After the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, tensions continue to rise between Washington and Tehran. While experts widely agree that a war between the two countries would come with enormous human, economic, and political costs, the increased tensions have also served to benefit a number of special interest groups including American defense manufacturers.
Citing the tensions with Iran that his own policies have culminated in, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in May in an attempt to greenlight more than $8 billion in U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates without Congressional approval and despite bipartisan opposition.
While Trump maintains that the sales are necessary for American allies to defend themselves against the supposed “emergency” threat Iran poses, Congress has rejected the administration’s justification.
On Wednesday, Congress sent three joint resolutions of disapproval to block some of the sales to Trump’s desk, though he is expected to veto the measures.
Last week, Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, accused the administration of doing the bidding of defense contractors and using the tensions with Iran as a means to advance their interests.
“If you look at these sales, it appears the administration had other motives,” Menendez told R. Clarke Cooper, Trump’s Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs. “When pressed … you and other administration officials said the sales were for ‘sustaining the global supply chain’ and ‘preventing loss of sales to pere competitors.’”
Trump himself has not been shy about his desire to promote the American arms industry. After the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Trump declined to commit to an FBI investigation of the murder, citing sales of military equipment in an interview on Meet The Press.
“[Saudi Arabia] buys massive amounts, $150 billion worth of military equipment, that by the way, we use,” Trump said. “Saudi Arabia is a big buyer of American product … I’m not a fool that says ‘we don’t want to do business with them.’”
On Monday, the official White House Twitter account even tweeted out what appeared to be an advertisement for Lockheed Martin, featuring upbeat music, shots of the company’s THAAD Missile Defense System, and a statement from Lockheed Martin CEO Marily Hewson.
Not only does the @LockheedMartin THAAD missile defense system protect our citizens and allies—it also supports 25,000 American workers! ????????
More from CEO Marillyn Hewson: pic.twitter.com/u63O5ST9B4
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) July 15, 2019
Further, in September 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ignored concerns from State Department staff about U.S. support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, according to a report by The Intercept.
Pompeo chose not to restrict U.S. support for the war after consulting the State Department’s legislative affairs team which argued doing so would endanger arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The report also noted the legislative affairs team is led by a former Raytheon lobbyist, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Charles Faulkner.
‘Immense Interest’ in Escalating Tensions
University of Southern California Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Professor Muhammad Sahimi, an expert in Iran’s political development and nuclear program, told The Globe Post defense contractors have an “immense interest” in escalating tensions with Iran.
“That is how they make their profit, and they have already been profiting handsomely from the tension in the Persian Gulf,” Sahimi said. “[Defense contractors] have been selling billions of dollars worth of modern weapons to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Iran’s missile program is used as an excuse to sell anti-missile defense systems to these countries.”
— i24NEWS English (@i24NEWS_EN) July 8, 2019
One example is the reported sale of the Iron Dome Missile Defense System to Saudi Arabia from Israel in response to missile strikes from the Iran-backed Houthi Rebels in Yemen, though the Israeli Defense Ministry denies making any such sales. The Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defense Systems developed the Iron Dome in coordination with the U.S. defense contractor Raytheon, which reported $110 million in contracts for the Iron Dome program in the 4th quarter of 2018 alone.
The relationship between the defense industry and the U.S. government has been a very long and fruitful one for defense contractors thanks to an ever-inflating military budget that may balloon this year to $750 billion – more than the next seven countries combined.
In Congress, the financial ties to the defense industry are numerous and extend to both Democrats and Republicans, with many members receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from defense industry donors over the course of their careers.
The Revolving Door
At the same time, the U.S. Department of Defense has a history of leadership by former defense industry lobbyists and executives, creating what many critics and analysts refer to as a “revolving door” between the industry and the department
“Up until less than two weeks ago, the Acting Defense Secretary was Patrick Shanahan, a Boeing VP,” Sahimi said. “The new Acting Defense Secretary was a lobbyist for Raytheon in Washington as its VP for government relations. There has been a long line of such people that have served either in the Pentagon, or at [The State Department], or both.”
President Trump appointed General James Mattis to be his Defense Secretary in 2017, and while Mattis has a decades-long career in the military, he also served on the board of General Dynamics, an aerospace and defense company where Mattis earned much of his multi-million dollar fortune.
Before his appointment to the DoD, he filed a financial disclosure prior to his nomination which documented his ties to General Dynamics. Mattis divested from his stock in the General Dynamics and recused himself from matters involving the company.
This exchange between @SenWarren and defense secretary nominee Mark Esper is stunning.
— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) July 17, 2019
Since the resignation of Mattis last year, other former defense industry lobbyists and executives have taken the mantle at the DoD. The last two Acting Defense Secretaries previously worked for major defense companies.
Shanahan worked at Boeing from 1986 to 2017, ultimately as the company’s Vice President of Supply Chain and Operations. In June of 2017, he was appointed to be the Deputy Secretary of Defense before serving briefly as the Acting Defense Secretary from January until his resignation in June.
In April, a Pentagon Inspector General investigation into Shanahan’s ties to Boeing concluded Shanahan “did not promote” the company during his time at the DoD.
Shanahan’s successor and current Acting Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, previously worked for Raytheon as their vice president of government relations and was recognized as a top corporate lobbyist by The Hill both in 2015 and 2016.
Pushing the Agenda
Sahimi also said think tanks funded by the “military-industrial complex,” Saudi Arabia and other countries exert influence by publishing analyses that “prop up their position.”
U.S. Representative and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard echoed similar concerns in a recent interview on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast.
“When you look at … the people who testify in front of Congress, coming from very well known global think tanks that specialize in foreign policy, they don’t have a placard on their desk … saying ‘we receive funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE,’” Gabbard said.
“All these different countries are spending a lot of money funding these think tanks that then come forward, push policies and ideas to leaders in Congress that not coincidentally, benefit the countries that are funding them.”
Max Abrahms, Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Northeastern University, told The Globe Post that the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies( FDD), for example, is “destroying the nuclear deal” with Iran.
The FDD has an extensive list of financial backers who have historically funded pro-Israel organizations, including Home Depot Co-Founder Bernard Marcus and business magnate Sheldon Adelson.
“They have this White House’s ear,” Abrahms said, arguing the think tank is an unreliable source of information and has been “rabidly hostile” towards Iran.
“They have been pushing the argument that Iran is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism including of Al Qaeda, which is wrong,” Abrahms said.
“At the least, they downplay bigger state sponsors of Al Qaeda like the role of Saudi Arabia while exaggerating the relative role of Iran which has been far, far smaller. They also claim that Iran isn’t in compliance with the nuclear deal and often misstate what the deal actually says. They consistently push for the most hawkish position toward Iran.”
The FDD did not respond to a request for comment.