Even as rumors were flying that Mike Flynn had been outmaneuvered by Steve Bannon in the fight to see who would have the most influence over a Trump foreign policy, Flynn made a cameo appearance at yesterday's White House press briefing to speak on his favorite topic: Iran. In his brief remarks - barely a minute long - Flynn denounced what he described as "Iran's destabilizing behavior across the entire Middle East" and said that the Trump administration was "officially putting Iran on notice."
On notice for what? Trump officials wouldn't say exactly, but when asked if the U.S. would take military action, a senior administration official said "we are considering a whole range of options." Then, in a statement that may have been meant to be reassuring, the official went on to say "We are in the second week. We do not want to be premature or rash or take any action that would foreclose options or unnecessarily contribute to a negative response." This statement is less than reassuring, given that Flynn's decision to breeze into the White House press room and issue a veiled threat of military action against Iran is itself a rash action.
Flynn's remarks were prompted by two events - an unsuccessful Iranian test of a medium-range ballistic missile and a missile attack on a Saudi ship by Houthi forces in Yemen. Neither event poses an imminent threat to the United States or its allies in the region. Iran's missile test may be controversial, but it does not violate its commitments under the multi-party agreement that curbs Tehran's ability to develop a nuclear weapon. And despite Saudi and Trump administration suggestions to the contrary, the Houthis are an indigenous movement with longstanding political and economic grievances, not a proxy force directed by Iran. Threatening military force over either of these events is dangerously counterproductive. That is, everywhere but in the fantasy world inhabited by Mike Flynn, who has written that Iran is the "linchpin"of a global anti-U.S. coalition that stretches from Venezuela to China to North Korea to Russia, and who relentlessly pushed his fellow intelligence officers to find an Iranian link to the deadly attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya - a link that did not and does not exist.
Flynn's mantra seems to be when in doubt, blame it on Iran. This is a dangerous prejudice at a time when large parts of the Middle East are already at war. As Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group put it, Flynn's outburst was "either an empty threat or a clear statement of intent to go to war with Iran. Both are reckless and dangerous ... In an attempt to look strong, the administration could stumble into a war that would make the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts look like a walk in the park."
As with Trump's ill-advised Muslim ban, Flynn's threat to Iran does not appear to have been seriously discussed with other key players in the administration. It has been reported that Secretary of Defense James Mattis convinced Flynn to "soften" his remarks. If so, it's hard to imagine how hawkish the "pre-softened" remarks were. As retired general Mark Hertling said on CNN, "This is the kind of thing that brings people to a war footing and this is not good. It is very provocative language."
A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command has said that so far it's just policy talk, and "we have not been asked to change anything operationally in the region." Hopefully it will stay that way.
The difference between war or bluster may come down to whether military leaders, key Trump cabinet officers and members of Congress of both parties push back against Flynn's inflammatory rhetoric. And they are more likely to do so if there is a loud, continuous public outcry against the reckless notion of taking military action against Iran.