What Trump’s National Security Adviser Lt. General Flynn Gets Wrong on Iran

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Written by Thomas Buonomo

In the aftermath of the surprise election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president, energy executives and policymakers around the world are scrambling for insights into his likely policies on numerous issues of concern as well as who will influence his decision-making.

Among these influencers, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and recently confirmed as Trump’s National Security Adviser, is likely to be among the most experienced and persuasive voices.

After 33 years of military service, General Flynn was forced to retire in 2014 after reporting to a congressional committee that the U.S. was losing the fight against Islamist extremism, according to his own account.

Given his impressive operational- and strategic-level experience, the strong national security credentials he provided to a presidential candidate who has no policy experience himself, and the rapport he may have with President-elect Donald Trump given some of the commonalities they have in terms of their rebellious personalities and strict upbringings, General Flynn’s views of critical international issues are likely to substantially influence Trump.

In his book, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, General Flynn provides significant details on his views of complex policy matters including U.S.-Iran relations.  He asserts, “The ties between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda have been a well-established fact ever since the autumn of 1998, when the American government indicted the organization and its leader, Osama bin Laden.” That year, al Qaeda claimed responsibility for two bombings against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Flynn writes that these were “in large part Iranian operations”, “the al Qaeda terrorists were trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the explosives were provided by Iran.  After the attacks, one of the leaders of the operations, Saif al-Adel, took refuge in Iran, where he remains active in operations as of this writing.”

Flynn also claims that “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Sunni leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, which evolved into today’s Islamic State, created his first international terror network while based in Iran, as demonstrated by court documents in Germany and Italy from the late 1990s.  The public record of the trials contains hundreds of intercepts of conversations between Zarqawi in Tehran and the terrorists in Europe.”

He continues, “When we found the Iranians on the Iraqi and Afghan battlefields, we told the policymakers, hoping to get the green light to go after them.  Instead, two consecutive administrations didn’t want to hear about it.”

Flynn also notes that, much to his frustration, numerous documents captured during the bin Laden raid in Pakistan in May 2011 that provide additional evidence of Iranian and other foreign government support to al Qaeda have yet to be declassified by the U.S. intelligence community.

Iranian attacks targeting U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic personnel since the 1980s up to the 2003-2011 U.S. military operations in Iraq are well-documented. Less clearly established up to this point has been alleged Iranian support for al Qaeda beyond enabling its terrorist operatives to enjoy safe passage through Iranian territory.  The declassification of documents to the effect by the Trump administration could generate a strong political impetus in favor of a tougher U.S. response to Iranian provocations.

Flynn himself would appear to be in favor of this, having concluded in his book 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 its 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.”

For a leader who prides himself on uncompromising commitment to truth, however, there are some critical omissions in this last statement. Iranian leaders do indeed have very real and visceral grievances against their U.S. government counterparts and to disregard or remain ignorant of such grievances would be unwise, according to Flynn himself.

There is admittedly little indication that the U.S. can do anything to redress these grievances or that it has any inclination to seriously attempt to do so in the first place.  Iran’s leaders, moreover, have become the same monsters they believe themselves to be fighting, as demonstrated by their unconditional defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad, including providing diplomatic cover for his continued use of chemical weapons.

This cynicism, in which anything is permitted in war and allegations of war crimes are simply denied or responded to with counter-accusations rather than addressed according to an objective standard, has transformed Syria into a moral black hole, virtually closed the tentative diplomatic opening for detente between the U.S. and Iran after the conclusion of the nuclear agreement, and made it increasingly difficult for advocates of moderation on both sides to prevent the U.S. and Iranian governments from gravitating once again toward conflict.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is indeed founded on a messianic ideology that has dictated enmity toward the U.S. since its establishment in 1979.  That ideology is nevertheless rooted in human experience however. The psychological weight of that experience will not be overcome merely through conciliatory rhetoric or transactional negotiations but through more courageous transformational diplomacy, if it can be overcome at all.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said that if the U.S. changes its orientation toward Iran, Iran will reciprocate.  He has not disclosed what this might entail in concrete policy terms.  The temperamental personalities and undiplomatic rhetoric of both Khamenei and Trump do not bode well for the future of U.S.-Iran relations.

Pragmatism may prevail and both sides have options short of military conflict but unless both sides are also willing to acknowledge—at least privately within their own inner circles—that neither government’s historical engagements with the other are pristine, the horrific proxy wars will continue to ravage the region for the foreseeable future and likely draw both sides further into it.

General Flynn emphasizes in his book that knowing the enemy is critical to battlefield effectiveness. Another Sun Tzu axiom worth recalling is this one: “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

For two bitter enemies that have inflicted terrible harms and humiliations on each other over the course of many decades, achieving a true transformation in relations will require leaders on both sides to engage in greater introspection and openness to positive sum solutions.  These leaders owe it to those who will be risking their lives on their behalf, as well as the countless innocent civilians who inevitably end up victims of military conflict, to demonstrate greater political courage in pursuit of peace.

About the author: Thomas Buonomo is a geopolitical risk analyst with Stratas Advisors. His views are his own and do not represent and official position of Stratas Advisors.