President Trump’s firing of top Pentagon officials has paved the way for his administration to escalate conflict between the U.S. and Iran before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on November 9, leading to a series of resignations at the highest levels of the Department of Defense.
The agency is now slated to be overseen for the next few months by officials who are hardline Trump loyalists, including a former aide to the president who pushed for Esper’s dismissal, and a retired military officer who defended Trump’s vow to destroy Iranian cultural heritage sites, which is a violation of international treaties.
On November 12, Trump asked top cabinet officials about his options for attacking Iranian nuclear facilities “in the coming weeks,” according to a November 16 report in The New York Times. Iran has resumed uranium enrichment activities barred under the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement spearheaded by President Obama after President Trump ordered the U.S. to break the accord in 2018.
Both Iran and President-elect Biden have expressed an interest in reviving the deal after Trump leaves office. Trump, however, seems determined to wreck the possibility of any rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran. Cabinet secretaries appear to have dissuaded the president from carrying out a direct missile strike on Iranian facilities, according to The New York Times. But cyberwarfare options are still on the table, as are U.S. military operations on Iranian assets in Iraq — not unlike the January assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassim Suleimani, which almost started a war.
Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller was among the officials at the November 12 meeting who advised Trump against a direct missile strike on targets within Iran, according to The New York Times. Those appointed by Trump to serve under Miller, however, have shown themselves to lack any kind of similar moderating influences.
In the wake of his recent Pentagon purge, Trump appointed Kash Patel to serve as the defense secretary’s chief of staff. Patel is a former aide to staunch Trump ally, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California) and most recently served on the White House National Security Council. In the latter role, Patel played a key part in turning the president against Esper, according to The Wall Street Journal. He and the head of the White House Personnel Office, John McEntee, argued that Esper “displayed disloyalty by saying he would oppose a request by the president to deploy military troops to Washington during racial justice protests in June and for other reasons,” the paper reported.
Serving alongside Patel is another person who indulges Trump’s reactionary tendencies: Anthony Tata, now the acting undersecretary of defense for policy. Tata had been nominated to fill the role on a permanent basis, but the confirmation process fell apart in the summer after various opinions of his came to light. A Fox News commentator and a retired brigadier general who churns out paperback fiction fantasizing about war, Tata was exposed by CNN as having a “a history of making Islamophobic and inflammatory remarks against prominent Democratic politicians.”
In January, Tata also defended President Trump’s threats to destroy Iranian cultural heritage sites, a violation of the Geneva Conventions, by citing a conspiracy theory. “It is well understood that Iran hides much of their nuclear weapons development from the international community by labeling those locations as Cultural Sites [sic] in order to dupe noncritical thinkers,” he said.
Trump threatened to destroy Iranian cultural sites after he ordered the assassination of Suleimani, an act that led to widespread condemnation and an Iranian strike on U.S. military facilities in Iraq. Tata was a vociferous defender of the Suleimani killing, accusing Democratic lawmakers criticizing the act as supporting “Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, as opposed to who they represent in their districts.”
The danger of Trump escalating conflict with Iran was already present even before the appointments of Tata and Patel to top civilian positions within the U.S. military. The so-called “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Iran has been a centerpiece of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, despite evidence that it has been a total failure with U.S. trading partners refusing to abide by the sanctions regime.
Trump’s recent push for sanctions also started just before Esper was dismissed. To formulate the plans, Trump dispatched a top foreign policy aide, neoconservative hatchet man Elliot Abrams, to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The goal of the eleventh-hour push, according to Axios, is to “make it harder for the Biden administration to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.”