The US Marine Corps and Iran
Open University of Japan
Key members of the Trump administration have a much negative view of Iran than was held by the Obama administration, with disturbing implications for the new administration's Iran policy. Here we look at the images of Iran underpinning the current negative view.
The negative attitudes of various key members of the Trump administration toward Iran have disturbing implications for Iran-America relations. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary General James Mattis both emphasized at public hearings prior to their appointment that they would respect the nuclear deal which the Obama administration concluded with Iran in 2015. By contrast, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump described it as one of the “worst deals ever negotiated” and vowed to “rip up” as soon as he took office. And at this stage, America does continue to hold to the deal.
However, how the military personnel at the heart of the Trump administration view Iran is a cause for concern. Three generals occupy key security posts under Trump. Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster is the President's National Security Adviser; his Homeland Security Secretary is General John F. Kelly; and, as noted above, his Defense Secretary General is General James Mattis.
All three have taken troops into the Afghanistan conflict which began in 2001 and the Iraq conflict which began in 2003, where they have also watched many of their troops dying before their eyes. The greatest damage to US Marines was inflicted by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which comprise explosives and an electrical firing circuit connected to a mobile phone. When the phone rings, it triggers the IED firing circuit. Many American troops were killed by IEDs laid on roadsides and elsewhere. It is also believed that the most powerful IEDs were manufactured in Iran and brought into Iraq. US military commanders who were out in the field have not forgotten this.
Both Mattis and Kelly may well feel a further connection with Iran shaped by their status as former members of the US Marine Corps. As is well-known, the US Armed Forces are made up of four armed service branches: the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, and Navy. The biggest disaster experienced by the Marines since WWII occurred in Lebanon.
In 1982, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) invaded Lebanon in order to attack the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). After the Lebanon War, US and French troops were dispatched to the capital Beirut as part of a peacekeeping mission. The US troops were Marines. In 1983, suicide bombers crashed trucks loaded with explosives into the US and French barracks. The number of deaths in the US barracks was 241, 53 in the French barracks. Six civilians also died. For the US Marine Corps, it was the deadliest single-day death toll since World War II's Battle of Iwo Jima, and it happened in an instant.
The Americans believe that the suicide bombers were members of the Shia organization Hezbollah. Hezbollah means “Party of God.” The Islamic regime in Iran that came to power in 1979 through the revolution gave assistance to the Shia in Lebanon, fostering the organization that became Hezbollah. This makes Iran's revolutionary regime indirectly responsible for the deaths of all those Marines.
Moreover, the relationship between Iran's revolutionary regime and the US Marine Corps was not great even prior to the incident. The government came to power in February 1979, and in November the same year, a group of radical students occupied the US Embassy in Tehran and took embassy staff hostage. The Iran hostage crisis continued for 444 days until embassy staff were finally released in January 1981. The incident took US-Iran relations to a new low. It was not only US diplomats who were held hostage in Tehran. Security for US embassies abroad is the responsibility of the US Marine Corps, which meant that Marines too became hostages. This was the beginning of the unhappy history between the US Marine Corps and Iran's revolutionary regime.
Defense Secretary General Mattis, a former Marine, served as Commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM) from 2010 to 2013. CENTCOM's area of responsibility includes the Middle East. During Mattis' years as CENTCOM Commander, the Obama administration was pushing forward negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue. Mattis was critical of the negotiations.
These three generals within the Trump administration therefore hold quite a different view on Iran to that of the Obama administration. For example, the Secretary of State who negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran was John Kerry. John Kerry was then serving Massachusetts in the US Senate, and also held the key position of chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry's daughter, Vanessa Kerry, is a physician married to neurosurgeon Brian Vala Nahed, who is of Iranian descent. Nahed himself was born in America, but his parents are from Iran. In other words, the Secretary of State handling negotiations with Iran had an Iranian son-in-law.
One of Obama's aides also had a deep connection with Iran—Valerie Jarrett. Jarrett supported the President over his eight years (two terms) in power, and was recognized as his closest advisor. The relationship between Obama and Jarrett reaches back to Chicago in 1991, when, as a senior member of staff in the mayor's office, Jarrett hired a lawyer called Michelle Robinson, whose fiance happened to be Barack Obama. Jarrett took this unknown couple under her wing, introducing them to Chicago's political and financial elite. This was the start of Obama's political career. Jarrett was actually born in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, where her father was running a hospital, and she spoke Persian as a child. Her father's hospital was operated as part of America's program of economic assistance to Iran. Obama's closest aide was therefore born in Iran. The coincidence of Kerry's son-in-law being Iranian and Obama's aide being born in Iran shaped the mindset underpinning the Obama administration's Iran policy. The contrast between this and the harsh view of Iran held by the Trump administration's generals is almost too vivid.
About the Author
Kazuo TAKAHASHI, Professor, Open University of Japan
Born in Kyushu, Japan. Graduated from Osaka University of Foreign Studies, Department of Persian Studies, and obtained an MA at Columbia University in New York. Spent time at Kuwait University as a visiting scholar. He has been at the Open University of Japan since 1985, lecturing on modern international politics and the Palestine issue, etc., with his new lecture series “Iran and America” to be broadcast on the Internet as of fall 2017. His publications include Iran to Amerika [Iran and America] (Asahi Shimbun Publications, 2013), Paresuchina mondai [The Palestine issue] (Hōsō Daigaku Kyōiku Shinkōkai, 2016), and Chūtō kara sekai ga kuzureru [World collapse from the Middle East out] (NHK Publishing, 2016). He is also active in multiple media, including newspapers, magazines, television and radio. Known for clear analysis based on a distinctive perspective.