspection regime. He also has demanded that the US maintain all of the other sanctions against Iran, based on their listing as a state sponsor of terrorism and violation of other United Nations resolutions barring some missile development and testing.
As the Wall Street Journal concluded: “Undoing the strategic damage of the Iran deal won’t happen overnight, and the Trump Administration will have to move carefully to avoid diplomatic missteps with allies and adversaries. Having Mr. Pompeo at CIA gives more confidence that at least the US will be honest when Iran is breaking its commitments.”
While Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be Attorney General takes him out of the inner circle of foreign policy advisers, he has been an early Trump backer, and key Sessions aides have been named to key policy posts on the Trump transition team. So, he will have a large voice in all national security matters. Like Gen. Flynn and Rep. Pompeo, Sen. Sessions was a sharp critic of how President Obama managed the US relationship with Iran. And if Gen. Mattis does wind up as President-elect Trump’s choice as Secretary of Defense, the retired four-star Marine General will join the chorus demanding harsh action against Iran. He, too, opposed the P5+1 deal and was an active voice against Iran’s regional actions, describing them in a March 2015 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington as “cheaters.” Iran, he told the think tank audience, is “not a nation state, but a revolutionary cause intent on mayhem.” He called on the Administration to create a regionwide intelligence sharing system with Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to monitor Iran’s activities, including its covert nuclear weapons activities. He also called for Congress to establish a special Iran oversight committee, drawing from the relevant Congressional committees, to keep tabs on all of Iran’s activities.